As i’ve written before Krishnamacharya famously said that hatha yoga is pranayama and that the mind and the breath are fast friends. It will be helpful to review what the yoga sutra in particular has to say about this important anga here before proceeding. There are many pranayama techniques…to many to list in one article…with varying intentions, practices and effects. Of this list a few are important to learn for the long term.
As you will have likely observed by now most of our pranayama practice begins with kapalabhati. Kapalabhati is more a cleansing technique (kriya) than it is a pranayama. Kapalabhati when done at an appropriate (to the level of the student) pace and without tension in the upper body (chest, shoulders, throat, head) has the effect of clearing the bronchial of mucous and allergens. It also brightens the mind (reduces dullness). With this preparation the breath flows more freely. Additionally, if one is tired or feels tamasic at the beginning of the practice one could also practice this kriya as a preparation before vinyasas and asana.
In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika Kapalabhati is listed as one of 6 key kriyas.
When inhalation and exhalation are performed very quickly, like a pair of bellows of a blacksmith, it dries up all the disorders from the excess of phlegm, and is known as Kapalabhati.
Krishnamacharya cautioned against many of these techniques for householders describing them as risky and potentially injurious. Kapalabhati however was held in high esteem by the professor as an intelligent preparation. There are a few cautions for kapalabhati. For example if the sinuses are severely blocked the action of kapalabhati and therefore pranayama will put undue strain on the system. If this is the case one should first tend to the congestion via other means. This may mean a review of one’s diet and contributing factors of inflammation. It may be appropriate to oil the nostrils regularly to avoid dry sinuses or to do jala neti (cleansing of the sinuses with warm salt water) to remove congestion. Until which time as the sinuses are clear enough to allow easy passage of air the ujjayi pranayama may instead be used. Similarly if the cervical spine is injured or compromised one would need to proceed with caution. If the movements are jerky or tense then the technique could do more harm than good. Additionally kapalabhati is contraindicated in pregnant persons and those with hernia. Ramaswami recommends beginning a practice of kapalabhati at about a rate of 1 per second moving towards 2/second or 80-120/minute although i’ve never seen him teach more than 108 rounds at once (moderation). You can listen to Sir below as he reads his passage on the kriya from “Yoga for the 3 stages of Life” and elaborates with practice.
Vrtti means activity and is the ratio by which we are breathing. First we must be certain that the breath is smooth (suksma) and long (dirgha) in equal ratio. This is Sama Vrtti. First equal inhale and exhale (1:1) as in our asana practice and then equal inhale/exhale/retention (1:1:1:1). Unequal vrittis of inhalation and exhalation are only introduced after there is steadiness practicing the equal duration (samavritti) pranayama. In vinyasa krama we practice equal ujjayi throughout the vinyasas as our base so that by the time we are ready for pranayama we are established in that practice. When learning to practice it is first helpful to learn the techniques in equal ratio but one should not stay there. Eventually the incorporation of unique ratios should be introduced which allow for more attention on the bandhas among other benefits. Slowing down the breath in this way with the pump effect of the bandhas and considerably less breaths per minute not only is calming to the nervous system but it also brings more blood to the brain and allows more air to enter your lungs (vasodilation and bronchdilation) . The Yoga Rahasya goes as far to say that “Pranayama done without the three bandhas are not useful. Further it could lead to some ailments.” Tamas is significantly reduced (tatah ksiyate prakasavaranam) and as a result cravings for excessive or non-constitutional (heavy, processed, acidic) foods also comes down.
These unique ratios are visamavritti. In vinyasa krama we introduce the foundation for this in asana. In forward folds the practitioner comfortable with samavrtti can begin to extend exhalation. In anterior stretch the inhalation may be emphasized. In mudras long exhalation as a set up for bandhas is eventually practiced. It stands to reason then that in pranayama this is cultivated further.
