Before diving into the different techniques of Pranayama, it is important to review the physical aspects of breathing and the subtle aspects of Prana. It is necessary to cover the essential preparatory aspects before moving on to actual practice.
Breathing and vital breath
Anatomy and biomechanics of respiration
Let’s begin our exploration of Pranayama at the physical level, by a brief reminder of the breathing anatomy. Let’s explain these necessary foundations to then continue our journey towards more subtle aspects.
The respiratory system, in connection with the cardiovascular system, is responsible for providing oxygen to our organism and eliminating carbon dioxide. These exchanges are made at two levels: by the lungs (external respiration) and by tissues and cells (internal respiration).
An important feature is that this system can be unconscious and automatic or conscious and voluntary. The part of the brain in charge of regulating respiration is the medulla oblongata (or elongated medulla). Hatha Yoga is of course based on conscious and voluntary breathing, which differentiates us from animals, and helps link the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind.
In addition to the lungs, breathing engages or impacts a large part of the body:
- bone structure: ribs (flexible and elastic) and the spine which connects the different areas concerned by respiration (rib cage, pelvis, shoulder girdle, cervical and skull);
- muscles: inspiratory muscles like the diaphragm and the rib muscles and expiratory muscles like the abdominals and the pelvic floor;
- organs: lungs, upper airways (nose, mouth, pharynx, larynx, trachea) and abdominal viscera (stomach, liver, kidneys, spleen, pancreas, angles of the large intestine).
The dynamics of respiration can be represented as a pump mechanism composed of two compartments or chambers:
- the thoracic chamber;
- the abdominal box.
These two boxes are inseparable and the movement of one drives the other and vice versa.
The thoracic chamber is mainly filled with air and is elastic: it can be compressed or decompressed. This allows the lung tissue to naturally return to its original position after being stretched.
The abdominal box is made up of viscera which can’t be compressed. It is like a liquid pocket where any deformation in one place necessarily has repercussions in another. The pelvic floor is the foundation of the abdominal chamber and therefore of breathing.
These two boxes are separated and linked by the diaphragm. This is a parachute-shaped muscle on which the lungs are placed and which covers the abdominal viscera. Its highest point is a little above the breastbone and the lowest in the back at waist level (L3 vertebra). It is the main inspiratory muscle, which acts like a piston: it contracts on inspiration and descends downwards, drawing the chest chamber and creating a depression in the lungs. This causes the entry of outside air into the thoracic chamber and the increase in its volume.
Natural expiration is passive compared to inspiration: the diaphragm relaxes and rises, air is expelled from the thoracic chamber and the lungs naturally return to their starting position. In a way we can say that the expiration is done by elasticity.
Natural and automatic breathing can be consciously altered. For example the expiration can be activated by contraction of the abdominal muscles. Airflow can also be stopped or lengthened by contraction of the glottis, closing of the mouth and nose, or by muscle suspension.
The sigh corresponds to a relaxation of the diaphragm and the breathing muscles because only the elasticity of the lungs is used to exhale. It is a good witness and means of relaxation.
The diaphragm is linked to a large number of fascias and therefore plays a central role in the transmission of kinetic energy in the body. Breathing therefore affects the whole body.
In summary, breathing is impacted by many anatomical components in addition to external factors such as gravity, pressure or the body supporting points. It is possible to consciously influence breathing by acting on these different components, which gives a very important combination. Breathing is a global gesture which can be very subtle in its variations. For example :
- diaphragmatic inspiration in two stages: first the top of the parachute descends and then the edges move apart along with the ribs;
- rib inspiration: the rib muscles are mobilized to enlarge the thoracic chamber;
- thoracic expiration: the ribs tighten by contraction of the intercostal muscles and the sternum, lowering of the rib cage and pulling the ribs towards the pelvis;
- abdominal expiration: the waist tightens by contraction of the abdominal muscles and the abdomen also rises under the action of the pelvic floor.
The practice of asana helps prepare the different regions of the body involved in breathing: bones and joints, muscles, organs and viscera. For example :
- soften the intercostal muscles: stretching of the Half Moon type (Ardha chandrasana);
- mobilize the joint between ribs and vertebrae: twists sitting or lying down;
- curve the ribs: postures on the stomach such as the Grasshopper (Salambhasana) or Bow (Dhanurasana);
- stretch the pectorals: different variants of the Crocodile (Makarasana);
- stretch the diaphragm: postures with arms upwards as in Warrior I (Virabhadrasana I) or backward (lying down);
- open the back ribs: breathing in the Child’s posture;
It is therefore relevant to practice asana before pranayama. It restores good physiological breathing before moving on to more energetic exercises. Indeed most people are in paradoxical breathing: on inspiration the ribs open exaggeratedly by stretching the lungs and rising the belly, while on the expiration the ribs fall back and the belly bulges. It is the opposite of diaphragmatic breathing: the respiratory capacity is reduced by the opposite action of the abdominal chamber and the pelvic floor is not engaged. This breathing appears in shock and intense anxiety and should not be a default mode.
