This second lesson and practice session is dedicated to the breath for three primary reasons:
- The breath is a foundational aspect of all branches of yoga, including kundalini yoga
- Conscious breathing will plug you back into the divine energy source that will energize and inspire you
- I want to support you and encourage you to breathe in much more life!
How you breathe is an indication of how this great life force is moving within you. Is it flowing, bringing nourishment and energy to and through you? Or is it blocked, only seeping in while you struggle to find the energy to take care of your responsibilities, accomplish your goals, and enjoy your life?
Whatever the case may be, you’re about to have an increase in oxygen, energy, and vitality!
Also, as you read through this lesson, know that each of the practices are really pathways for finding your home in the breath.
Your body breathes on autopilot—so why worry about how to inhale and exhale? For one thing, breath control, or pranayama, is the fourth of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga. For another, scientific research is showing that mindful breathing—paying attention to your breath and learning how to manipulate it—is one of the most effective ways to lower everyday stress levels and improve a variety of health factors ranging from mood to metabolism. Pranayama is at once a physical-health practice, mental-health practice, and meditation. It is not just breath training; it’s mind training that uses the breath as a vehicle.
What is Pranayama?
Pranayama is a collection of breathing exercises developed by the ancient yogis for purification, mental focus rejuvenation, and healing. Prana translates into “life force energy,” and Yama translates into “control or mastery of.” Thus, pranayama is a breathing technique used to control, cultivate, and modify the amount, quality, flow, and direction of vital energy in the body. Pranayama is often defined simply as “breath control” and is a primary component in a traditional yoga practice.
Boosting Your Prana
The easiest and fastest way to increase the prana in the body is to change our breathing to affect the quality and quantity of air taken into the lungs. Prana is also absorbed in the nose by its connection to the two nadi energy channels that terminate in the nostrils. Pranayama is used to control, cultivate, and change the prana in the body. A change in the prana will affect the whole body. First energetically, then psychologically mentally, and last physically. advanced pranayama is used to cleanse the impurities and obstructions in the nadis, and eventually unblock the sushumna nadi, allowing the Kundalini prana to flow freely through this channel and upwards through our seven chakras.
The effects of prana on the mind and emotions
When your prana flow or energy channels are blocked or restricted, you may experience a lack of focus and negative emotions like anxiety, fear, worry, tension, depression, anger, and grief. When your prana or energy channels are open and flowing freely and smoothly the mind becomes calm, focused, happy, positive, and enthusiastic. Thus, through the skilful and conscious use of our breathing, we can affect and regulate our emotional states.
The yoga of breath, uniting our earthly selves with our spiritual source offers great transformation. The breath turns our attention inward, strengthening our ability to be self-referencing and, in turn, better able to greet the world with authenticity.
As you slow down and become more attuned to your inner being, you’ll start to notice the kundalini energy that is already moving through you in any given moment. In this way, your breath can carry you to extraordinary heights of self-realisation.
“How?” you may be asking.
Through the catalyst known as kundalini energy. Kundalini is no timid force. It invites and welcomes and supports self-actualization. You could even say that it demands it. Activated through conscious breathing, kundalini burns through mind clutter and confusion to align us with our true and glorious destiny.
How to Practice Pranayama
For most pranayama techniques, the breath is slow and steady, breathed in and out of the nose and down into the belly. Always sit with a straight spine and a relaxed body. While you are practicing Pranayama, let go of any thoughts by focusing on the type of breathing involved with the pranayama.
The first thing to master and pranayama is the exhalation, which should be slow and smooth. Once exhaling is mastered, then the inhalation is worked on smoothing it out, making it long and slow. Retention of the breath should not be attempted until you have attained a smooth, gentle inhale and exhale. Let the eyes be soft or closed during your practice. If comfortable, you can gaze upwards at the third eye, the point between the eyebrows.
If you feel dizzy lightheaded winded or gasping for air, stop the pranayama and take slow, relaxed normal breaths until you have recovered. Do not strain your body while practicing pranayama. When you feel fatigued, stop, and rest. After practicing pranayama, lie down to rest in Shavasana or practice a few minutes of meditation.
To awaken kundalini energy in your daily life, try the following levels and styles of breathing, which I encourage you to practice at a pace that feels right for you.
1. Basic Breath Awareness
Begin by noticing where you already are with your breath. As you breathe in, inhale life. Then pause for a moment, and exhale the breath. Pause. Inhale. Pause. Exhale. Pause. Very simple. Repeat this a few times and notice how your body and mind begin to relax. As you use this gentle practice to realign on the inside, life begins to feel different and even look different on the outside. In its simplicity, this breathing practice can be utterly profound. As you relax, you’ll notice that your mind quiets down, your emotions smooth out, and your heart opens up. This is our natural, normal cycle of everyday breathing. In this practice, we are just slowing it down and paying attention.
