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Pranayama is the fourth stage of Yoga in Patanjali’s Ashtanga. It is generally defined as rhythmic control of breath. The word Pranayama is comprised of two roots; Prana and Ayama. “Prana” is the vital force that permeates all life, it exists in all things, whether animate or inanimate, it sustains us and without it, we die. It can be cultivated and channelled through certain yogic breathing exercises that are referred to as “Pranayama.” “Yama” is often translated as control and is used to denote various rules or codes of conduct, but “ayama” is defined as extension or expansion and also requires non-control or awareness of the breath as much as control. Both translations are acceptable and relate to different aspects of pranayama, which serves as an important bridge between asana and meditation and lies at the heart of all yoga practice.
should not be considered simply as breathing exercises. Pranayama
influences the flow of energy and nervous system balance in the body and
mind. Pranayama provides methods where the life force is activated and
regulated to attain a higher state of energy and awareness.
Formal pranayama practice is often introduced too soon in yoga classes. Simple pranayama, though, should be incorporated into every yoga class. At least breath awareness, if not breath control, is essential and a typical beginners class starts with asana, moves on to pranayama and then ends with a meditation or relaxation such as yoga nidra. During asana, students are advised to inhale and exhale according to the requirements of the asana, but for beginners, no additional breath manipulation is introduced until the students are able to sit for extended periods in one of the main seated poses without pain or discomfort.
aspects of Pranayama:
Breathing through the nose has many benefits beyond filtering, warming and wetting the air. The sinuses produce nitric oxide, which kills certain bacteria in small doses and assists oxygen uptake in the lungs. Nerves that regulate breathing are also found in the nasal passages that feed up into the hypothalamus in the brain. The inhaled air stimulates reflex nerves that control breathing and regulate autonomic nervous system balance. Each nostril is innervated independently by nerves from the opposite side of the brain and functions synergistically in tune with internal and external rhythms.
Breathing through the mouth has many disadvantages including upper respiratory tract infections, allergic asthma, sinusitis and other things. Always breath through the nose unless specifically advised otherwise for a long and healthy life. Mouth breathing bypasses the nasal nervous input and makes regular breathing difficult. It can also lead to snoring, irregular breathing and more serious conditions such as sleep apnea and other heart conditions. However, if the nose is blocked due to a cold, mouth breathing for short while should not cause long term problems.
Yoga students need to become aware of their breathing and learn both nose breathing and deeper breathing using the abdomen and chest combined. They should not make loud sounds but keep the breath quiet. Pranayama practices require conscious breathing and to pay close attention to the reactions of the body during these breathing practices.
Pranayama should only be practiced by those who can already regulate and control the basics of breathing, that is a minimum requirement. Asanas that help to increase lung volume also help prepare the respiratory muscles control required for pranayama practice. Asana practice encourages pranayama, but the most important part of pranayama is the exhalation. If the exhalation is not full and complete, then the quality of the remaining air in the lungs is diminished and the whole pranayama practice can be affected. If the student is not able to breathe in and out slowly and quietly, they are not ready for formal pranayama techniques.
Safety in Pranayama
Don't make the mistake of mixing a bit of this with a bit of that. Don't mix Buteko with yogic breathing or take a Pilates breath into a yoga class or learn to breathe in a gym doing weights or aerobics and then use that breath in a yoga practice. This is NOT correct and can sometimes be counter productive or even harmful in certain situations. Each type of breathing has it's benefits and precautions and must be applied correctly in those situations that require it and not generalised.
Different yoga teaching traditions teach different ways of breathing for different reasons and each has its place in yoga. No one breathing technique is suitable for all persons in all situations, though. In South India where yoga practice is more physical, various breathing styles have evolved.
In the “Ashtanga” tradition of Patabi Jois (not to be confused with the original Ashtanga of Patanjali) students are instructed to hold the abdomen in, expand the lower chest first, when inhaling, then the middle chest, and finally the upper chest. Exhalation is then done in the reverse order.
The Iyengar tradition teaches to keep the belly more passive, the lower ribs are activated first, then the middle ribs and upper chest. Emphasis is placed on expanding the rib cage because Mr Iyengar had asthma as a child and needed to breathe this way to assist in improving his breathing and his overall health. It is not suitable for everyone, though, as most people don’t have that particular type of asthma.
T.K.V. Desikachar’s “Viniyoga” teaches to inhale from the top down, expanding the upper chest first, then the middle chest, lower ribs and the abdomen last. Breathing out is in the reverse order. If you have high blood pressure, this type of breathing will not be good for you though.
As you can see, there are completely different ways of breathing being taught and most people tend to stick with one style of yoga practice and don’t usually get to study the different types. Even many experienced yoga teachers do not know the different styles of breathing or why they are being taught that particular way and many simply teach what their tradition teaches and is often a one-size-fits-all approach. Each breathing style has its benefits and its contraindications but should be understood in its context.
This description will focus on the “full yogic breath” also known as the “three-part breath” from the North Indian styles of yoga as it is the foundation of all the main yogic breathing techniques used for most asanas, most meditations and all the relaxation techniques including Yoga Nidra taught in the Raja Yoga and Tantric traditions of North India.
1. Sit in any meditation asana with the spine straight and head up.
2. Exhale to clear the lungs first.
3. Inhale, allowing the abdomen to expand fully without pushing it out. Little or no sound of the breath should be heard. Then begin to expand the chest outward and upward. When the chest is fully expanded, the shoulders and clavicles begin to move up. The whole inhalation should be continuous, with each phase merging into the next. Do not strain or hold the breath in for too long.
4. To exhale, relax the shoulders and upper chest first, then the whole chest contracts inward and downward. The diaphragm begins to move upwards by drawing the abdominal muscles in towards the spine. Hold the breath out for a moment at the end of each exhalation. This is one round of full yogic breathing.
The most important guidelines for pranayama are that there should be no strain during any pranayama practice and there should not be any violent movements. Breath retention should not be introduced until the basics are mastered and do not force any breathing practice. The lungs are very delicate and easily injured. Regularity is always far better than doing a lot of practice once a week.
Students should never be in a hurry to progress to more difficult practices until they are ready. Different people have different capacities and many are accustomed to shallow breathing or breathing in a particular manner for many years. The full yogic breath can be difficult for beginners to learn but once mastered, it will be a great benefit.
Anxiety and fear can cause shallow and quick breathing to become entrenched. Practice to deepen the breath can be very beneficial, but if complicated breathing techniques are practiced too quickly or too soon, students can have a negative reaction.
Expanding the breath capacity
Be gentle, be supportive and most importantly, learn at your own pace. A good instructor is there for the student, not the other way around. Students should not be expected to keep up with each other or with the teacher.
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