Pay attention to your breath…

Pranayama is that obscure fourth limb of yoga that has not gone mainstream yet. Will it ever? Of course!
And think of the benefits: life extension, maybe a full 100? A focused mind, glimpses of what goes on behind the curtains, peace of mind. What is there not to like?
Starting a pranayama practice is a process, it requires finding right instruction, the blessing of a good teacher, time to dedicate it to a practice, building up a routine, etc. It is a practice just as much as asana, yamas, or meditation is.
And yet, beginning is simple because pranayama starts with awareness, continues with measurement and extension, and results in a focused and peaceful mind.
 However the first step is:

Paying attention
 Here are 32 suggestions on where to place the attention and create the right environment for the magic limb to show up in our lives:

1.- Pranayama beings with noticing. Every time you remember, pay attention to how you are breathing, do not judge, just notice.

2.- Understand what it is. Prana = life force, ayama = extension. Or, prana can also be breath.
Prana is whatever you understand and name that which is keeping you alive right now, your breath, your life force and how we get more of that.

3.- The main purpose of pranayama is to extend life, so we can have those full 100 years and work at our practice for a very long time. Having a longer life is useful in practicing breath extension and with having a better chance at accomplishing or rather, experiencing the other limbs of yoga, the ones that come afterwards, which require a very long time.

4.- Then to teach us slowly, how to extend our breath, and retain it and master it.

5.- The purpose of pranayama is also to remove lethargic tendencies -or tamas-. Pranayama wakes us up and is especially useful for those of us who practice strenuous asana practices, as in some ashtangis who enjoy their series -yes I mean me-.

6.- Then to make us bright and clear in mind. As a consequence be become more clear in our thinking. Also when both nostrils are active both parts of the brain are stimulated which provides a better ability for concentration.

7.- Then to help us focus. A clear mind can withdraw into itself and focus on just one thing, which is the way of the eight limbs of yoga.

8.- Then to aid in the limbs of yoga that follow proper breathing (pratyahara, focusing, merging with the object we focus on)


9.- Notice how the way in which your spine is erected, or not, affects the way you breathe. Change your sitting position or standing position and pay attention to the interrelation of it and the breath.

10.- What nostril is most active right now? How about as soon as you wake up? How about when you wake up in the middle of the night?

11.-If one of the nostrils is blocked see if you can activate it so that both will be flowing by placing a yoga block or a small pillow under the opposite armpit and pressing the arm firmly. Did it work? If not, try laying down on the opposite side of the blocked nostril. Did that open it up? Notice what works.

12.- Is there a difference on how you feel when both nostrils are open together than when just one is open? and if so what are the differences?

13.- When you are agitated or mad, what happens to your breath?

14.- When the breath is shallow and short how do you feel? Observe especially when you feel agitated emotionally.

15.- How is your breathing when you are sick? I tend to do puffs of forced exhalations.

16.- Does your breathing change when you take a bath? I tend to yawn and breathe deeper.

17.- Take a long smooth and slow breath. How long did that take? in seconds? in heart-beats?

18.- How long can you comfortably retain that breath? in seconds? heart-beats?

19.- Exhale and see how long can you make the exhalation. Write that number down.

20.- Have you tried using a neti pot? Try it and make a note of how it feels. Note that if you regularly practice intense asana (poses) then the use of the pot is not necessary as an every day occurrence. Only when you notice that your nose is stuffed.

21.- On your next asana practice pay full attention to the breath, is it reaching every single cell in your body? If not notice the blockages, work to open. Become very aware of how the breath interacts with the pose. Breathe in and lengthen, breathe out and reach.

22.- Do you avoid breathing when you walk on the street near something you consider may smell bad? Are there other moments when you almost unconsciously breathe less to avoid something? bring it all to light, notice it.

23.- Clean your tongue with a tongue-scrapper in the morning. It will change your life to notice what gets stuck there, and you may enhance your sense of smell.

