PS is practicing yoga since the age of 11. Her yoga retreats in India have helped her gain deep insights into self-awareness.
Pranayama is a part of Kriya Yoga. It initially originated as a part of Hinduism. Its original description is found in the ancient Hindu text of Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and Bhagavad Gita. According to Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna says the yogis devote themselves to pranayama. They offer their outgoing breath as worship into the incoming breath which is offered as energy to the body. This process of cessation of breath between exhalation and inhalation is termed as Kevala Kumbhaka.
Lord Krishna, further says, “…to successfully perform this practice it is important to adopt light diets and follow a strict discipline of practice.”
Why you should practice Pranayama?
Since Pranayama doesn’t ask for an intense workout, it is usual for you to wonder if this exercise is really worth it.
Pranayama is a Sanskrit word which means energy expansion (Pran -> ‘energy’ and Ayama -> ‘expansion’). In other words, it is a technique to control the energy within you. Through Pranayama, you can attain a balance between your mind and body.
The human mind is full of commotion and the body has its own weaknesses and disorders that are running within us since the beginning of mankind. This happens because of the energy that flows within us in the form of endless and uncontrollable thoughts and feelings.
According to ancient yogis, this uncontrollable energy that exists within us in the form of thoughts and feelings can be balanced by breath.
If we notice closely, our disturbed mind always results in a fluctuating breath. On the other hand, a calm mind always possesses a calm breath. So, we can find a way to regulate our breath, we can control our mind and the energy that flows within us. For this, the yogis discovered the technique called pranayama.
How to Practice Pranayama?
Pranayama can be practiced in five different sitting positions:
- Sukhasana (Easy Cross-legged Pose)
- Siddhasana (Accomplished Pose)
- Vajrasana (Thunderbolt Pose)
- Ardha Padmasana (Half Lotus Pose)
- Padmasana (Lotus Pose)
Before starting out, make sure your whole body is in complete sync. In other words,
- Upper body must be straight and erect
- Head, neck, and back must be in alignment
- Muscles must be relaxed
- Hands must be resting on knees
- Eyes must be closed to attain full internal focus
- Body must be stable and in balance
These are important to maintain a perfect circulation of energy within your body while doing the asana.
NOTE: Don’t sit in direct contact with the ground, use either a cushion or yoga mat.
Now, let’s discuss the five different positions in detail:
1. Sukhasana (Easy Cross-legged Pose)
Sukhasana is a common sitting posture. If you are new, you must start with asana as the rest of the fours can be a bit uncomfortable in the starting. Also, if you have serious injuries or some sort of illness related to your knees, then avoid advanced sitting postures.
- Sit with straight legs
- Cross your legs as you usually do
- Make sure your back is straight
- If you can’t keep your back straight for long, then do the asana only for a few minutes in the beginning. Extend the time as you become uncomfortable with the posture.
2. Siddhasana (Accomplished Pose)
Siddhasana is taken from the Sanskrit noun ‘Siddhi’, which means ‘attainment’ or ‘accomplished’. Hence, this asana signifies the attainment of balance within our body. It activates the spiritual energy by stimulating the chakras and nadis (nerves).
Some beginners start with this pose. This is sometimes termed as Muktasana aka Liberated Pose.
- Sit with straight legs
- Bend either of the heels and press it on the perineum such that the foot sole lies flat against the inner thigh
- Adjust the posture till your body’s pressure lies on top of the heel
- Place the opposite ankle over the first such that the ankle bones are touching and the heels are one over another
- Keep the spine erect.
3. Vajrasana (Thunderbolt Pose)
Vajrasana stimulates the energy flow as well as stimulates the digestion system. It is recommended to sit in this asana after eating food for about 15 minutes.
- Bend your knees so that your calves are beneath the thighs
- Place your upper body pressure on the heels
- Place your hands on the thighs
- Make sure your toes of both the feet touch each other and there’s no more than four finger gap between the kneecaps.