Subtle anatomy and dynamics
After the physical body let us now move on to the subtle body. Here is a summary of the core concepts presented in our series Yoga for the subtle body.
Tantra and Hatha Yoga traditions have mapped and described the subtle body in details. Prana is the fundamental concept of body energy, manifested from the universal consciousness. Present in all aspects of reality, it is the vital energy which animates our body. Prana is not limited to the body but extends to the whole manifestation. It is also not limited to the air we breathe, it is the life force itself. Prana enters the body via the nose and lungs but also via the skin (solar Prana), tongue (taste of food) and even thoughts.
Prana enters the body in different qualities of energy or vital breaths called vayu. This creates the configuration and dynamics of the subtle body (cf. articles devoted to vayu and their dynamics from our Yoga for the Subtle Body series).
Prana circulates in the different envelopes or kosha constituting the body and puts them in relation via the Pranamaya kosha (read our article The 3 bodies and the 5 sheaths from the Yoga for the Subtle Body series). In this subtle body, the Prana travels along energy channels named nadi, connected to energy centers such as Chakra, Adhara and Marma (read our article Nadi and chakra from the Yoga for the Subtle Body series). This personal Prana radiates around the body and constitutes its aura (vadasanta). Surya chakra or Hridaya chakra, already mentioned in previous articles, corresponds to the solar plexus which is located under the diaphragm.
The Prana surplus is stored in the brain and nerve centers. In the energetic body, its circulation is organized by the following three chakras:
- Manipura: generation site of Prana in the subtle body;
- Muladhara: storage site of Prana ;
- Ajna: distribution site of Prana in the rest of the body.
Hatha Yoga works on the physical and subtle bodies (energetic but also mental) to reconfigure their subtle dynamics and reach the causal body. To do so, it is necessary to balance the Ida and Pingala nadi, to open the central Sushumna nadi and awake the Kundalini energy.
Once the Energy (Shakti) reunited with Consciousness (Shiva), the yogi reaches states of consciousness beyond individuality. The Amrita produced in the brain can then be transformed into divine nectar and distributed through the whole body.
Pranayama techniques are part of this tantric process of reintegrating energy and consciousness.
Preparation for Pranayama practice
Pranayama is a set of powerful and transformative techniques that go beyond simple breathing exercises. It should be approached with caution and accompanied by an experienced teacher. There are certain prerequisites to be carried out to prepare the nervous system to be able to receive and manage the energy created by the Pranayama and avoid overloading or even damaging it.
It is not recommended to practice energetic techniques like kapalabhati and bhastrika (described in the next article of this series) or full lung retention in case of problems with heart, eyes, ears, high blood pressure, colds, lung weakness, asthma, anxiety and of panic attacks.
Also, retention with empty lungs should be avoided in cases of low blood pressure, extreme fatigue or depression. In general, avoid these exercises in case of congested lungs.
Regular Pranayama practice may induce symptoms related to the elimination of toxins such as itching, tingling, sensations of heat or cold, lightness or heaviness. These are temporary phenomena, if they persist it is recommended to consult an experienced teacher.
Through the nose
The nose is one of the most important sensors of Prana for Yoga.
The olfactory bulb and nerves are shown in yellow in the image above. There is a direct link between the brain and the mucous membrane located at the top of the nasal cavity. This mucous membrane, which covers 10% of the surface, is in charge of smell and also body and mind regulation. Aromatherapy is based on this double body-mind action.
It is recommended to breathe through the nose: beyond filtering, humidifying and heating the inspired air it also measures its subtle qualities. To maximize Prana absorption, consciously send the air flow to this membrane, like smelling the scent of a flower. Also spread the wings of the nose on inspiration to increase the surface in contact with the air flow. In doing so, the breath becomes conscious, active and maximizes the absorption of Prana from the air. It is like tasting the Prana.
The nose can also regulate the length of breath (the distance out of the nostrils where the flow of air is felt). To achieve calm breathing, imagine a candle in front of your nose: the flame should not be disturbed by your breathing.
There is a sister discipline of Pranayama named Svara Yoga. This is the science of Prana flow related to the elements and Moon/Sun cycles.
Through language and food
The tongue is another important sensor of Prana contained in food. Hatha Yoga texts prescribe a balanced and moderated diet when practicing Pranayama. Advanced techniques might even require adapted diets to be determined and personalized by a qualified teacher.
