This is the ninth in a series of articles that cover a number of variations on classical yoga practices in the hopes of supporting teachers in finding safe and beneficial ways for all students to participate.
Pranayama is usually translated as breathing practices, but this translation doesn’t quite do it justice. Pranayama is better understood as the expansion of prana, which is energy, or life force. In a sense, pranayama is similar to acupuncture, which is also concerned with the movement of energy, or qi. You could equate the needles of acupuncture with the breath of pranayama—breath being the tool we are using to work with the life force within us. With this in mind we approach pranayama with a different feeling—we are working not only with the breath, but with energy itself.
According to the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, as the result of pranayama, “the veil over the inner light is destroyed” (II.52; translation by Swami Satchidananda). This veil is composed of desires and attachments that disturb the mind. Pranayama works because the breath and the mind move together, so slowing the breath slows the mind. In this way, pranayama prepares us for the deep, concentrated awareness of meditation. We understand instinctively that the breath is a tool for working with the mind: If someone is upset or emotional, the first thing we do is tell them, “Take a deep breath.”
For some reason, pranayama is often left out of most yoga classes. That may be because the practice is subtle and calls for a level of patience that can take time to acquire, leading teachers to feel that it won’t be accessible to their students. But the opposite is true: Pranayama is accessible to all students. Regardless of one’s physical ability, working with the breath and the mind are powerful practices that can be part of all yoga classes. Ideally, after an asana series, students come into savasana (or yoga nidra) and then sit back up for pranayama and meditation. If students can’t sit on the floor, these practices can be done lying down or sitting in a chair. Practicing pranayama and meditation when the mind is relaxed and open from asana makes the practices even more powerful.
Trauma and stored emotions may be released during pranayama because of the intimate relationship between breath and mind, which is partly why it is so effective. But students may not be ready for this release, so they may avoid practicing, or say they find the practice boring. It’s important to respect students’ choices and make sure they know they can stop if they become uncomfortable. To support students who have a history of trauma or anxiety, the focus can be on breath awareness before working on deepening the breath.
Regardless of one’s physical ability, working with the breath and the mind are powerful practices that can be part of all yoga classes.
Generally speaking, breath retention is a more advanced practice and should be reserved for experienced students. Also, if students feel lightheaded or dizzy from pranayama, they should stop and return to a normal breath. It’s important to offer all these instructions in the spirit of exploration, and to understand that each student needs to find their own way when working with such a powerful practice.
A steady, comfortable posture is important for pranayama so that students can turn their awareness within and experience the subtle changes that occur. Students can sit on a cushion with supports under their thighs, lean their backs against a wall, or sit in chair tadasana. Most of these practices can also be done in savasana.
To build a foundation in pranayama, students can begin with deergha swasam, which is diaphragmatic, or yogic, breathing. Deergha swasam offers a relatively simple technique for accessing the diaphragm and deepening the breath. It’s important to use the diaphragm to its fullest potential, rather than relying on the auxiliary breathing muscles of the chest and neck (referred to as chest breathing, or reverse breathing).
The diaphragm is a large muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. Its movement is essential for breathing, and we’re learning more and more about how the rhythmic flow of the diaphragm benefits so many other systems of the body. It massages the heart and abdominal organs and helps to pump lymph (the fluid of the immune system) as it contracts and relaxes.
Deergha swasam can be practiced with one hand on the abdomen so that the student can feel the effects of the diaphragm’s movement. On the inhale the diaphragm contracts and presses down on the abdominal cavity, which moves the belly forward. On the exhale the diaphragm relaxes and the belly moves in toward the spine. It’s helpful to remember how the breath and diaphragm are connected: inhale, diaphragm contracts; exhale, diaphragm relaxes.
During deergha swasam, students can also lie down with a sandbag or other soft, heavy object on the abdomen. Once the diaphragm is engaged, students can focus on bringing the breath up into the chest. On the inhale the belly moves forward and the chest expands. To emphasize this part of the breath, students can practice in a gentle, supported matsyasana (fish pose), with a bolster under the back from the ribs to the head. A blanket under the head can offer additional support. Alternatively, lying prone in crocodile pose is also effective for experiencing the movement that results from diaphragmatic breathing as the abdomen presses against the floor on the inhalation.
To deepen the breath, we can instruct students in three-part breath: moving the belly forward, then expanding the chest, and then broadening through the collarbones. By placing one hand on the abdomen and the other hand on the collarbones, the student can feel the breath filling the lungs all the way to the top. The exhalation reverses the process, starting from the collarbones. Eventually, these three parts blend seamlessly into one long, deep breath.
