32 Ways to Pay Attention to Your Breath {Pranayama Preliminaries}

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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.

Avoid pranayama if you are a dragon

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:

Paying attention

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.

8.- Then to aid in the limbs of yoga that follow proper breathing (pratyahara, focusing, merging with the object we focus on)


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.

A Neti Pot. Use high quality salt and warm water

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.

Tongue scrappers do wonders for the 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.


21 Things to Know Before Starting an Ashtanga Yoga Practice

32 Unusual Benefits of Yoga

7 Signs That You Are a Realized Yogi

Dragon picture

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Claudia Azula Altucher

Claudia Azula Altucher has studied yoga for a long time. Her only focus these past eight years has been on Ashtanga through which she studied at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India (three study visits so far), and at Centered Yoga in Thailand (focus on practice, philosophy and pranayama).

Currently she studies at Pure Yoga in NYC. She has taught yoga classes in both Spanish and English.
She is also the Author of: 21 Things To Know Before Starting an Ashtanga Yoga Practice (you can get a free PDF at her blog). She writes daily at ClaudiaYoga.com And you can follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ClaudiaYoga

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anonymous May 7, 2013 10:08am

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[…] consisted of. What I did know, however, was that it had something to do with clearing my mind and focusing on my breathing, and that, most importantly, it would help me find inner peace. So, in my desperation to feel peace […]

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[…] resting, sleeping and eating good foods—that’s really the only way to do it. That’s the material that generates prana. All the abdominal exercises in the world aren’t going to help unless you have […]

anonymous Sep 15, 2012 12:53pm

[…] I started my practice by bowing my head to the earth in surrender and chanting a devotional prayer, followed by the sound of Om. I then began some pranayama. […]

anonymous Sep 14, 2012 3:04pm

Amazing post. Breath is life energy! Thanks for sharing this 🙂

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[…] If your yoga goal is focus and flexibility, and you like to move, try a moderate vinyasa class that’s not heated. You will still sweat and get the stretching, especially as you progress to more vigorous classes. A good class and teacher will always speak to the breath practice, they may refer to it as pranayama. […]

anonymous Jul 18, 2012 3:26pm

[…] inner (and also the reverse). Pratyahara is the bridge limb that shows you how to use asana and pranayama to find dhyana and samadhi, how to use your postures for concentrating your mind, for accurately […]

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[…] One Swami has dedicated his life to making sure that science is fully backed up with research. Philip Stevens, a.k.a., Swami Samnyasananda, is an Australian-based consultant neurophysiologist who specializes in research on sleeping, breathing and pranayama. […]

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anonymous Jul 6, 2011 4:27pm

Gotta watch for those dragons…

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anonymous Jul 6, 2011 9:32am

You did not mention that focusing on the breath also makes us happy! And, why shouldn't it? I mean, breath is our most vital need, the one we would miss first if it were gone. You would think it would bring us great delight, more pleasure than food or sex even. Yet, the brain also has a tendency to rapidly take for granted that which is constant, and search for what is new and dramatic. So, we must first be drowning before we truly love our breathing. Which is really no way to live, when the joy of breathing is there for us always if we only pay attention. And as we learn to love our breath, so we learn to love all that is around us, even if we have seen it before, been there, done that.

    anonymous Jul 6, 2011 5:41pm

    Good point timful, you leave me wondering here. Does paying attention to our breath make us happy?. It is such a good question/proposition that I think I must think further on this, you have just given me food for thought… It definitelly brings us to the present like you say, it makes us more aware, more awake, I think you are on to something here!

anonymous Jul 6, 2011 6:03am

Great article!! and I totally agree w/ this: "I think we need to demystify pranyama, get it out in the open, and practice it… 🙂 "

If I am anxious or stressed or irritated, for me, 10 minutes of pranayama is better than an hour of hatha!

    anonymous Jul 6, 2011 5:39pm

    Totally true, when well directed it can be very helfpu. I used to do nadi sodhana before meetings and it was a blessing!

anonymous Jul 6, 2011 4:28am

Thanks Claudia

Yam ( Yama )

Niyam ( Niyama )

Asan ( Asana )

Pranayam ( Pranayama )

Pratyahar ( Pratyahara )

Dharan ( Dharana )

Dhyan ( Dhyana )

Yog (a) is a complete Life Style.

Yog est le style de vie complet.

Yog ist ein vollstandiger Lebensstil.

    anonymous Jul 6, 2011 4:51am

    Good, looks like you know your limbs! and yes, it is complete life style indeed 🙂

    anonymous Jul 6, 2011 11:32pm

    Yes, written and spoken is different, right?

anonymous Jul 6, 2011 4:19am

Ha ha ha Sue 🙂 it was just a joke, but I get a feeling you knew that hee hee

anonymous Jul 6, 2011 4:07am

What did I miss? Why avoid if a dragon?

anonymous Jul 5, 2011 7:42am

Thank you so much, Claudia!! I have read in your recent book that typically pranayama is taught/practiced more during the 3rd or 4th series of Ashtanga (although there aren't really any 'written' rules) – do you agree with this or what are your thoughts about this? 🙂

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    anonymous Jul 5, 2011 8:11am

    WellWell, that is the word on the street, but recently I heard that Sharath has began teaching it, although I cannot confirm that…. What I will say is this…

    Ramaswami recently said in his facebook page that he studied with Krishnamacharya for over 30 years and in all that time he does not remember one single class in which there was not some pranayama chanting and meditation together with the asana…

    I think we need to demystify pranyama, get it out in the open, and practice it… 🙂

anonymous Jul 6, 2011 5:39pm

Really? with one lung only? that is interesting, would love to hear more, where did you learn that? very curious here…

I agree with the biggest issue is where and when, and also how. Having a proper environment so the practice can take root and the magic begin. I was hoping you would comment.

And about it being hard, yes, maybe, the hardest part perhaps maybe to stick to a practice, I find that what you say about kapalbhati and nadi sodhana, maybe without kumbhaka in the beginning, is a great start, and perhaps no so hard…

anonymous Jul 7, 2011 5:02am

hm, cool, thank you for that, I will google him and of course paperwork would be interesting…

I read Light on Pranayama and you are quite right that it is good, however, the one I recommend here in the article by Lysebeth is, in my eyes, better. Iyengar for example barely mentions kapalbhati if you see the book it has only a slight mention, while lysebeth goes all out on it, and also on lots of things that pertein to us westerners in particular, which he was (he was either Belgium or French)

and on the 4 times a day, I hear you…