When we eat food, it divides itself into three parts. The grossest part of it becomes excreta; that which is less gross becomes our flesh; and the finest part becomes our mind.Chandyoga Upanishad – 6.5.1
Here are some general recommendations to better absorb Prana when feeding:
- do not eat if you are not salivating, this is an indication that your body is not or no longer hungry;
- eat when Pingala nadi (linked to the fire element and digestion) is active, this generally comes down to classic meal times;
- regularly drink pure water, which is sufficient to quench thirst;
- remain moderate in quantity as in quality, the classical texts recommend to fill half of the stomach with solid food, a quarter with liquid and reserve the last quarter for the circulation of the breath;
- chew the food while it has flavor, this is an indication that it still contains Prana ;
- eat in a calm and inspiring environment: thoughts and emotions affect the quality of Prana absorbed, practice of silence (mauna) is ideal during meals and allows you to focus on eating and its subtle aspect.
We already mentioned that many people breathe paradoxically and do not use their diaphragm optimally. Before Pranayama exercises it is essential to re-educate breathing with more regular and natural modes and lung capacity. This impacts the physical body but also thoughts and emotions management.
The very first step is to observe your breathing without interfering. The easiest way is to do it in a comfortable lying position. Follow the path of the breath in the body, identify the different zones engaged and identify the type of breathing in place: rather thoracic or abdominal.
Practice on areas of the body
Still lying down, place your hands on your stomach, one on the pubis and the other on the navel. Inhale, imagining sending air into the stomach as if to inflate a balloon on inspiration. Let the balloon stretch and both hands rise under the air pressure. You may feel a slight resistance in the perineum without trying to provoke it. With practice and when you have tuned the sensation of your diaphragm, you can feel the connection between the perineum and the diaphragm, which are both affected by Mula Bandha. Then let the balloon deflate on the exhale without contracting the abdominals. Take several abdominal breaths for 5 to 10 minutes without trying to voluntarily engage the rib cage.
Then move on to chest (or rib) breathing by placing the hands at the level of the floating ribs. Feel the ribs pull apart as you breathe in and send the air through the chest. Let the ribs come down naturally when exhaling. Practice for 5 to 10 minutes. This breathing is adapted for effort but can also be generated unconsciously by stress and anxiety and lead to paradoxical breathing.
These two exercises help differentiate the two respiratory chambers and develop the lower and middle areas of the lungs. The upper part of the lungs is engaged by clavicular respiration which is used in complete respiration.
This complete breathing engages the whole of the lungs by chaining the abdominal, thoracic then clavicular respiration where the air is finally sent under the collarbones and makes them rise slightly (as when one sobs). Exhalation occurs by deflating the balloon of the abdomen, allowing the ribs and collarbones to descend. Ptractice regularly for 5 to 10 minutes to develop your lung capacity and inner sensitivity by gradually increasing the amount of air you breathe in. It can then be performed while standing and sitting.
Once these paradoxical breathing deconditioning exercises are well integrated, a more subtle work can start: diaphragmatic breathing which is the intermediary between chest and abdominal respiration. The goal is to find the balance between high and low polarities, between attention and relaxation, to find the natural breathing of babies or animals.
The following exercises help working of the diaphragm.
In the first one, the body is engaged (by the weight and the muscles) in such a way that on inspiration the upper body is lifted by the action of the diaphragm.
In the second exercise, the diaphragm moves the lumbar and lower body up and down.
Once diaphragmatic breathing has been relearned, it can be practiced standing, seated or in any situation. It is adapted to Pranayama and meditation.
Practice on the respiratory rate
Increased sensitivity and lung capacity can also be achieved by exercising the breathing rate. It involves voluntarily breathing to control both inhalation and exhalation.
For example, double the time of exhalation compared to inspiration. This 1: 2 ratio relaxes the body and mind (much like when you sigh deeply). Then switch to a 1: 1 ratio to feel the differences. The duration of inspiration does not matter, keep it natural. It’s the ratio that matters here.
Another practice is to split up inhale and / or exhale phases. This breathing is called Viloma Pranayama and it helps develop breath control and duration. This involves taking several pauses during inspiration and / or expiration to fill or empty the lungs in stages.
You can gradually increase the number of steps without ever straining or putting yourself in a situation of discomfort.
Following these preparatory exercises you could add periods of breath retention but this already brings us to the techniques of Pranayama which will be described in the second article of this series.
