Pranayama is the formal practice of controlling the breath, which is the source of our prana, or vital life force. Prāṇāyāma is a Sanskrit word alternatively translated as "extension of the prāṇa (breath or life force)" or "breath control." The word is composed from two Sanskrit words: prana meaning life force (noted particularly as the breath), and either ayama (to restrain or control the prana, implying a set of breathing techniques where the breath is intentionally altered in order to produce specific results) or the negative form ayāma, meaning to extend or draw out (as in extension of the life force).
Sit in a comfortable asana and make Mrigi Mudra. Beginning pranayama students may have some difficulty holding their raised arm in position for the length of the practice. You can put a bolster across your legs and use it to support your elbow.
Gently close your right nostril with your thumb. Inhale through your left nostril, then close it with your ring-little fingers. Open and exhale slowly through the right nostril.
Keep the right nostril open, inhale, then close it, and open and exhale slowly through the left. This is one cycle. Repeat 3 to 5 times, then release the hand mudra and go back to normal breathing. (NOTE: some yoga schools begin this sequence by first closing the left nostril and inhaling through the right; this order is prescribed in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, 2.7-10).
Traditionally Nadi Shodhana includes breath retention, fixed ratio breathing, and the repetition of certain "seed" mantras . For beginning pranayama students, it's best to focus only on the inhales and exhales.
ujjayi = to conquer, to be victorious
Step by Step
Ujjayi is especially known for the soft hissing sound the breather makes by directing her inhales and exhales over the back of her throat. To learn how, try this.
Inhale through your nose, then exhale slowly through a wide-open mouth. Direct the out-going breath slowly across the back of your throat with a drawn-out HA sound. Repeat several times, then close your mouth. Now, as you both inhale and exhale through your nose, direct the breath again slowly across the back of your throat. Ideally, this will create, and you should hear, a soft hissing sound.
This sound, called ajapa mantra (pronounced ah-JOP-ah mahn-trah, the "unspoken mantra"), serves three purposes: it helps to slow the breath down (which is exactly what we want for Ujjayi), to focus awareness on the breath and prevent your min "wandering," and to regulate, by continually monitoring and adjusting the evenness of the sound, the smooth flow of breath (another important element of Ujjayi).
Start with 5 to 8 minutes of practice, gradually increase your time to 10 to 15 minutes. When finished return to normal breathing for a minute or two, then lie down in Shavasana (Corpse Pose) for a few minutes.
Ujjayi is the foundation of many other techniques listed on this site; e.g., ratio breathing, svara yoga, digital pranayama, retention along with the two bandhas. Note that Ajapa Mantra isn't used when performing digital pranayama.
Kapalabhati - Skull Shining Breath
kapala = skull
bhati = light (implying perception, knowledge)
Step by Step
Kapalabhati consists of alternating short, explosive exhales and slightly longer, passive inhales. Exhales are generated by powerful contractions of the lower belly (between the pubis and navel), which push air out of the lungs. Inhales are responses to the release of this contraction, which sucks air back into the lungs.
Focus on your lower belly. Many beginners aren't able to isolate and contract this area. If needed, cup one hand lightly in the other and press them gently against your lower belly.
Now quickly contract (or pump your fisted hands against) your lower belly, pushing a burst of air out of your lungs. Then quickly release the contraction (or your hands), so the belly "rebounds" to suck air into your lungs. Pace yourself slowly at first. Repeat eight to 10 times at about one exhale-inhale cycle every second or two.
As you become more adept at contracting/releasing your lower belly, you can increase your pace to about two exhale-inhale cycles every second. Imagine the exhale sweeping out or "brightening" the inner lining of your skull.
Do 25 to 30 cycles at first. Gradually increase the number of cycles you do each practice to 100 or more.
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