3 Ways To Develop A Pranayama Practice (And Why You Should)
While it seems there is barely enough time in the day to practice yoga asana, let alone any of yoga’s breath practices, they are incredibly valuable and important. They are powerful and delicate, each in their own unique way. All of them require an attentive mind and some skill to be effective.
Here are three ways to get started bringing more pranayama into your yoga practice, and a few benefits you can expect if you do.
Prana is the energy, or breath, of life, that keeps us vibrant and alive. When sipped little by little, we can increase our capacity to hold and use this vitality. This boosts energy and gives us reserves for times when we’re tired or stressed.
If, on the other hand, we drink from the fire hydrant, gulping down more than we’re ready for or can assimilate, it can overwhelm the delicate circuitry of the nervous system.
Instead of trying for a 10-15 minute session, start small. Pick a pranayama practice that you’d like to try (ujjayi or alternate nostril or kapalabhati are good starting points) and do it for only 2-3 minutes. Not only will this be easier on your body and mind, it’s much more likely you can carve out this smaller amount of time in your busy day.
Done at the wrong time, or when mind or body aren’t quite ready, pranayama can make you feel terrible. Instead of letting this frighten you away, use it as a tool to learn what works for you and what doesn’t. If things feel a little off, assess how you feel, so you can adapt and improve next time.
Here are a few general guidelines:
- If your breathing changes dramatically (you start breathing heavier or feel the need to gasp for air) after a couple rounds of your chosen pranayama practice, you aren’t ready for that practice yet.
- If you become bloated, burpy or gassy afterwards, you practiced too soon after eating, or held your breath too often or too long during your pranayama.
- If your head hurts or you feel dizzy, back off the intensity of your breath practice (and relax your eyes, ears and tongue, too).
- If you feel agitated or depressed, you may need to practice a few gentle yoga postures before pranayama, so your body and mind are well prepared to receive the prana.
- If you feel really spaced out or ungrounded, you probably need to take a longer savasana after your breath practice. (Reclining and resting for a few minutes after ensures the increased energy is incorporated into your system, rather than blowing it out.)
A few things you can hope to feel if the practice is working:
- Calm and clear-minded
- Energized but not agitated
- Restored and recharged, not exhausted
- Peaceful and present
Make Yourself Comfortable
If prana is the energy that fuels us, and pranayama is the technique of increasing and maintaining that energy, then we also need to take into account the container that holds the energy.
The container is the body, in particular, the torso. We want to make the container stronger. This is one reason a dedicated practice of yoga postures is so crucial —it prepares us to receive the prana. It’s also why we need to learn how to sit up straight with a lifted torso and an open chest.
It can take some time to build a relaxed, yet attentive, seated posture. Once you do, your mind will be more sharp and alert to hear the subtle differences in your breath when you practice pranayama.
In the meantime, or if you’re feeling especially run down, you might find it more comfortable to practice lying down on a bolster (See image below). The lift of the upper back holds the lungs in a supportive way, so you can focus on your breath, rather than sitting up.
There are, however, a few cautions with this:
- Reclining is best used for ujjayi, viloma, anuloma or samavritti pranayma, but is not good for any of the digital pranayamas (nadi sodhana, bhramari or chandra/surya bhedana) or those that are more physical (kapalbhati or bhastrika). Just writing all those makes me realize some tutorials might be needed —if that sounds interesting to you, drop a note and let me know!
- Be aware that lying down tends to make you sleepy or to wander off, mentally —try to stay focused, by listening to the sounds of your breath.
As with all things, practice makes progress. Try to commit to a breathing practice once a week or so and see what that consistency brings. I’d love to hear how it goes!
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