Pay special attention to lengthening the exhalation, which facilitates complete relaxation of the diaphragm. It also facilitates maximum air exchange by creating space for fresh air to enter during the next inhale. This extended exhalation can yield a sense of release and relaxation in the entire body and has a variety of other health benefits thanks to the fact that deep, rhythmic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system. In fact, artificial vagus nerve stimulation is being used as a treatment for a variety of conditions such as epilepsy, rheumatoid arthritis, and bulimia.
To help lengthen the breath, students can explore ujjayi pranayama (literally “victory breath”), which is essential for progressing in pranayama. An accessible version of the practice is the “haaa” breath, where students make a long haaa sound with the mouth open on the exhale.
To learn ujjayi, students can pretend to fog up a mirror by making a long haaa sound with the mouth open, then close the mouth and make that same sound again. This light wheezing effect is the result of air passing through the restricted opening in the throat. By narrowing the throat, the air takes longer to enter and leave the lungs—and the breath is lengthened. The sound is also like the sound of the wind or the ocean, and those images can be used to inspire the practice.
It can be helpful to begin using ujjayi on the exhalation, since it’s easier to begin that way. The exhalation is also connected to the relaxation of the diaphragm, and deepening the exhalation allows for more air exchange. Students can feel the breath filling the lungs from the bottom up on the inhale, like a wave cresting near shore, and engage ujjayi on the exhale as the breath recedes from the top down, like a wave disappearing back into the ocean.
Note: There are a number of contraindications to practicing Kapalabhati, such as uncontrolled high blood pressure, glaucoma, and pregnancy. Consult your healthcare provider or a yoga therapist if you are unsure if it is safe for you.
Kapalabhati, which literally means “skull shining,” is said to stimulate and increase prana in the body and cause energy to rise up into the head. The practice is done by repeatedly exhaling forcefully, using the abdominal muscles to manipulate the relaxed diaphragm, and then allowing the inhalation to happen naturally. By bringing in lots of prana and oxygen, we can experience a still point after a final deep inhale, when the breath and mind momentarily stop.
To make it more accessible, students can begin to practice with the mouth open. First, snap the abdomen in to exhale and make the sound “ha!” To inhale, allow the breath to return naturally through the mouth or nose. Once students are comfortable, they can close the mouth and practice with the breath moving only through the nose.
In the beginning, practice 10-25 breaths per round, three rounds total. Over time, students can increase the breaths per round to 50, 75, and more. Be sure there is no straining or shortness of breath. After the series of rapid breaths, exhale deeply, and then inhale using deergha swasam. Pause for a moment, enjoying the momentary stillness, and then exhale very slowly using ujjayi.
This final exhalation is the most important part of the practice, and the focus is on energy rising up the spine toward the third eye center. Note that a momentary pause is a natural part of the breath cycle, but retention of the breath for any greater length of time is considered an advanced practice.
Nadi suddhi, nerve purification, is also known as alternate-nostril breathing. According to the yoga tradition, this practice balances energy on the right and left sides of the body, and in the right and left hemispheres of the brain, which results in peacefulness in the mind.
Generally, one nostril is more open than the other throughout the day, and this openness switches every hour or so. The openness is said to correspond to increased energy in one hemisphere of the brain. With nadi suddhi, the focus is on creating balance between these two sides—and balance is another name for equilibrium and, in fact, another name for yoga.
To practice nadi suddhi, students who are comfortable using their right hand can make a loose fist and then extend the last two fingers and thumb while keeping the index and middle fingers tucked into the palm. Bringing the hand to the nose, close the right nostril with the thumb, and exhale from the left nostril. Inhale left, then use the tips of the ring finger to close the left nostril, and then exhale right. Continue with this pattern of inhale- switch-exhale, breathing gently and slowly. Students can count the breath to check that the inhale and exhale are even and slow. Once the pattern is comfortable, students can lengthen the exhalation, using ujjayi breathing to control the breath and slow it down, eventually making the exhalation twice as long as the inhale. Be sure there is no straining or shortness of breath. If so, return the breath to normal.
If using the right hand is not comfortable, the left can be used instead. Or, if the hand position is uncomfortable, the index finger and thumb can be used to close the nostrils. Alternatively, if using the hand is not possible, the practice can be done mentally. Without using the hand, imagine the breath moving in the same pattern out and in from one nostril at a time. This is actually a more advanced form of the practice because it takes a lot of mental concentration to experience the subtle movement of the breath and to stay focused. Over time, students will be able to follow the breath in this way and experience its movement in and out of the nostrils. After practicing nadi suddhi, or any pranayama, it is useful to take a moment and notice how the body feels before moving on to the next practice.
Pranayama offers powerful benefits to the body and mind—including calming the sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight response, as well as reducing stress and anxiety. Finding accessible techniques for teaching pranayama can allow students to access the peace of mind that is at the core of the yoga teachings.
Learn more ways to make common yoga practices more accessible:
Photos by Sarit Rogers