Why Pranayama (breath work) is an important part of my yoga practice, classes and private sessions
In the yoga sutras of Pantaji (widely regarded authoritative text on yoga) the second chapter describes 8 limbs of the actual practice of yoga. The 4th limb is manipulation of the breath. Prana means lifeforce, vitality, energy or strength and ayama means stretch, extend, regulation, restraint or control.
In my studies with the LifeForce Yoga Institute I have learnt the importance on manipulation of the breath and how it affects a person’s health (specifically mental and emotional health).
The human body is made up of 3 different blood gases, nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide.When we inhale, we are activating the sympathetic nervous system by bringing more oxygen into the physical body, and vice versa for the exhale which activates the para-sympathetic nervous system which is our rest and digest nervous system. Therefore, a deep breath in which the inhales and exhale last for the same amount of time, facilitates a balanced (Sattvic) emotional state.
Hypoventilation (under breathing and shallow breathing) causes a lack of oxygen entering the physical body and a build up of carbon dioxide, which causes a Tamasic (melancholy) state.
Whereas hyperventilation (over breathing) causes excess oxygen to enter the physical body causing a Rajasic (excitable, anxious, agitated) state. The ancient yogis understood that to get out of a Tamasic state into a Sattvic state you needed to have a Rajasic practice and Tamasic practice to reduce Rajas to come into balance and end up in a Sattvic state.
Which nostril that you breath out of also affects your mood as it affects which hemisphere of the brain is dominant! When the right nostril is dominant, we tend to be more energetic and even sometimes Rajasic. When the left nostril is more dominant we are calmer, sleepier and maybe sometimes even depressed.
A lot of these pranayama practices can be enhanced with mudras (hand postures).
I use the following Pranayama and kriya (cleansing breath) practices in my practice and in some of my classes and with private one-on-one sessions to balance the mood after the mood has been met (as per the LifeForce Yoga protocol):
For the tamasic mood (depressed, low mood):
All of these practices encourage more breath (oxygen)to enter the body, by making the inhalation longer or encourage rapid breathing which is what is required to rebalance back into a Sattvic state from the Tamasic state:
- Breath of Joy
- Power Hara (this also stimulates Manipura Chakra to help improve self esteem)
- Surya Bheda (right nostril breathing that should be balanced off with Nadi Shodana (alternate nostril breathing) afterwards
- Kapalabhati (skull shining breath through the nostrils that also stimulates Manipura Chakra)
For the Rajasic mood (anxious, agitated):
Where excess oxygen needs to be removed, which is why all of these practices encourage excess breath to exit the body by increasing the exhalation:
Chandra Bheda (left nostril breathing) that should be balanced off with Nadi Shodana (alternate nostril breathing) afterwards.
- Brahmari (bee breath) with Shanmukhi mudra
- Khumbaka (breath retention for a long period) with Adhi Mudra
- Breath to stimulate the nerves
For the Sattvic mood:
- Dirga Pranayama (yogic 3 part breath)
- Nadi Shodana (alternate nostril breathing)
- Stair step breath
To aid sleep at night:
- Shetaali (cooling breath) and;
- Chandra Bheda (lying on the right side while lengthening the exhalation and counting the - --breaths backwards)
- Brahmari (bee breath) with Shanmukhi mudra
I also encourage Dirga Pranayama (yogic 3 part breathing) and Ujjayi (or a combination of both) during an asana practice (especially Vinyasa) to encourage a more mindful and calming practice. A yoga asana practice without breath awareness is simple just exercise!
Please note: some of these Pranayama practices have contraindications for conditions such as mania, pregnancy, asthma, high blood pressure, vertigo and sinus congestion and this needs to be considered before practicing any of these if you have any of these conditions to see which ones have the contraindications for the condition (s) you have.
Please also note: The Lifeforce Yoga practices of Bhastrika (bellows breath) and Kapalabhati are different to other styles in that they are practiced slower. For instance, Bhastrika is done with two breaths (inhale in 1 second as the arms go up, exhale for 1 second as the arms go down), in addition to this the arms go up and down to keep the breath in the upper chest, making it a safer version of Bhastrika and suitable in a yoga class.
‘Breathing is the most accessible resource you have for creating and sustaining your vital energy’. Donna Farhi
Pictured: Bee breath with Shanmukhi Mudra
Donna Farhi ‘The Breathing Book’ 1996 New York St Martin’s Griffin
B.K.S. Iyengar ‘Light on Pranayama’ 2010 New York The Crossroad Publishing Company
Amy Weintraub ‘Yoga Skills for Therapists’ 2012 New York W.W Norton