Pranayama is often overlooked as its flamboyant sister, asana, tends to take centre stage in yoga classes these days. Many practitioners have the misconception that pranayama is a waste of their time, that dedicating time in class to pranayama is just shortchanging them of the full hour they had paid good money for to get a good workout.
What many people fail to realise is that breath is very much an integral part of the physical practice of yoga. Without a controlled and consistent breath, holding a pose becomes a big challenge as the mind loses focus and the body starts to tense. When the breath is steady, moving through each asana becomes a breeze as both mind and body are focused yet relaxed at the same time.
I came into yoga not knowing about pranayama until almost a year into my practice where I was slowly introduced to 3 types of pranayama:
Ujjayi (Victorious or Ocean Breath)
This pranayama simulates the soft soothing sound of ocean waves and is thought to enhance the relaxation response that comes with slow breathing.
How to do it: Take a full deep inhale, then constrict the throat during the exhale to create the sound of ocean waves. This completes one full cycle.
Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing with Breath Retention)
This pranayama involves alternating inhales and exhales between the right and left nostrils, with breath retention after each inhale.
How to do it: Using your right hand, close it into a fist and extend the thumb, ring and pinky fingers to form the Vishnu Mudra. Cover the right nostril with the thumb and exhale fully through the left nostril before inhaling for 6 seconds, then cover the left nostril with the ring finger and hold the breath for 12 seconds. Release the thumb from the right nostril and exhale for 12 seconds, then inhale through the right nostril for 6 seconds. Cover the right nostril with the thumb and hold the breath for 12 seconds, then release the ring finger from the left nostril and exhale through the left nostril for 12 seconds. This completes one full cycle.
Kumbhaka (Breath Retention)
This pranayama involves holding the breath to increase pressure inside the lungs which gives them time to fully expand and increasing their capacity. There are two types of kumbhaka – antar kumbhaka (cessation of breath when inhalation is complete) and bahya kumbhaka (cessation of breath when exhalation is complete).
How to do it: In Ujjayi, antar kumbhaka may be practised by holding the breath after the inhale for every 2-3 cycles of Ujjayi breath. In Nadi Shodhana, antar kumbhaka is practised after each inhale. Bahya kumbhaka may be practised by holding the breath after a full exhale with or without locking the 3 bandhas (Jalandhara Bandha, Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha).
As aspiring teachers, we should dedicate at least the first 5 mins of our classes to introduce (for beginner classes) or practise (for intermediate or mixed level classes) pranayama so as to build up a strong foundation for our students’ asana practice.
Apart from pranayama, we should also impart to our future students the pairing of breath with asanas. Some simple guidelines for pairing of breath with asanas are as follows:
- When bending forward in an asana, exhale – this empties the lungs of air and slows down the heart rate, inducing the body to relax while making the torso more compact thus helping to increase the depth of the fold
- When lifting or opening the chest in an asana, inhale – this increases the space in the chest
- When moving into a twist in an asana, exhale – this empties the lungs of air and creates more space for the rib cage to rotate further into the twist
Claire Tan (200hr YTTC, Sep 2017 Weekday)