24.- Listen to Richard Freeman’s Yoga Breathing

25.- Try a pranamaya preparation exercise like kapalbhati and begin building the number of expulsions you can do per minute. Rejoice in how your mind gets clear after each round. Think quality, not quantity.

26.- Then practice a basic exercise called nadi shodana, which is safe and can help you calm the mind.

27.- Read about pranayama in the HathaPradipika, this is the commetnary that Srivatsa Ramaswami (a student of Krishnamacharya for 30 years) recommends. It has a lot of Sanskrit on the first part. However, if you are more into the “more English” camp, this is the one I read.

28.- If you would like to take a pranayama retreat here are some suggestions:

In Asia there is Paul Dallaghan.

In North America we have Ramaswami, who studied directly with Krishnamacharya and recently in his Facebook page said: “I studied with Sri Krishnamacharya for a number of years. I do not remember a single yogasana class which did not have a decent dose of pranayama and shanukhimudra (pratyahara) in it and short prayers to begin and end the session”

In India there is O.P. Tiwariji, who is elusive to find as he does not have a website (you will have to google him). He is however offering a pranayama teacher training in Mumbai in November and he is also is teaching with Paul, in October (1st to 14) in Thailand. Blessed are you if you can make it to any of these. He will also be giving short workshops in Paris and Taiwan pretty soon.

There are many teachers, make sure to do your research. Look for quality and lineage.

29.- Read about all eight limbs of yoga so you see where pranayama fits into the map, and the territory.

30.- Begin to investigate the concept of bandhas because they are critical when the retention part starts to happen Do you engage mula bandha during your asana practice (tightening of your anus). Begin experimenting with it if you do not already do so. Get used to it. Learn about Uddhyana and Jalandara bandha. All three bandhas are critical for pranayama practices, especially when they get deeper and they involve retention.

31.- The actual pranayama benefits are reaped through the retention of the breath for longer and longer periods of time. However, the retention has to be done in the proper way, engaging all bandhas, following strict rules, in a right sited position and environment. It takes deep care and dedication, but it all begins with noticing the breath.

32.- Read this book. It is the best I have found, and I have read most.

If you follow these suggestions and begin keeping a diary you will become very familiar with the regular, current patterns of your breath.

You will be in tune, and will become a connoisseur of your own breathing. The deeper your awareness the more prepared you are to go deeper into the fourth limb.

May you be successful on the journey.

I found this article (32 Ways to Pay Attention to your Breath) via Elephant Journal
This is a wonderful website. Visit and browse!

Learning to exhale…

What is the importance of deep breathing and why do yogis so faithfully believe in it?

Breathing is life, the very source of movement.

Breath is more important to us than either food or water. We can go weeks without food, days without water, but only minutes without oxygen. But we know this, right? We know how to breathe. It is something that occurs automatically, spontaneously, naturally. So why do we need to be taught how to breathe?

Our breathing is too shallow and too quick. We are not taking in sufficient oxygen and we are not eliminating sufficient carbon dioxide. As a result, our bodies are oxygen starved, and a toxic build-up occurs. One major reason for our shallow breathing is the stress of everyday modern life and work. Certainly, yoga is not the only way to cope with the stress and the resultant drop in oxygen supply to the brain brought on my constricted breathing. A coffee break, a trip to the restroom or a good laugh may all result in some readjustment of constricted breathing patterns. We can all benefit from seeking more breaks, a walk outside, a deep breath, let it be your “work day yoga”.

Animals which breathe slowly live the longest; the elephant is a good example.

The benefits of deep breathing include:
Increase in digestive fire
Oxygen purifies the blood stream
Improvement in the health of the nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord
Rejuvenation of the skin
Reduces the work load of the heart
Weight control
And finally, relaxation of the mind and body

In yogic terms, breath increases our prana or life force.
(See my blog ‘Positively Prana’ for more understanding on Prana:

And lastly, it is important to breathe through your nose. This may seem obvious, but many people breathe principally through the mouth. Put simply, the nose is a natural filter that prevents impurities from entering the body. This keeps your lungs clean and free of small debris that may come in through your mouth without your knowing.

