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Pranayama is that obscure fourth limb of yoga that has not gone mainstream yet. Will it ever? Of course!
And think of the benefits: life extension, maybe a full 100? A focused mind, glimpses of what goes on behind the courtains, peace of mind. What is there not to like?
Starting a pranayama practice is a process, it requires finding right instruction, the blessing of a good teacher, time to dedicate it to a practice, building up a routine, etc. It is a practice just as much as asana, yamas, or meditation is.
And yet, beginning is simple because pranayama starts with awareness, continues with measurement and extension, and results in a focused and peaceful mind. However the first step is:
Here are 32 suggestions on where to place the attention and create the right environment for the magic limb to show up in our lives:
1.- Pranayama beings with noticing. Every time you remember, pay attention to how you are breathing, do not judge, just notice.
2.- Understand what it is. Prana = life force, ayama = extension. Or, prana can also be breath.
Prana is whatever you understand and name that which is keeping you alive right now, your breath, your life force and how we get more of that.
3.- The main purpose of pranayama is to extend life, so we can have those full 100 years and work at our practice for a very long time. Having a longer life is useful in practicing breath extension and with having a better chance at accomplishing or ratter, experiencing the other limbs of yoga, the ones that come afterwards, which require a very long time.
4.- Then to teach us slowly, how to extend our breath, and retain it and master it.
5.- The purpose of pranayama is also to remove lethargic tendencies -or tamas-. Pranayama wakes us up and is especially useful for those of us who practice strenuous asana practices, as in some ashtangis who enjoy their series -yes I mean me-.
6.- Then to make us bright and clear in mind. As a consequence be become more clear in our thinking. Also when both nostrils are active both parts of the brain are stimulated which provides a better ability for concentration.
7.- Then to help us focus. A clear mind can withdraw into itself and focus on just one thing, which is the way of the eight limbs of yoga.
9.- Notice how the way in which your spine is erected, or not, affects the way you breathe. Change your sitting position or standing position and pay attention to the interrelation of it and the breath.
10.- What nostril is most active right now? How about as soon as you wake up? How about when you wake up in the middle of the night?
11.-If one of the nostrils is blocked see if you can activate it so that both will be flowing by placing a yoga block or a small pillow under the opposite armpit and pressing the arm firmly. Did it work? If not, try laying down on the opposite side of the blocked nostril. Did that open it up? Notice what works.
12.- Is there a difference on how you feel when both nostrils are open together than when just one is open? and if so what are the differences?
13.- When you are agitated or mad, what happens to your breath?
14.- When the breath is shallow and short how do you feel? Observe especially when you feel agitated emotionally.
15.- How is your breathing when you are sick? I tend to do puffs of forced exhalations.
16.- Does your breathing change when you take a bath? I tend to yawn and breathe deeper.
17.- Take a long smooth and slow breath. How long did that take? in seconds? in heart-beats?
18.- How long can you comfortably retain that breath? in seconds? heart-beats?
19.- Exhale and see how long can you make the exhalation. Write that number down.
20.- Have you tried using a neti pot? Try it and make a note of how it feels. Note that if you regularly practice intense asana (poses) then the use of the pot is not necessary as an every day occurrence. Only when you notice that your nose is stuffed.
21.- On your next asana practice pay full attention to the breath, is it reaching every single cell in your body? If not notice the blockages, work to open. Become very aware of how the breath interacts with the pose. Breathe in and lengthen, breathe out and reach.
22.- Do you avoid breathing when you walk on the street near something you consider may smell bad? Are there other moments when you almost unconsciously breathe less to avoid something? bring it all to light, notice it.
23.- Clean your tongue with a tongue-scrapper in the morning. It will change your life to notice what gets stuck there, and you may enhance your sense of smell.
24.- Listen to Richard Freeman’s Yoga Breathing
25.- Try a pranamaya preparation exercise like kapalbhati and begin building the number of expulsions you can do per minute. Rejoice in how your mind gets clear after each round. Think quality, not quantity.
26.- Then practice a basic exercise called nadi shodana, which is safe and can help you calm the mind.
27.- Read about pranayama in the HathaPradipika, this is the commetnary that Srivatsa Ramaswami (a student of Krishnamacharya for 30 years) recommends. It has a lot of Sanskrit on the first part. However, if you are more into the “more English” camp, this is the one I read.
28.- If you would like to take a pranayama retreat here are some suggestions:
- In Asia there is Paul Dallaghan.
- In North America we have Ramaswami, who studied directly with Krishnamacharya and recently in his Facebook page said: “I studied with Sri Krishnamacharya for a number of years. I do not remember a single yogasana class which did not have a decent dose of pranayama and shanukhimudra (pratyahara) in it and short prayers to begin and end the session”
- In India there is O.P. Tiwariji, who is ellusive to find as he does not have a website (you will have to google him). He is however offering a pranayama teacher training in Mumbai in November and he is also is teaching with Paul, in October (1st to 14) in Thailand. Blessed are you if you can make it to any of these. He will also be giving short workshops in Paris and Taiwan pretty soon.
There are many teachers, make sure to do your research. Look for quality and lineage.
29.- Read about all eight limbs of yoga so you see where pranayama fits into the map, and the territory.
30.- Begin to investigate the concept of bandhas because they are critical when the retention part starts to happen Do you engage mula bandha during your asana practice (tightening of your anus). Begin experimenting with it if you do not already do so. Get used to it. Learn about Uddhyana and Jalandara bandha. All three bandhas are critical for pranayama practices, especially when they get deeper and they involve retention.
31.- The actual pranayama benefits are reaped through the retention of the breath for longer and longer periods of time. However, the retention has to be done in the proper way, engaging all bandhas, following strict rules, in a right sited position and environment. It takes deep care and dedication, but it all begins with noticing the breath.
32.- Read this book. It is the best I have found, and I have read most.
If you follow these suggestions and begin keeping a diary you will become very familiar with the regular, current patterns of your breath.
You will be in tune, and will become a connoisseur of your own breathing. The deeper your awareness the more prepared you are to go deeper into the fourth limb.
May you be successful on the journey.