TRY IT… anytime, anywhere. Breathing through your nose, observe the inhalation and exhalation. Which happens faster? Which is longer? Don’t manipulate them. Just watch. Continue for 2–3 minutes.
2. Advanced breathing
For many yogis, their normal daily experience involves one continuous circular breath. There is no distinct pause between the inhale and exhale; it simply turns around (or loops around). For the rest of us yogis-in-training, here is the basic practice: Breathe in deeply through your nose, then turn the breath around, and breathe out through your nose. Watch the breath turn around with your inner vision. Repeat. Don’t worry if this practice seems a little choppy or unnatural at first. It simply takes practice to develop a natural, smooth flow.
TRY IT… to focus your attention and activate your kundalini energy. I recommend that you do this for just a minute or two at a time and only a few times per day. It’s an extremely potent breathing practice that is cleansing and enlivening on every level (energetically, physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually).
3. Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (Alternate-Nostril Breathing)
This practice of alternating between the right and left nostrils as you inhale and exhale unblocks and purifies the nadis, which in yogic belief are energy passages that carry life force and cosmic energy through the body. While there is no clear scientific evidence to support these effects, one pilot study found that within seven days of practicing this technique, overactive nervous systems were essentially rebalanced. And a study of 90 people with high blood pressure found Nadi Shodhana lowered blood pressure and improved mental focus.
TRY IT… at the end of an asana sequence to prepare the mind for meditation. Take a comfortable seated position. Close your right hand in a gentle fist in front of your nose, then extend your thumb and ring finger. Gently close your right nostril with your thumb. Inhale through your left nostril, then close it with your ring finger. Open your right nostril and exhale slowly through it. Inhale through the right nostril then close it. Open your left nostril and exhale slowly through it. That completes one cycle. Repeat 3–5 times.
4. Kapalabhati Pranayama (Breath of Fire or Skull-Shining Breath)
This rapid breathing technique is energizing and activates the sympathetic nervous system. Breath of Fire quickly activates the Kundalini energy. It’s a rapid succession of hot, fiery breaths using the nose only. As you start your fast and light breathing, you’ll place equal emphasis on inner and outer breaths. You’ll also keep your breath focused in the nose by using the abdomen as a pump for pushing the breath upwards. It’s also clarifying to note that this technique sounds much like a dog panting but through the nose.
TRY IT… to jump-start your asana practice when you feel lethargic or for brainpower when you’re foggy. To start, take a full, deep inhalation and exhale slowly. Inhale again, and begin exhaling by quickly pulling in the lower abs to force air out in short spurts. Your inhalation will be passive between each active, quick exhalation. Begin with 30 seconds, and build up gradually from there. (It’s important to start gradually because the breath acts as a pump for picking up energy and can cause some dizziness if you do too much at once.)
5. Kumbhaka Pranayama (Breath Retention)
If you inhale fully and then wait 10 seconds, you will be able to inhale a bit more. Why? Holding your breath increases pressure inside the lungs and gives them time to fully expand, increasing their capacity. As a result, the blood that then travels to the heart, brain, and muscles will be more oxygenated.
TRY IT… after asana to prepare for meditation. Inhale, inflating the lungs as fully as possible. Hold the breath for 10 seconds. After 10 seconds, inhale a little more. Then hold it for as long as you can. I suggest starting with holding the breath for 3 seconds, or as long as feels comfortable, and working your way up.
Pranayama Practice Tips
- Wear loose-fitting or stretchy clothes to feel comfortable and relaxed.
- Find a comfortable seated position. If needed, use props to support you.
- Establish a regular practice every day or several times per week for 15-20 minutes.
- Practice in a well-ventilated room that is neat and clean and free from distractions.
- It is best to practice at the same place and time.
- If the weather is pleasant, you can practice pranayama outdoors.
- Avoid practicing yoga under a fan or next to an air conditioner as it may disturb the prana and be distracting.
- Daily practice should be done on an empty stomach.
- It is recommended to clear your bowels before a vigorous practice.
- Keep your mind focused on the sensation of the breath as you practice.
- If you feel any sensations of pain, tension, or weakness in your body, focus on relaxing that area and directing your breath into it.
- Take your time, slow and steady practice is essential to progress and integrate pranayama’s effects.
Experiment with your breathing
Try out some different breathing exercises. See how they make you feel after. Do you feel calm or slightly more agitated? When you find one that leaves you feeling calm, memorise it. Practice it enough that when you need it, switching into it is easy and natural, not another source of stress.
As you try out and practice other types of pranayama you will slowly build up a diverse set of tools to draw upon. Create a practice of checking in with yourself on a mental, energetic, and emotional level. Each time you check give yourself the opportunity to either reinforce your positive state or shift it to something more desired by changing your breathing. You may want to document your experiments and progress in a journal. 🙏