Would you like to have more energy in your day? Does a lack of focus interfere with your ability to reach your dreams? Do you have trouble sleeping? By building and enhancing your life force – or prana – you can help with all these areas of your health – and more. Best of all, it’s easy and free to create measurable improvements. The way is through pranayama.
What is Pranayama?
Simply put, pranayama is the practice of working with your breath. We all breathe. It’s a critical aspect of human life. You can survive up to three weeks without food and up to three days without water. But just three minutes without oxygen, and most bodies begin to break down. Breath is just that important to us. Still, many of us take our breath for granted. We don’t pay attention to just how critical that inflow of oxygen and outflow of carbon dioxide are to our health.
Numerous studies demonstrate how the action of breathing not only maintains the cleanliness of our blood and bodily systems, but the actual motion of breathing is tied directly into our how brain works. It makes sense. The human body evolved over millions of years to ensure that every breath was cared for as attentively as possible. Three minutes is only 180 seconds. A mere 180 seconds separates each of us from serious brain damage and death.
Our brains are hard-wired to pay extremely close attention to how we are breathing. If we are breathing quickly, our body ramps up systems to prepare for action. If we are breathing slowly and deeply, our body takes this as a cue to relax and replenish.
We can take advantage of all of these innate body systems through the act of controlled, regulated breathing, through pranayama.
Making Time for Pranayama
With pranayama being so critical to overall health, and it being easy and free, why don’t more people incorporate pranayama into their daily schedule?
The answer is often that people simply forget.
This is why it’s a good idea to build a routine around pranayama. If you just do it “when you remember to” or “when you have time”, it’s likely to be forgotten or pushed aside. Instead, make it a normal, natural part of your morning pattern, just like brushing your teeth and washing your face. The more that pranayama is an established step in your wake-up sequence, the more that it gets done. That investment of time then benefits your entire day. Every action you take for the rest of the day will have more energy and focus. Your sleep that evening will be fuller and richer. That will ensure you wake up the next morning full of vitality, and the cycle improves day by day.
The key is to build it right into that morning routine. Yes, wash your face, brush your teeth, and use the bathroom. Do those initial tasks. And then move into the pranayama. That way the refreshing of your life force can lift every other task you do.
Which Pranayama Should I Do?
Just as your diet should flow naturally with the seasons, so should you consider moving through different pranayama as the seasons change.
Spring – Bhastrika / Bellows Breath
Spring is a time of rebirth. Renewal. It’s also a time of pollen, allergies, and a need for fresh energy to tackle chores and hobbies. The perfect pairing for spring is bhastrika, or bellows breath.
As you might imagine, bellows breath is an energetic lung-clearing activity. Sit in a comfortable position and stretch tall. Draw in a hard, deep breath, causing your ribs to open wide. Then blow out your air just as strongly, pressing the air and toxins out of you. For about twenty seconds, keep this bellows going. In. Out. Focus equally on both halves. Bring in the oxygen. Blow out the toxins. Sit tall. Draw in full air. Blow out everything.
After the twenty seconds, breathe normally. Relish the new energy your system has brought in.
Summer – Sheetali / Cooling Breath
Our Earth is experiencing scorching summers. We continually crash through high-temperature records and heat waves are our new normal. It’s no wonder that so many people crave a cooling breath to regain some sense of balance.
A sheetali breath is a gentle, relaxing one. If possible, choose a cool place to sit. Sit in a comfortable position and stretch tall. Draw your attention to your tongue. Curl it into a tube and gently draw your breath in, cooling it as you do. Then close your mouth and touch your tongue’s tip to the roof of your mouth. Imagine cool energy flowing up into your nose as you slowly breathe air out through your nose.
Breathe this way for a few minutes – anywhere up to five minutes. The slow, cooling breaths will bring a sense of coolness, calm, and peace.
Autumn and Winter – Nadi Shodhana / Alternate Nostril Breathing
For many of us, autumn and winter are stressful times. This is the season of going back to school, of ending summer vacation, of dealing with holidays and buying things and any number of other challenges. It’s no wonder that nadi shodhana – also called channel purifying breath – is so useful at this stage.
Sit in a comfortable position. Draw yourself tall.
This pranayama involves a particular hand position, or mudra. It is known as the mrigi, or deer, mudra. To make this, first make a fist with your dominant hand. Let the thumb fall free. Next, stretch out both the ring (third) and pinky (fourth) fingers. This will be challenging at first, if you haven’t tried to move your fingers independently before. Be patient with it. Over time your muscles will learn these new skills, which is good in general. It’s OK if they have a gentle curl to them for now. The main aim is to have a fist with the thumb available on one side and the ring/pinky fingers available on the other.
Bring your hand up to your face. Be attentive about not bringing your face down to your hand. You want your face up and pointing forward. Turn your hand so your fingernails face your nose.
Start with your ring/pinky fingers closing the nostril nearest them. If you are right-handed that will be your left nostril. If you are left-handed that is your right nostril. Use the sensitive tip of your fingers to gently close the nostril. Inhale slowly through the free nostril.
Reverse. Close the opposite nostril with your thumb. Gently. Exhale slowly. Now inhale again.
Reverse. Close the opposite nostril with your ring / pinky fingers. Gently. Exhale slowly. Now inhale again.
Each time, draw a longer breath. Each time, release a deeper exhale. Be attentive to what you are doing. Be mindful of the feeling of the breath moving past the open nostril. Be aware of just how powerful that breath is. How important. How life-bringing.
Repeat this for seven cycles.
Pranayama brings us to the very core of our being. To the breath which sustains us. To the prana which lies beneath every moment we experience. Pranayama improves our daily energy, our blood circulation, our focus, our stress levels, and so much more.
There are few other things in our world which involve such a tiny investment of time and energy and which reap such stunning rewards. Pranayama is completely free and available to individuals of all health levels, income levels, and backgrounds.
Invest in yourself. Introduce pranayama in your Ayurveda morning routine. You will wonder why you haven’t been doing this your entire life.