The Yoga Rahasya places pranayama into 2 categories: Amantraka “without mantra” and Samantraka “with mantra” (sometimes called Sabija “with seed”). Samantraka pranayama is touted as superior amongst the two (provided the practitioner maintains the appropriate parameters of the breath). In the practices of the vedas mantra is used pretty exclusively during antakumbhaka (retention after inhalation). However, in yoga both antara and bahir kumbhaka are fair game if the capacity is there. When studying with Ramaswami he will sometimes include this practice later on in a training once the practitioner has gained stability in the visama vrtti with bandhas. When using the pranayama mantra on antah kumbhaka the ratio of the breath is around 1:4:2:1 (this ratio is the definition of visama in the Yoga Rahasya 2.59). This means there is a smooth inhalation with a factor of 1 (typically 5 seconds is a reasonable measure). Then during antara kumbhaka the mantra is chanted with a factor of 4 :about 20 seconds. The smooth exhale is a factor of 2: 10 seconds and then the bandhas are applied in the empty space after exhale (bahir kumbhaka) for a factor of 1: 5 seconds. One round at this speed would last then 40 seconds. so reasonably in one minute we would go from 15-20 breaths on average to 1.5 breaths! In addition the introduction of mantra and the associated vibrations/sounds directs the mind towards the interior. The shastras say the benefits of samantraka pranayama are mental fortitude, relief from sorrow/dukha, health and development of devotion. For those not initiated into a particular mantra, the pranava mantra (OM) is used. Beginners may incorporate sound in their practice as a means to lengthen exhale via brahmari pranayama and OM mantra japa.
Again varying the length of all 4 aspects of the breath is key. The significance of the long inhalation and antah kumbhaka physiologically is increased blood flow into the heart (antah kumbhaka is not advised with very high blood pressure). The significance of long smooth exhalation and bahir kumbhaka is calming and purifying. Through sustained practice of all 4 aspects (under the guidance of a teacher) one may learn to control both the inspiratory center and expiratory center in the brain (subcenter of ventilation). This does not only effect the lungs- it has a strong effect on the brain and therefore the entire body/mind complex.
The Yoga Rahasya further identifies ujjayi, nadishodhana, surya bhedana and shitali pranayama as primary saying that anything else is merely redundant (2.62). This is not to say that chandra bhedana, brahmari, bhastrika etc have no place. They have specific effects too but for the consistent practitioner in a state of health any benefit they provide is already addressed in the first four. Surya Bhedana, inhaling through the right nostril (connected to surya/pingala nadi) and exhaling through the left nostril (connected to chandra/ida nadi) is heating and energizing. It increases the digestive fire and offers a sense of vitality. Sitali pranayama is cooling. This technique can be done either with alternate nostril exhalation or without. By rolling the tongue and inhaling through it we draw in moisture to the lungs and cool the brain. This pranayama is soothing but clarifying to the mind and reduces fatigue.
Ujjayi pranayama can be further divided into pratiloma, anuloma, and viloma ujjayi all of which involve varying recipes of inhaling or exhaling through alternate nostrils and inhaling or exhaling by constricting the throat with ujjayi. The most comprehensive of which is viloma ujjayi (called anuloma ujjayi in the Desikachar tradition)…a staple in our practices. This technique combines the benefits of ujjayi and various alternate nostril techniques into a single practice. The principle function of pranayama is…
that we learn to control the bronchial muscles through the vagus nerve. In ujjayi we voluntarily send impulses through the vagus nerve to the intricate muscles of the larynx near the vocal chords and learn to breathe well under such conditions.[…]
The principle underlying ujjayi ( which increases secretions of the pituitary and relaxes brachial muscles) is that one learns to control these bronchial muscles through the vagus nerve. IN an asthmatic paroxysm, the bronchial muscles contract and the patient is helpless. In ujjayi one reverses the process; one voluntarily causes contraction of these muscles in order to regulate breathing. It may e found with a little practice, one gradually controls these muscles and that the muscles no more control the patient.Yoga for the 3 stages of life, Ramaswami
Nadi Shodhana is another standard pranayama. It is this technique that is the foundation for samantraka pranayama. In nadi shodhana inhale and exhales are done through the alternate nostrils in both directions. This technique is given high esteem by yogis touted as the purifier of the nadis. The devoted student should practice pranayama regularly at a consistent intensity. Mild intensity might be once a day, moderate intensity: morning and evening, for the intense practitioner (not usually a householder/sristi krama) a cycle of 4 practices is often the way (The Yoga Rahasya says the munih/the silent one should practice without fear at dawn, afternoon, evening and night- typically at 12am/ 4am/ 12pm/ 4pm) but always on an empty stomach. The beauty of viloma ujjayi is that it combines benefits of nadishodhana and ujjayi pranayama.
