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Yoga for Midwives Blog - Two Simple Breathing Exercises to Power up your Prana

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“For he, who has gained control over his breath, shall also gain control over the activities of the mind. The reverse is also true. For he, whose mind is in control, also controls the breath.  The mind masters the senses, and the breath masters the mind.”

~ Hatha Yoga Pradipika (by Swami Swatmarama, 14th century)


Two Simple Breathing Exercises to Power up your Prana

Today I would like to continue exploring the Eight Limbs of Yoga with you. In the first blog of this year I expanded on the First Limb, the Yamas, or the five guidelines on how interact with the world. The second blog of 2019 was dedicated to the Second Limb, the Niyamas, or the five observances to keep the mind and body clean. The Third Limb of Yoga is Asana, or the practice of yoga postures which is what we nowadays mostly refer to as yoga.

Many yoga students are also familiar with Pranayama, the Fourth Limb of Yoga. This is the area of yoga I would like to highlight today. I already dedicated a blog to Pranayama, so I recommend you read that one too if you are interested in learning more about it. I could write another dozen and still not be done.

Prana or life force is often compared to chi or qi in Chinese and other Asian cultures, orenda in American-Indian traditions and even to a certain extent to mana in Polynesian cultures.

Pranayama can be interpreted in two different ways depending on whether you read prana – yama or prana-ayama. As we know, Yama means guideline or restraint, so this interpretation describes the action of controlling the breath. Ayama means liberation or expansion, leading to an interpretation of pranayama as expansion of vital energy in body and mind. Regardless of how you choose to interpret it, pranayama refers to yogic breathing exercises.

         Prana moves around the body in many directions

The breath is often equated to no more than the respiratory system. It is of course the system that supplies our body with oxygen and eliminates carbon dioxide. But it is much more than that.  Cultivating the breath is a way to expand and master the vital energy (prana) flows in your body, thereby enhancing self-awareness and self-transformation.

Tapping into the breath as a spiritual and energetic tool dates back more than four thousand years ago. According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (5th Century), Pranayama is not to be practiced until after the asanas are mastered. Patanjali, who would have practiced an ancient form of Hatha Yoga, teaches that asanas are meant to remove mental and physical symptoms that impede the flow of prana. Only then is pranayama effective.

Today, knowledge of the human body allows for a different approach. Breathing exercises and by extension, pranayama, can support and improve not only the respiratory system but also all others, such the circulatory, digestive, excretory, integumentary and muscular system.

Pranayama combined with asana allows practitioners to move more and also more easily. As long as the asanas remain steady and comfortable and the pranayama practice is built up properly, it is considered safe and beneficial to train in pranayama alongside an asana practice.

Although most of the time breathing comes naturally, involuntarily and unconsciously, we are also able to breathe consciously by controlling our respiratory muscles. Training these muscles, just like training the arm and shoulder muscles for push ups or the finger muscles for piano playing, helps to improve the respiratory skills, increasing control over the air supply, expanding the lung capacity and enhancing the efficiency of the breath.

When practicing pranayama, it is important to develop the skills gradually, refining the neuromuscular intelligence of the body parts involved. Just like any other form of physical exercise, it should not cause any strain in the body, nor lead to any other form of stress. Not only for physical reasons, but also because pranayama can have unexpected energetic and spiritual effects that we need to be prepared for (hence the need for asanas!).

Pregnant women are welcome to do gentle pranayama exercises without breath retention. Also students with heart conditions, high blood pressure and head or eye pressure issues should not do any breath retention or forceful breaths. Those with low blood pressure should be very mindful and proceed very carefully evaluating how they feel after each practice. Anyone feeling dizzy, nauseous or otherwise stressed, should stop, go back to a natural, effortless breath.

 

Now just to dazzle you with some more exotic words…

There are three parts to the breath: inhalation (called puraka in Sanskrit), exhalation (rechaka) and breath retention (kumbhaka), which can be subdivided in full breath retention (antara kumbhaka) and empty breath retention (bahya kumbhaka)

The following two simple pranayama techniques work on puraka and rechaka and are a great way start cultivating breath awareness. They can be done sitting or lying down comfortably, with the whole body as relaxed as possible, preferably with an empty stomach and with the eyes closed or a soft downward gaze.

Without worrying about how you breathe (you may have read about abdominal breathing, thoracic breathing, clavicular breathing and yogic breathing), I recommend you start with sama-vritti pranayama (equal fluctuations):

(Sitting on a bolster can help making your cross-legged posture more comfortable)

sama-vritti pranayama

  • Begin by observing your natural breath and make it flow as smoothly as possible.
  • Count the duration of your natural inhalations and exhalations, note the difference.
  • After a while, start to make them last equally long, somewhere between three to six counts or however many counts feel easy to do.
  • Gradually and only if it feels accessible to you, expand the length of both the inhalations and the exhalations, keeping them in balance.
  • Focus on keeping the body steady and relaxed.
  • You can do this for several minutes but certainly only as long as you feel comfortable.

Once you feel comfortable practicing sama-vritti pranayama for at least 20 breath cycles, you can try vishama-vritti pranayama (unequal fluctuations).

vishama-vritti pranayama

  • After a few rounds of sama-vritti pranayama, start to lengthen the inhalation with one count.
  • After a few breaths, continue to gradually extend the inhalation until the inhalation is twice as long as the exhalation.
  • Do this for several minutes and then return to natural breathing for a little while.
  • Repeat this with lengthening of the exhalation over the inhalation.

In next month’s blog, I will elaborate on the movement of prana in the body and some other pranayama techniques, including kumbaka.


Tip of the Day

For now, here’s my tip of the day!

If you are interested in learning more about pranayama or any other related yoga topic, try to consult reliable sources. Many blogs and articles that are published online, are copy-pasted from other online articles that are plagiarising other publications, making it impossible to trace the source of the information.

In general, websites such as yogainternational.com and yogajournal.com contain verified information by certified teachers.

But if you want to get really serious about learning traditional yoga, dig up books like Asana, Pranayama, Mudra and Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati or The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Edwin F. Bryant. There are of course many, many more titles worth reading so if you are not sure and are about to order a bunch online, don’t hesitate to ask me about the quality of the books first, I may be able to help!


More about Yaisa

Yaisa is an ex-banker and ex-scuba diving instructor. She now spends her time between Bali, Europe and South Australia teaching yoga and working as a health coach and appropriately named her business Yoga Here & There. Since 2016 she is also a yoga teacher trainer and every day, she is amazed at how much more there is to learn about yoga. She is happy to (try and) answer any questions you may have.

Phone: +61 455107533 (only WhatsApp when overseas)

Email: yoga@yaisanio.com

Website: www.yaisanio.com

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