4. Ardha Padmasana (Half Lotus Pose)
Ardha Padmasana is an easier variation of Padmasana. You can sit in this position if you are new to Padmasana. Practicing Padmasana can cause strain so it is recommended to start with this asana in the beginning.
- Sit with straight legs
- Bend one leg and let it rest on the mat
- Bend other leg and place it on top of the opposite thigh
5. Padmasana (Lotus Pose)
Padmasana is the supreme way of practicing meditation and pranayama. Lord Shiva is depicted sitting in this position while meditating.
- The pose requires intense lower-body flexibility. Your hips need to be very open.
- Place one foot over the opposite thigh and do the same with other
- Sole must be facing upward
- Both the feet must be placed as symmetrically as possible.
Begin the Exercise with Inhale and Exhale
- Take a deep breath in and out
- Start slowly
- Focus on your breath
- Feel the energy that flows within you with each breath
Benefits of Pranayama
- Enhances the body posture
- Improves spinal position
- Increases self-awareness
- Reduces stress
- Relaxes muscles
- Improves blood circulation
- Increases spiritual energy
- Tones the abdomen
- Improves lower body flexibility
If you have arthritis or knee surgery, then avoid bending your legs. You can practice Pranayama with straight legs as well.
Take Your Breath to Next Level
A successful asana is the one when you are in full realization of your inner energy and can regulate it as per your own will.
- Start with a slow breath
- Put your entire focus on your breath
- Notice how gradually your breath is becoming smoother and calmer
- Breath with your whole body
Variations in Pranayama (Pranayama as described in Hatha Yoga Pradipika)
Hatha Yoga Pradipika is the 15th century Sanskrit manual written by Svatmarama. He was an Indian yogi who lived between the 15th and 16th centuries.
According to Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Pranayama can be practiced in following different forms:
1. Kumbhaka (Breath Retention)
Kumbhaka is a Sanskrit name that literally translates to breath retention. It occurs after inhalation and exhalation. Yogis are proficient in this form can also attain the ultimate stage of Kevala Kumbhaka. At this stage, they can control their breath at will. This extreme stage is said to be the union of one’s soul with the divine.
In this, you need to press one nostril with your working thumb (in most cases, right hand) and inhale the air from the other nostril. Then, press the other nostril with your thumb, and open the previous nostril to exhale the air. It stimulates brain cells and rejuvenates body functions.
2. Maha Bandha (The Great Lock)
Maha Bandha or Bandha is the combination of three body locks:
- Mula Bandha - It means the contraction of the perineum
- Uddiyana Bandha - It means the contraction of the abdomen into the rib cage
- Jalandhara Bandha - It means tucking the chin close to the chest.
This asana is performed only by advanced practitioners.
3. Ujjayi Breath (Victorious Breath)
Ujjayi Breath starts from the diaphragm. It fills the lower belly first, simultaneously activating the lower two chakras. Then rises to the lower rib cage, where third and fourth chakras are located. And it finally pushes upward to the upper chest and throat. Inhalation and exhalation are done by the nose, but the speed and length of the breath are decided by the diaphragm.
4. Bhastrika (Bellows Breath)
Instead of standalone asana, Bhastrika is more of cleansing action. It is performed to stimulate the body for other yoga techniques. It involves the fast and thunderous process of exhalations and inhalation. The process is controlled by the diaphragm.
5. Kapalbhati (Breath of Fire)
The literal translation of Kapalbhati is ‘skull shining’. It is performed to clean the sinuses. Check out the below video by Yoga Guru Baba Ramdev on how to practice the 5 basic Pranayama in daily life.
5 Important Pranayama that You should practice daily
Pranayama is not just an exercise. It’s a way of life. It teaches discipline and self-awareness. Adopt this as your lifestyle and start living a better life.
PS Tavishi (author) from India on March 30, 2020:
Thank you, Umesh. Pranayama is an effective asana to boost immunity. I hope people will practice this asana regularly to fight against coronavirus.
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on March 30, 2020:
This is an excellent article. Well presented.