Ramaswami does not suggest more than 80 pranayama in any given sit. Even then the practitioner must be well prepared and provided enough nourishment and rest as this amount of practice burns through a lot of energy and should not be handled lightly. Typically that intensity of practice is only sustained for a short period of time under specific circumstances. A good practice for most householders (remember the stage of life you are in) with proper preparation and skill is about 20 pranayama in a sitting 1-2x a day. Less for new practitioners and more for those who have loads of time 😉 So if we are practicing nadi shodhana that would be 10 rounds of nadi shodhana. For viloma that would be 5 full rounds. If one is using visama vrtti with comfort then that 20 pranayama could take 10-15 minutes not including kapalabhati.
- Please prepare well. Remember your principles of ashtanga yoga and the role of the gunas.
- As long as not contraindicated begin with kapalabhati
- maintain consistency. Do not jump around from one ratio to the other. Have a plan. Desa (where is the breath controlled- nostrils, throat etc), kala (commit to a length of time you will practice don’t let the mind waiver) sankhyabhih (similarly determine the number of pranayama you will practice in a sitting) paridrstoh (maintain the ratio- don’t jump around. count or chant but keep it consistent)
- Practice ahimsa. If the breath is short or the passages are congested don’t horsewhip yourself into the technique. That will only breed harm and potentially injury. Go gently and steadily. Even in group practice if you find your breath to be shorter than the count used (which is usually just a middle ground) then pause. Learn the technique and then adjust accordingly.
- The stomach should be empty. Avoid food before practice and limit liquids.
- Every now and then practice surya bhedana (great in the winter or on a sleepy am!) or sitali pranayama (cooling, clarifying to the mind). In general maintain a steady practice of ujjayi (specifically viloma) and/or nadi shodhana.
- remember your bandhas. In the beginning this may look like lifting the soft palate to slowly adapt to Jalandhar bandha and drawing up the mulabandha as you exhale seeking to hold it for a few seconds. You can prepare for this in the vinyasas through certain procedures like tadaka mudra, viparita karani etc. Eventually though the uddiyana bandha can be introduced and then all three bandhas can join together. Otherwise the practice has limitations at best.
- When progressing towards visama vrtti the typical course is slow. First we begin to lengthen the aspect of exhalation. Then we begin to lengthen the inhalation, then antarakumbhaka is introduced slowly. Finally bahir kumbhaka is introduced briefly and then long enough to hold bandhas sustainably. This process is not finite. It will continue cyclically. With proper care and non-attachment to the results or course of time it takes to “get anywhere” the breath counts will get longer not only in practice. Patanjali discusses that matter in the 4th aspect of the breath (spontaneous suspension).
- finally: don’t avoid or be fearful of pranayama. When done intelligently, slowly, with consistency the effects of pranayama are much more impactful than even that of asana. Be respectful of the process. Remember, this is life-long yoga, good till the last breath.
This post is not meant to teach you technique. Always learn first under the guidance of a seasoned and dharmic teacher. (one-on-one is best so if you are exclusively taking classes please consider taking time to check in if there are questions or any uncertainty)