Pranayama literally means to control or restrain the prana, which is the life force of the universe and motivates all actions. It courses through the nerves of our physical body as well as through the nadis, which are the channels of our subtle body.
Pranayama practice is necessary daily in order to help build ojas in the subtle body. It accomplishes this by strengthening the walls of the sushumna nadi, one of the three main main channels of the subtle body. As seen in the picture below, there are two nadis (ida and pingala nadis, water and fire respectively) that helix around one central nadi (the sushumna or ether nadi). Where these nadis intersect are where the chakras are:
image courtesy of California College of Ayurveda
Basically what you need to know is that when our pitta is too high, we have too much prana flowing through our pingala nadi (fire).
When our kapha is too high, we have too much prana flowing through the ida nadi (water).
Finally, if we have any sort of variable condition or high vata, our sushumna nadi needs balancing first.
So how do we balance the flow of prana through these nadis? Via pranayama.
The breathing practice, which we can do by focusing on which nostrils we breathe in and out of, can strengthen specific nadis. The prana puts pressure on the walls of the nadis, forcing them to over time become stronger. Just like working out any muscle. However, if we do this in excess, it can be depleting. Here is how to do Pranayama:
General Pranayama Practice Rules
– All breath except for Lunar Pranayama will be inhaled, held, then exhaled at the following ratio of 4:16:8 (inhale to a count of 4, hold for 16 count, exhale for 8 count.
– Work your way up to these counts slowly and do whatever is comfortable. There should not be any tension from holding. Don’t strain or feel stressed, its okay to do less as you start, no one is judging you!
– Beginners practice only for a few minutes each morning. Work up to 5-10 minutes daily and eventually it can be done for 30 minutes multiple times a day, if you are healthy.
– Morning, mid morning, mid afternoon, or after 9pm is best.
– sit in meditation pose in a quiet area and do the practice without any distraction
– for those with high pitta (anger, judgment, heat, intensity, criticism, etc.)
– draws prana away from pingala and towards ida (water putting out fire)
– cooling and moist
– Inhale left, don’t hold, then exhale right. Repeat.(Holding causes heat to increase, which is the opposite of what we want)
– for those with high kapha (lethargy, sluggishness, lack of motivation, stagnancy, etc.)
– draws prana away from ida and towards pingala (increasing fire)
– warming and dry
– Inhale right, hold, then exhale left. Repeat.
– for those with high vata and to balance all three nadis
– neutral qualities
– Place the left hand on the left knee in chind mudra (make the okay symbol and place palm facing upwards)
– Place the right hand in vishnu mudra (fold the two fingers beside the thumb into the palm)
– Bring the right thumb to the right nostril and gently close it. Then inhale to a count of 4 through the left nostril.
– Use the other fingers to close both nostrils (still keep the thumb in place). Hold to a count of 16.
– Release the thumb while keeping the other fingers on the left nostril. Exhale to a count of 8.
– Do the opposite now, breathing in the through the right nostril and keeping the left nostril closed. Close both nostrils and hold. Open the left nostril and exhale. Repeat the cycle for a few more minutes.
Keep in mind…
Some things to keep in mind are to just relax and breathe. If holding breath is too hard, then don’t do it to start. If you are having trouble exhaling fully, just do the best you can. The reason we hold is to increase heat and to allow maximum absorption of prana into the cells. Then we exhale for a long count to rid the body of as much waste as possible. That is the intention. If you are tensed while doing this, there’s really no point!
Additionally, if you feel any symptoms during pranayama (dizziness, fear, anxiety, lightheaded, etc), keep a journal and a stopwatch handy. Note at what time during your meditation it happens (how many minutes in), then stop the practice. Try again tomorrow and note it again. As time goes on, you will strengthen your ojas and you will be able to go longer. Those symptoms are just your body’s way of telling you that you are at your limit for now. The symptoms will eventually resolve.
But why do pranayama? It sounds complicated…
It’s really not that tough once you start. I’ve seen a clearing in my sinuses on physical level, allowing for less allergies during this allergy season. Additionally, it feels good. You feel revitalized and rejuvenated. We need prana to live. But more importantly, it cleanses our subtle body of emotional traumas. It brings them to the surface where we can just let them out of us, saying “Oh hey! There you are little emotion. You no longer serve me, so thanks for leaving!”
Until we do this, we continue to suppress these emotions. All emotions are just thoughts that produce physiological responses. The mind controlling the body response. So to overcome these emotions, we can really heal the physical body as well.
I’m afraid that if I do pranayama I will unearth all the trauma inside me and it will be overwhelming!
Fear not. For I can safely assure you that all these emotions come down to one simple fundamental belief: your karma and your samskaras (actions and your tendencies). This is powerful, because it can help us to identify the root cause as to why we have our emotions. Maybe it has to do with a sense of self identity. Maybe it has to do with our insecurity. Maybe it has to do with our biggest fears. Every time an emotion comes up, later ask yourself why seven times:
I got angry during pranayama. Why?
Because it’s dumb and a waste of time!
Because I have better things to do!
Because I am so busy and I just don’t have time for all this and I’d rather be doing things for me?
Because I need to be productive!
Because if I don’t support myself no one will?
Because I am afraid of what will happen if I fail!
Because I am not confident enough in who I am!!!!
So go seven “whys” deep! Find out what’s fundamentally happening. Be brave! Have faith that the prana will help you gain the ojas you need to withstand such deep introspection.