The fourth limb is breath control. The yamas and the niyamas describe how to be in the world; how to be kind and compassionate to the self and to the world around. The asana practice teaches awareness and control over the physical body. Pranayama teaches how to harness the breath with the intention of finding peace within.
Breath is the only guarantee in this life. Everything else comes and goes – emotions, strength, pain, distraction, material possession. It’s all temporary. Except for the breath. From the moment of birth until the moment of death, breath courses through the body. Exercises in pranayama teach how to sit with steadiness and ease and harness prana. The power of focusing on the breath is that it’s difficult to focus on anything else.
By focusing exclusively on the breath, you quiet the distracting vortex of conscious thought
Hatha yoga decrees that pranayama is practiced and the mind will follow. Raja yoga instructs to control the mind first and the control of breath will follow (Mutkibodhananda, 1993). Regardless of which school of thought you wish to follow, agree that pranayama is practiced with the intention of understanding the body’s subtleties.
This section contains instruction for four versions of pranayama: three-part breath, kapalabhati, nadi shodhana and ujjayi.
When teaching pranayama, start with the simplest exercise: three-part breath. Teach students to practice filling their lungs to capacity on each inhale and then exhale all the breath prior to starting the next round.Sit comfortably. Pay attention to the breath and listen as you inhale and exhale through your nose.
- Belly. As you inhale, imagine you’re filling your belly with breath. Draw air into the lowest part of your lungs and puff up your belly. Exhale and contract your belly. Imagine your belly button is getting closer to your spine. Squeeze all the breath from your lungs. Repeat three times.
- Ribs. On the next round, follow the same visualization but also expand your ribs out and to the sides as you inhale. Exhale and knit the ribs closer to each other. Squeeze the breath out from the lowest and middle part of your lungs. Repeat three times.
- Chest. Next, do steps one and two and also expand your upper chest and clavicle area on an inhale. Imagine that your lungs are being filled to capacity (lower, mid and upper section) on each inhale and then deflated completely on each exhale.
- Combine all four steps into one continuous cycle of deep breathing.
Kapalabhati (shining skull breath)
Be sure that you have practiced kapalabhati breath a lot on your own before teaching this technique. It’s an energizing and invigorating example of kriya (purifying) yoga, and is perceived to clear out stale air in the lungs and saturate the cells with fresh prana. Kapalabhati is called “shining skull” because the process of forceful rhythmic breathing changes the pressure in the cerebral spinal fluid. Allegedly this pressure change massages the brain, invigorates every cell and creates a halo of vitality and light around the skull! Who would decline that?
Sit up straight and engage core strength to support your spine. Start by observing your natural breathing rate. Then do two rounds of three-part breath.
- Exhale forcefully through your nostrils and contract your belly, then inhale passively through your nose. On each quick and subsequent exhale, firmly contract your belly.
- Work up to three rounds of thirty exhales. Breathe naturally in between each round.
- Count for your students: “Inhale, pause for a moment. Now, ex, ex, ex, ex…..”
Practice kapalabhati to energize your nervous system if you’re feeling depleted of energy.
Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breath)
Use nadi shodhana as a relaxation technique. Nadis are energy pathways in the body and shodhana means “cleansing.” Nadi shodhana is a relaxing technique for cleaning your energy system.
Sit comfortably and take a few deep breaths.
- Close your right nostril with your thumb and lightly press your ring and pinky finger next to your left nostril.
- Inhale through your left nostril and hold at the top of the inhale.
- Squeeze your left nostril closed with your ring and pinky finger and exhale through your right nostril.
One complete round of nadi shodhana is:
Inhale right nostril
Exhale left nostril
Inhale left nostril
Exhale right nostril.
Do up to ten rounds if you need to soothe anxiety and stress or if your mind is cluttered and distracted.
Ujjayi (victorious breath)
Ujjayi breath, used in conjunction with asana creates tapas (heat) and is a self-healing technique. It is audible breath that originates in your throat.
Teach ujjayi when students are seated, but instruct them to apply the technique to the transitions between yoga poses. For beginners, first teach them to exhale and imagine they are fogging up a mirror. Lead several rounds of inhales through the nose and exhales through the mouth. Then, have them imagine that they are still fogging up the mirror, but seal the lips lightly together and exhale through the nose.
The deep ocean-sounding breath is still present, but it is entirely through the nose. Inhale deeply and then exhale and chant OMMMMMMM.
- At the end of OM, when all the breath is expired, seal the lips and commence ujjayi breath (in and out through the nose).
- Begin the asana practice and maintain ujjayi breath for the entire practice.
- At the end of the asana practice, exhale through the mouth and settle into savasana.
Ujjayi breath is a technique for guiding the asana practice, and quieting the mind from the swirling vortex of thoughts.
Pranayama is a strategy for quieting the mind and paying attention to the present moment. Mindfully acknowledging the present moment through breath awareness will promote peace of mind.
Use whichever pranayama technique to suit your situation. Whether you need to quiet the noisy dialogue in your head or if you need to gather energy to complete a task, practice pranayama to understand the subtleties of body and mind.