Pranayama and Bandhas
Awareness of breath and body
The word pranayama can be broken down into two root words- prana and ayama. Prana refers to that which is infinitely everywhere or that which flows continuously from within us. Many yogis think of the breath as a direct expression of prana. Ayama means to stretch or extend. The act of pranayama is to bring awareness to the breath and connect to purusa (pure consciousness) through breath work.
Ancient yogic texts tell us that too little prana in the body will have one feeling confused, restless and feeling stuck or restricted. This is a sign that there is more prana outside of the physical body than within. There are five different forms of prana within the body.
Udana-vayu corresponds to the throat and our speech.
Pran a-vayu corresponds to the chest.
Samana-vayu corresponds to the central body and the digestion.
Apana-vayu corresponds with the lower abdomen and elimination.
Vyana-vayu corresponds to the distribution of energies throughout the entire body.
The more prana within, the more peaceful and well-balanced the physical body and mind. Our state of mind and the prana within our beings are closely related. Through influencing the breath through our state of mind, we are able to affect the flow of prana within the body. One definition of “yogi” is “one who’s prana is all within his/her body”. Daily breath practice and awareness will re-wire the brain and allow for the free flow of prana throughout the body.
The mind and the breath are directly related as they are our tools to gradually remove the veil of avidya and find the true self. In pranayama, it is important to stay alert and not loose focus on the subtlety of breath. There are a few different ways to take notice of the breath, one way is to focus on where in the body we feel our breath. Another way to take notice of the breath is by simply listening to the sounds of the inhales and exhales.
There are quite a few different techniques for pranayama;
UJJAYI- Known as ocean breathing. This can be achieved through breathing in and out through the nose and slightly constricting the vocal cords on the exhale in order to make the noise of an ocean wave. This breath warms and detoxes the body.
NADI SODHANA- aka alternate nostril breathing. In this technique we lengthen the inhales and exhales by breathing alternately through each nostril and not using the throat at all. Close the left nostril and breathe in, switch and close the right nostril, breathe out. Breathe in again through the right nostril, switch and close the right nostril and exhale through the left nostril. Continue this pattern. This should not be practiced if you are stuffed up or have a cold. Never force the breath.
SITALI- In this breath, we curl the tongue making a U shape and breathing in and out through the mouth. This is a cooling breath. Sitali breath is particularly good for focusing the mind.
KAPALABHATI- aka skull shining. This is a cleansing breath that is done completely diaphragmatically. The inhales and exhales are short and fast. This breathing can relieve fogginess of the mind and pain in the head.
BHASTRIKA- In this form of breathing, we breath through the abdomen making it move like a pair of bellows. If one nostril is blocked, we draw in air quickly through the open nostril and breathe out strongly through the blocked one. Remember not to breathe rapidly to the point of dizziness.
It is important when practicing pranayama to move at a steady and consistent pace. An easy place to start is with breath ratios.
The two ratios used by yogis are
SAMAVRTTI PRANAYAMA - the inhale, pause and exhale are all the same length.
VISAMAVRTTI PRANAYAMA- the inhale, pause and exhale are all different lengths. The rule of thumb in yoga is to allow the exhale to last twice as long as the inhale. Inhale for one count, exhale for two.
The goal of pranayama is in the long term to achieve self-awareness and ones.
The short term goal is to bring awareness to the present moment and open the mind to understanding what is needed and where our yoga practice is taking us.
The bandhas are a vital part of cleansing the body. Bandhas are a means through which the benefits of pranayama are intensified. The word bandha can be directly translated to “to bind or tie together, to close.” It can also mean, “to lock.” The three main bandhas are jalandhara bandha, uddiyana bandha and mule bandha. Jalandhara bandha involves the top of the spinal cord and the neck, keeping the entire spine straight. Uddiyana bandha focuses on the area between the pelvic floor and the diaphragm- keeping the muscles activated by contracting the abdominal muscles on the exhales. Mula bandha involves the area between the naval and the pelvic floor. It is developed though uddiyana-bandha by continuing the contraction of the lower abdominal muscles and then releasing the upper abdominal muscles and diaphragm. Practicing these bandhas during asana and pranayama will greatly intensify the benefits of these actions.