To cure the illness of the body, use the body. To cure the illness of the mind, practice pranayama.” ~ Yogacharya Sri T. Krishnamacharya
I used to want to punch people who told me to “calm down and breathe.”
“What do you mean, breathe? What’s that going to do for me right now?” I would rage in my head.
I was lost back then.
I was angry, frustrated, and I felt like I was failing at life. Everything felt like an obstacle, a battle, a struggle. I worried I was going to have an aneurysm at any moment from the pressure of the chaos inside my mind.
These days, things are much different for me. And it’s all thanks to a simple practice called pranayama.
I never understood how much power my breath actually held. That’s really one of the biggest problems facing us as a collective society in the western world. We don’t know how to breathe. And it’s really that simple!
Three years ago, a book called We’re All Doing Time: A Guide for Getting Free by Bo Lozoff found me. When it introduced the art and practice of pranayama, or the “life force breath,” my life was changed.
I immediately started practicing proper prana, and the results were incredible. Before I began practicing, I did practice yoga, but I never really got the deeper meaning and intention of yoga, and the true depth of the power of our breath. I was reactive to my emotions and perceptions, and I was a slave to my mind.
If any of this sounds familiar, you might just want to give pranayama a try.
Five key points to remember before you start your practice:
1. To be considered pranayama, the breath needs to be even, channelled and conscious. Breathing should never be done with effort and hardness. Pranayama will never come with force or hardness. We must learn to guide the breath and channel it with compassion, not with aggression. Listen to your breath—the sound and rhythm will guide you. If it’s forced, jerky, ragged or uneven, stop and breathe regularly for a moment.
2. Ideally, each breath will flow from the previous one with the same quality and sound. Aim to establish a harmonious rhythm. If the sound changes or the rhythm becomes disturbed, try a few cycles of normal breathing before you again deepen the breath and continue.
3. The head and face are to remain passive and uninvolved with the breath. The chest and lungs are opened and are receiving of the prana. If your face is contorted, this is a good indication you’re forcing it.
4. Beginners have a tendency to lift and strain during inhalation, and tension can then be felt in the eyes and temples and the ears may become hot and full. If this occurs, you have gone beyond your capacity. Go back to normal breathing and reset yourself to neutrality before you deepen the breath again.
5. During exhalation, the chest often sags and the ribs drop down toward the diaphragm. Keep the chest open during exhalation as well as inhalation.
Now you’re ready to begin a practice!
Start by observing the breath because unless we know our normal breath, pranayama will never be known. Become familiar with your own normal rhythm of breath.
It is best to practice in the morning on an empty stomach. If this isn’t possible, make sure you have not eaten for the last two hours at least. First thing in the morning is best.
Choose a place to practice that is peaceful and clean. We cannot practice pranayama as a beginner among chaos and clutter. Near a window or outdoors is wonderful, because fresh air is vital.
Lie back in savasana, or corpse pose. If you would like to place blankets underneath your back and head for comfort, support and chest expansion, please do. If you do, check that the head is not tilting backward off your blanket.
Extend the legs out straight and then release them to the sides so that the outer ankles, knees and thighs are rolling out and down toward the floor. Release the legs right from the top of the thigh, rotating them from inside out.
Keep your spine long and in the center of the blankets so that you feel evenness on either side of the spine with the blanket exactly in the middle of the back.
Rotate the shoulder tips down toward the floor, with the collarbones broad. Turn the palms toward the ceiling.
Do not create hardness. Set your body in position mindfully and methodically but without forcing. Consciously relax.
The aim here is to have the body at ease and yet maintain a certain alertness. The chest is supported to allow the back ribs and shoulder blades to slightly move up toward the front body. Observe the space created between the lower ribs and upper abdomen.
Relax your feet, toes and legs to the floor. Let go of all tension.
Release all the muscles of the face, the throat, the mouth and tongue. Let the cheekbones soften and spread in the face. Relax your jaw and release the tongue. Let the space between the eyes grow a little wider to the sides.
Allow the eyeballs to sink down to the back of the eye sockets, away from the eyelids. Let the eardrums move in toward each other deep inside the cavity of the skull.
Begin to breathe. As you breathe in, make sure that both lungs fill evenly. Feel your chest expand upward and outward. Synchronize the two movements. The breath is the initiator and needs to give the opening and the direction for the chest to follow. The chest opens systematically to receive the breath. Let the breath gradually spread into the chest from top to bottom on the inhalation. On the exhalation, the chest will gradually release as the breath moves out.
Never push the breath to the extent that the next part of the cycle is rushed or urgent. Anticipate the moment you need to inhale and exhale. Don‘t try to extend the breath to the point where you have to grab for the next one.
Breathe out quietly, emptying the lungs evenly on both sides. Repeat this cycle for 10 minutes.
After 10 minutes, continue as directed above. But now, with each inhale, lengthen your in-breath through the nose, keeping it slow and steady. Don’t force it. Pause briefly at the top of the inhale.
Now exhale slowly, keeping the established slow and steady rhythm. Don’t put any pressure on your abdominal region as you exhale. Allow the air to expel naturally. Pause at the bottom of the inhale.
Practice for 10 more minutes.
We must go easy and slowly into this practice, taking it step by step. There are many breathing practices for pranayama, but it was my intention here to talk to the beginner. Start here and practice for a few weeks before pushing yourself further.
Remember, it’s no easy task to remain neutral, innocent and open to the breath, or life for that matter. But this practice will take you there. It takes consistent and dedicated practice. Learn to be aware when you have become disturbed in any way.
To listen to and hear the breath, inner silence is necessary. During practice, it may take every ounce of attention you possess to quiet your mind, but it’s worth it. Think of your mind like a parent with a small child who is constantly running off. You just need to keep bringing your mind back to your body and breath.
Don’t allow frustration to take over, whatever you do. This is just a trick of the mind because the mind wants everything easy and now.
One even, steady breath with complete mindfulness is something to be satisfied with. Be patient with yourself. You will see change before you know it, but it won’t be overnight.
Never forget that the mind is elusive and difficult to control, which is why it is best to approach the mind through the physical body when we want change. We cannot order the mind to be passive during our practice or in life, but we can, breath by breath, retrain the mind to be calm, grounded and open to all possibilities.
And here in this space is where we find exactly what we’ve been seeking in life: happiness and connection.
All aspects of life are enhanced as a result of pranayama.
May it be of benefit. Sat nam, dear ones. Please comment below and share your pranayama benefits!
Author: Lindsay Carricarte
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Editor: Catherine Monkman