By other means
The nose, tongue and lungs are not the only means of capturing the Prana. It can also be picked up by the other senses of perception:
- touch: exposure of the skin to the sun to capture Prana ;
- sight: visualization or concentration on yantra or natural landscapes;
- hearing: listening to inspiring music or mantra, practicing Nada Yoga.
In Ayurveda sexual abstinence is seen as a way to conserve the vital energy contained in seminal fluids in the form of Ojas, Tejas and Prana (which are the essences of Kapha, Pitta and Vata dosha). Hatha Yoga exercises, in particular Pranayama, allow to transmute the Ojas accumulated by abstinence into the Amrita nectar stored in the higher centers of the brain. Then with additional Hatha Yoga practices, Amrita and Kundalini merge and produce universal Prana.
Sexual energy which is refined and transmuted as it goes up the centers of consciousness: animal sexual energy, relationship with a partner, building a family, love unconditional, spiritual union, mystical marriage with the divine.
Cleanse and purify the body
Cassical Hatha Yoga texts position Pranayama after cleaning / purifying practices (Shatkarma) and postures (Asana). They specify that Pranayama should not be approached without having prepared the body.
Hatha Yoga cleansing and purification techniques are discussed in a dedicated article. They are designed to purify the physical body of toxins and excess (phlegm, bile, fat), to stimulate the vital force and prepare for other Yoga techniques.
There are several practices and variants described in classical texts:
- Dhauti: purification of the digestive system;
- Basti: purification of the lower abdomen;
- Neti: nasal purification;
- Nauli: abdominal purification;
- Trataka: eye purification;
- Kapalabhati: purification of the frontal lobes of the head.
For Pranayama the yogi should pay particular attention to Neti.
The postures (asana) and their sequences (vinyasa krama) allow to soften the muscle fibers necessary for breathing (intercostals, diaphragm, pelvic floor) but also to balance the energy flow in the nadi. Subtle pose exercises induce circulation of the vayu in the energetic body.
Breathing in the posture is done according to this principle: where attention goes, energy goes (Drishti Manaha Prana). The physical and energetic bodies are then aligned and prepared for the long and still sitting position of Pranayama.
The following postures are suitable for physical preparation for Pranayama: cobra (diaphragm), downward dog (lungs) and inverted postures (opening of the lower lungs and irrigation of the upper lungs). Warm-ups sequences of both physical and energetic bodies are also possible (like Pawanmuktasana, Sukshma Vyayama or Kundalini Yoga warm-up).
It is not recommended to practice asana right after Pranayama exercises. A least start with a 30-minutes relaxation.
Pranayama is traditionally done in a sitting position with crossed legs. This is to keep the column elongated with its natural curvature. For the vast majority of people, it is necessary to sit on a folded blanket or a cushion to avoid bad positioning of the lumbar hollow or the upper back.
When sitting on the floor, adjust the height of the cushion so that the knees touch the floor, which releases tension in the legs and groin area. The trunk should neither be leaned too far forward (abdominals are then too engaged), nor too sagged (abdominals are then difficult to engage). For the diaphragmatic breathing to be easy to place. Use props like bricks or blankets to ajust the pose or even sit in a chair if necessary.
The other important thing, along with position of the spine, is to put yourself in a stable and comfortable posture that you can hold for several minutes. Use your own breathing to hold the spine: with each inhalation imagine a column of air that straightens you and suspends you in Heaven, with each exhalation maintain this feeling of elevation while relaxing all your body and abandoning it to Earth.
The image above recalls the sitting postures described in the classic texts of Hatha Yoga.
Space and time of Pranayama
A fundamental point in Pranayama is regularity, whether in time or in space.
It is recommended to always practice in the same place. Ideally, a place or a room dedicated to Yoga and meditation. Such a place will gradually increase its vibratory level.
It must be well ventilated without being too exposed to the wind and rather isolated to avoid interruptions.
It is best to practice every day and always at the same time. Classical texts recommend to practice Pranayama four times a day: early in the morning, at noon, in the evening and at night.
If you can’t practice as much, prefer early mornings. Ideally around Bhrama hour (Brahmamuhurta), or 1h30 before sunrise, which is considered the most auspicious period for spiritual work. Take your shower before practicing or at least half an hour after (to allow your body temperature time to stabilize).
You can also practice in the evening, at sunset or before bed. Avoid dynamic techniques that could affect your sleep. Also be sure to practice three to four hours after meals.
The minimum duration is usually between 10 and 15 minutes, but you can of course practice longer. Increase duration as you progress in Pranayama exercises. This aspect will be dealt with in the next article in this series.
This first article exposed the necessary bases to approach serenely Pranayama practice. The different techniques will be described in the next article. Until then, you can already perform the breathing exercises suggested to prepare yourself properly!