Recommended Seated Postures
Any sitting posture may be used for performing pranayama as long as the spine is erect and the hands rest on the knees. However, it is optimal if one of the meditation postures is assumed. The main meditative poses are Padmaasana (Lotus Pose) and Swastikaasana (Favorable Pose). The practice of Ujjayi pranayama, though, may be done even while standing or walking.
However you are seated, either in a chair, on a cushion, or on the floor, please make sure that the legs are comfortable and that the spine is completely erect. The head should be straight, the shoulders back, but relaxed. Arms should be gently placed on the knees, or at your side, and relaxed. Make sure that there is no tension or leaning to any one side. A straight, steady posture is ideal. if the posture is crooked, a lot of the benefit will be lost. If it’s too crooked, it can be harmful to do pranayama. While inhaling, the chest is forced to expand, and if simultaneously the crooked posture restricts it, the system undergoes strain.
To know that you are sitting straight when in a cross-legged posture, feel that your entire bodyweight is falling on your buttocks. if you are leaning back too much, there will be somewhat of a gentle feeling of lifting up the knees. If you are leaning forward, you will see a little extra weight on the knees. So, you should be seated like a triangle with the weight equally distributed.
The body should be fully relaxed. Tension means wastage of prana and distraction of the mind to the area of tension. When the body is relaxed and the spine is erect, the subtle energy can easily flow and awaken the forces within. If at any time during your practice you feel any tension in the body, you can gently stretch out and then resume a straight and steady posture once again.
When to Practice
Prana can never be polluted by anything. So even if the air around you is polluted, that’s no excuse not to practice pranayama. Between 4 A.M. to 6 A.M., the ozone is more abundant. That’s one of the reasons we recommend this as a wonderful time to practice pranayama, and it’s also the best time to practice meditation.
Pranayama is an excellent preparation for meditation. Since the mind and the breath are closely related, you can calm the mind by regulating the breath. Do three to five rounds of rapid breathing (either Kapaalabhaaati or Bastrika), followed by five to ten minutes of alternate nostril breathing (either Naadi Suddhi or Sukha Purvaka). Your selection will depend on whether or not you are ready for retention in your practice. The rapid breathing energizes and awakens the system, while the alternate breathing calms and focuses the mind. The result is a very alert, yet calm and centered mind, ideal for meditation.
Pranayama should also be done after asana practice. If you are really busy, you can reduce the number of asanas, but pranayama should always be included in your practice. That is very important. Pranayama and meditation are food for the soul. So after the asanas, spend some time in deep relaxation, and then do several rounds of rapid breathing, followed by a period of alternate nostril breathing. other breathing techniques can also be done, but rapid and alternate nostril breathing are the main ones and should always be included.
For improving health, it’s good to have three sessions of pranayama daily, focusing on the rapid and alternate breathing practices. Gradually develop your capacity so you can comfortably practice for thirty minutes in a session.
Pranayama should never be practiced soon after eating. Wait at least several hours until the stomach feels light. It should also never be done in strong, direct sunlight, or if you feel too tired or exhausted.
How to Practice
The earth has a gravitational force. It draws everything toward it. Your body is part of the earth. The entire body grows out of earthly elements so there is a close affinity between your body and the earth. When you do pranayama or meditate you can stop the magnetic pull that the earth exerts on you by insulating your body. That is why it is often recommended that you sit on a wooden plank or a folded blanket when doing these practices.
Except for the two cooling breaths, all the breathing is done through the nose, not the mouth. The nose performs many functions that aid respiration, among them: warming, moisturizing and filtering the air. If one or both of the nostrils are blocked, you can try some jala neti (nasal cleansing) before doing pranayama. This can be done once daily, and the technique is described at the end of this section.
During pranayama, concentration should be inward to observe what is happening. On the inhalation and exhalation, concentrate on the flow of the breath and try to keep it smooth and even. During retention, just look within and see what is happening. For each person it will be different. Be conscious of the great benefits of taking in and preserving prana as you practice.
All retention should always be done at the throat, not at the nose, even if the nose is blocked. For the retention in Sukha Purvaka, the pressure should not be felt at the nose, but at the throat. The greatness and benefit of pranayama lie in the controlled exhalation. So try to always have the exhalation slow, smooth, and controlled. If retention is done beyond one’s capacity, the exhalation cannot be easy.