So I leave you with an experiment: Try to be aware of your breathing when you are excited, angry, stressed, and relaxed and notice how it changes. Be aware of your breath and try to use your full lung capacity. When you breathe deeply the air is brought down to the bottom of the lungs, where the richest blood supply is. Think of all the benefits of deep breathing, why wouldn’t you want to take a nice deep breath?

(photo by Ashes and Snow)

Positively Prana…

Why does yoga make you feel so good?

There are a dizzying number of styles and approaches to yoga these days. Some involve resting in simple supported postures in quiet, candlelit rooms. Others push students to the edge of their physical capacity or are done to the beat of loud, rhythmic music. Some focus on physical alignment, while others offer a heart-centered approach. There is so much variety that describing them all is impossible.

Different in tone and substance as the various styles might be, they share one quality that inspires people to practice them: they work. Put simply, you feel better when you walk out of class than when you walked in. The question is, why? Better yet, how does yoga work?

As you’ve probably heard, one reason asana leaves you feeling so good is that it activates your parasympathetic nervous system, thanks to two elements that almost all asana practices have in common – the lengthening and strengthening of musculature and calm, even breathing. The parasympathetic is the part of your nervous system that slows you down – it’s responsible for telling your muscles to relax, improving your digestion and assimilation, boosting immunity, and helping you sleep better. It also normalizes your blood pressure and lowers your heart rate. The parasympathetic nervous system counteracts many stress-related symptoms and the negative by-products of our modern, fast-paced, high-output lives.

But the truth is that much of the yoga being practiced these days doesn’t do as much for the parasympathetic nervous system as you might think. To build your parasympathetic nervous system, you need to do poses that encourage deep relaxation, such as forward bends and hip openers; do fewer standing poses; and do more sitting, supine, and prone postures as well as inversions. You also need to hold poses longer, as you would in restorative yoga, and dedicate longer periods of time to developing slow and complete breathing. Vigorous vinyasa, backbends, handstands, and arm balances are powerful and beneficial, but they don’t stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system as much as the practices listed previously. So if the positive changes you gain from yoga can’t be entirely credited to its impact on your nervous system, what is helping you feel and live better? The answer is life force. Almost all styles of hatha yoga increase the flow of prana, or life force, in your body.

Yoga, like the science of acupuncture, or tai chi and qi gong, is based on prana (referred to as chi in the Chinese arts and sciences). These disciplines see prana as the essential force that sustains everything. Yogis went a step further, prescribing the intelligent use of prana as the key to facilitating spiritual awakening. “Having known the origin… and the physical existence of prana, one achieves immortality,” says the Prasna Upanishad. In other words, the aim of life (and practice) is realized through the skillful use of prana.

The ultimate strength…
Prana has always played a vital role in hatha yoga. Ancient Tantric texts, like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Gheranda Samhita, list various techniques to help build, channel, and regulate life force. In these writings, asana is described as the foundation for hatha’s deeper practices because it is so accessible and helps to free life force: The process of holding a pose – while “breathing through it” – dissolves pranic blockages. Different postures unlock prana in different ways. Forward bends, for example, increase the types of prana that calm, soothe, and ground; backbends unblock pranic forces that are more expansive and revitalizing.

A key reason you feel better after class is that the practice has helped move your life force in a way that it is more balanced, complete, or suited to your particular mental and physical needs. The principles of how different asanas affect life force are explained in both the hatha tradition and Ayurveda. The more we learn and practice these teachings, the more we know about which poses will help at any particular time. You may notice a particular practice (or style) that used to make you feel great is doing so less and less; that may be a sign that it is time for a change.

The more you control and build your storehouse of life force, the more you can achieve through practice. “The control of prana is the ultimate strength,” says the Srimad Bhagavatam, one of India’s revered scriptures. The more you learn to skillfully utilize the power of prana that begins with asana, the closer you come to realizing yoga’s limitless potential.

Taken from Yoga Journal, January 2010 issue
By Rod Stryker