Pranayama or breath control
The breath is intimately connected to our lives, but many of us never notice that connection. We often say things like, "The grandeur of the Niagara Falls took my breath away". Perhaps we don't even realize what we meant. What do you do when you come home from a tiring day at work - don't you sigh deeply? And if you have noticed, that sigh actually makes you feel much better. The breath is trying to tell you something. It is saying "I have the power to change your life".

The ancient yogis realized and studied the intimate connection between the breath and the mind. They found that whenever the mind is agitated there is an immediate effect on the breath. But they also found that when the breath is controlled and made to follow a pattern, the mind calms down. From further study and analysis the yogis developed many breathing techniques like Ujjayi, Bhastrika, Kapal Bhati and Nadi Sodhana Pranayama which are very powerful and effective in bringing calm and peace to our inner self and bringing a major transformation in our lives for good.

A word of caution - Pranayama can be dangerous if done without proper supervision. Swami Svatmarama says this in no uncertain terms in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika

"As lions, elephants and tigers are tamed very slowly and cautiously, so should prana be brought under control very slowly in gradation measured according to one's capacity and physical limitations. Otherwise it will kill the practitioner".

But not to worry. On this web site I will try to teach only the simplest of Pranayamas which can be done without fear of any adverse effects. Below I have described some simple breathing exercises which will result in enormous benefits if practiced regularly. But first, let us understand some theory behind the power of the breath.

What percentage of your life do think you control consciously? The answer, if you will believe me, is 'hardly anything'. Our nervous system consists of two main branches the central and the autonomic. The central nervous system is controlled through the conscious part of the brain whereas the autonomic nervous system is controlled by the sub-conscious part of the brain. If I tell you "Touch your forehead", you can do it easily because you are using the central nervous system to do that and you have full control over it because you have full control of the conscious part of the brain. If I tell you "OK now perspire" can you do it? Of course not, because sweating is controlled by your autonomic nervous system on which you generally have little or no control because you have no direct control of the sub-conscious part of your brain. The sub-conscious brain literally controls 99% of your life. To read an immensely illluminating exposition on this topic read the article by Dr. Charles E. Henderson here. All processes in our body are either controlled by the central or autonomic nervous system. Let us look at some of these processes.

Scratching your chin - central nervous system
Sneezing - autonomic nervous system
Talking - central nervous system
Blood pressure - autonomic nervous system
Walking - central nervous system
Digestion - autonomic nervous system
Breathing - ?????????????
What is the answer for 'Breathing'? You can stop your breath anytime you want but breath also continues involuntarily when you are asleep. The answer, obviously, is Both central and autonomic. Breathing is the only major life process in your body that is controlled through both the central and autonomic nervous systems. This statement has enormous implications. Since the breath has one foot in the conscious and one in the sub-conscious the control of the breath has an immediate effect on the sub-conscious. Remember this effect can be for good or for bad (see caution mentioned above), that is why Swami Svatmarama warns against performing pranayama without proper supervision.

You do not have to practice complicated pranayamas to benefit from them. Some very simple pranayamas can provide great benefits to boost your immune system and also to control the stresses of daily living. Below are a few breathing exercises which you can practice without any supervision.

Breathing exercise 1
  1. Sit cross legged on a comfortable cushion. If you cannot sit cross legged, just sit erect on a chair or futon. Do not sit on a very cushy chair/sofa in which you will sink down. A comforter or quilt folded four times and placed on a hard surface is a very good cushion to sit on.
  2. Keep your body erect with abdomen pulled in and chest out comfortably. But be relaxed, do not tense your muscles too much.
  3. Keep your tongue in the soft gum behind your upper teeth thorughout this exercise
  4. Inhale deeply and slowly through the nose to a count of 4, hold the breath for a count of 2 and then exhale forcefully through the mouth with a 'whoosh' sound
  5. Repeat 10 to 20 times depending on your capacity
Benefits : After a tiring day this exercise will bring your stress levels down and you will feel much better

Breathing exercise 2
  1. Sit comfortably as described under exercise #1 steps 1 and 2
  2. Inhale deeply and slowly through the nose to a count of 4
  3. Hold your breath for a count of 4. While holding your breath concentrate on the space between your eyebrows and try to perceive a glowing light there
  4. Exhale through the nose to a count of 6
  5. Repeat 10 times
Benefits : This simple looking breathing exercise has powerful healing effects. The space between the forehead is the location of the Ajna chakra (one of the seven chakras or energy centers in the body). The longer exhalation time helps to push out all the impure air from your lungs

Breathing exercise 3
  1. Sit comfortably as described under exercise #1 steps 1 and 2
  2. Inhale deeply and slowly through the nose to a count of 4
  3. Hold your breath for a count of 4. While holding your breath concentrate on each of the seven chakras one by one in each cycle of the breathing exercise. Imagine a glowing light at the location of the chakra when you visualize it.
  4. The seven chakras and their location are as follows
    • Muladhara Chakra - at the base of the spine
    • Swadisthana Chakra - on the spine about 2 inches above the base of the spine
    • Manipura Chakra - on the spine behind the solar plexus (around four inches above the navel)
    • Anahata Chakra - on the spine just behind the heart
    • Visuddhi Chakra - on the spine just behind the throat
    • Ajna Chakra - just behind the space between the eyebrows
    • Sahasrara Chakra - on the top and middle of the head
  5. Exhale through the nose to a count of 8
  6. Repeat 7 times (or multiple of 7 times) each time visualizing the next chakra
Benefits : This is a very powerful breathing exercise. It greatly boosts the immune system, reduces stress and bring happiness to the practitioner

Ujjayi Pranayama (victorious breath)

Ujjayi is one the great pranayamas mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. It is an extremely beneficial breathing exercise. By practicing Ujjayi Pranayama the practitioner extends his/her life and cleanses the whole body internally. Pranayama literally means 'extended breath' and the Ujjayi Pranayama is truly an extended breath. When you perform Ujjayi correctly you will notice that you can extend your breath for a long time. Specifically Shri. B.K.S Iyengar has this to say about the benefits of Ujjayi in his book Light on Yoga : this pranayama aerates the lungs, removes phlegm, gives endurance, soothes the nerves and tones the entire system. Ujjayi without kumbhaka (holding the breath), done in a reclining position, is ideal for persons suffering from high blood pressure and coronary troubles.

Procedure of Ujjayi Pranayama

The technique of Ujjayi breathing is a little difficult to learn at first. Ujjayi is breath with a sibilant sound accompanying it. To perform Ujjayi breathing, constrict your throat and inhale through your nose to make a hissing sound. This is similar to the sound made when you sigh. When you sigh you generally do it with mouth open and exhaling through it. If you can make the same sound with the mouth closed and breathing through the nose that is Ujjayi breathing. To practice Ujjayi try sighing many times and while doing that close your mouth and continue sighing through your nose.

  1. Sit as described under exercise #1 steps 1 and 2 or lie down on your back. Ujjayi is perhaps the only pranayama that also can be done lying down
  2. Inhale deeply and long using Ujjayi breath as described above.
  3. Hold the breath for a few seconds
  4. Exhale deeply and long using Ujjayi breath
  5. Repeat 10 to 20 times as per your capacity
  6. When Ujjayi is done correctly you should be able to hear the sound. Click the 'Play' button below to hear the sound of Ujjayi
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