The ancient yogis measured how much vitality was wasted by our different activities. They determined that the faster and further the breath traveled from the body, the greater the wastage of prana. For this reason, they concluded that the exhalation, in particular, should not be done fast. This is the reason why we regulate the exhalation more and do it slowly during the pranayama practice. The slower the exhalation, the shorter the distance the breath travels from the body, and the less prana is wasted.
You should always use your discretion and practice only according to your capacity. Stop and rest if ever you feel any strain. Regular practitioners who wish to have an extended pranayama session including all the techniques can use the following guidelines. However, at all times, be sure that you do not strain or go beyond your capacity. Please note that Deergha Swaasam and Ujjayi are not listed separately, as they can be incorporated into Naadi Suddhi and Sukha Purvaka.
Naadi Suddhi 3-5 minutes
Kapaalabhaati 3 rounds
Bastrika 3 rounds
Sitali 5 rounds
Sitkaari 5 rounds
Sukha Purvaka 10-15 minutes
Brahmari 3 minutes
As your practice develops, you can reduce the amount of time spent in Naadi Suddhi and Kapaalabhaati and spend more time in Sukha Purvaka and Bastrika.
Jala, or water neti, helps to prevent colds and cleanses the nasal passages. It can be done with the help of a neti pot, a small pot with a spout on the end designed specifically for this practice. You can also use a teacup or the palm of your hand to hold the water you will use. Use warm (body temperature) salt water (1/2 teaspoon per cup). If you are using a neti pot, as you lean over the sink, tilt your head to one side and pour the water solution in the upper nostril and let it run out of the other. Then, reverse and pour the water into the other nostril. You can also tilt your head back, pour the water into each nostril, and spit it out of the mouth.
If using a cup or if you are cupping water in the palm of your hand, lean over a sink and tilt your head to one side, close the upper nostril with one finger and then draw in the water through the lower nostril into the mouth. Spit out the water and then repeat this process on the other side.
To derive the maximum benefit, go slowly in developing your practice. Be patient. Pranayama should never be done in a hurry; nor should you try to advance too quickly, because you are dealing with vital energy. The Yoga scriptures personify prana as the deadly cobra. So remember, you are playing with a cobra. Pranayama is a very powerful practice which can bring certain extraordinary powers. One should adhere to certain moral and ethical principles and have good control over the mischievous mind, so as to avoid being tempted to misuse these powers. Therefore, pranayama should be approached carefully. Because you are dealing with such delicate organs as the lungs, the heart, and the nerve centers, you should take great care not to strain any part of the system by overdoing your practice. Do everything gently, avoid even the slightest strain, and never hurry. When practiced faithfully, with full attention toward all the instructions given, you will safely derive great benefits from your practice.
Special Note to Women: We recommend that women suspend the rapid breathing practices (Kapaalabhaati and Bastrika) during their menstrual period and also for 2 or 3 days afterward. Pregnant women, who are regular practitioners, may continue practice for about the first three months, but leave out kapaalabhaati and bastika thereafter. After childbirth, considering the condition of the body, women may restart kapaalabhaati and bastrika after the fourth or fifth month. For pregnant women who are new to Yoga but want to practice pranayama, we suggest only some gentle deep breathing and gentle naadi suddhi during pregnancy and for six months after childbirth.
Age: At all ages and in all conditions of the body-stiff, tense, overweight, etc., you can start practicing pranayama. However, if you have high blood pressure or coronary disease, you should not even practice kapaalabhaati or bastrika without first consulting your physician. These practices are in no way intended as a substitute for medical treatment and we advise consulting your physician before beginning this or any exercise or Yoga program.
Beginners: Beginners should not be in a hurry and thereby strain themselves. They should do the breathing techniques to their our capacity—without the least strain. Regular practice will gradually lead to perfection. The same warning applies to those who restart pranayama practice even after an interval of a few weeks.
Limits: Please carefully follow all the instructions in this program, particularly for retention of breath and length of practice. Pranayama is perhaps the most powerful and subtle practice in the entire system of Hatha Yoga, therefore it is essential to slowly and carefully develop your practice.