Mastering pranayam step by step

Preliminaries: In order to qualify for pranayama, one must first master yoga asanas. In order to reap the full benefit of asanas, one must undergo the process of shatkarmas. The physical body is a combination and permutation of the five elements: earth, water, fire, air and ether. Shatkarmas purify these elements, so they do not interfere with the activities of prana. The effect of asanas and pranayamas increases substantially when the body is relieved of toxins. The body becomes sensitive and responds to the changes that an asana or pranayama demands from it.

One is supposed to master one step before going through the next one. What is mastery? When one can complete one step easily without straining anything and is completely relaxed at the end means he has mastered the step. It may appear easy but it may cause strain when practiced for many rounds as prescribed. 

The techniques described below should not involve any strain. If the practitioner feels shortness of breath, dizziness or fainting, he should stop the practice and consult a yoga teacher. The breath should not become over-extended at any stage of the practices. The need to take extra breaths during or at the end of the round indicates that the practitioner is over-extending his capacity and should go back to a previous stage that feels more comfortable. The breathing capacity extends slowly with practice. The ratio should be increased weekly or monthly, giving the lungs and muscles time to adapt to each stage. The practitioner should not proceed to a further stage until he can perform the present stage comfortably.

Pranayama can be practised by all people, regardless of age and physical condition. However, the practices should be learned individually from a master or qualified teacher and not selected at random. Every individual has a different physical and mental constitution, which a qualified teacher is able to assess. Specific pranayamas, rounds and ratios are prescribed according to these criteria. These subtleties cannot be gauged without the maturity of practice and under-standing. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika states (2:16):
“All diseases are eradicated by the proper practice of pranayama; all diseases can arise through improper practice.”
The lungs, heart and nerves are normally strong and gain added strength with regulated and sensible pranayama practice. However, if the practitioner overdoes it or performs unsuitable practices, the body may be weakened and the inner organs damaged. Pranayama also accentuates whatever is in the mind, whether positive or negative. So, by wrong or excessive practice, one’s mental quirks and even nervous tics could become exaggerated.
When pranayama is improperly practised, problems may arise without any warning signals, so extra care is required.

Every practice should be treated with respect and caution. There should be no violent respirations, no extended kumbhaka beyond a comfortable measure, no forcing of the breath, body or mind. The practitioner should not attempt to perform an advanced pranayama which is beyond his present capabilities. In this way comfortable progress will be assured and one will be able to achieve full benefit from the wonderful science of pranayama.
The Yoga Chudamani Upanishad states (v. 118):

“Just as the lion, elephant and tiger are brought under control slowly and steadily, similarly the prana should be controlled, otherwise it becomes destructive to the practitioner.”

Please note  these are only for education purpose  . One is requested to consult teachers of Bihar School of Yoga if possible  for expert guidance as they are the best and follow traditional line . The below process is taken from the book Prana and Pranayama by Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati . One should purchase the books on yoga asanas and pranayams by Bihar School of Yoga for detailed discussions.

Diet: The practitioner of pranayama should choose a balanced diet that is suitable to his constitution. There is no one diet that is right or wrong for everyone. As the saying goes, “One man’s food is another man’s poison”. Food can be classified into three basic groups: (i) tamasic – which creates lethargy, dullness; (ii) rajasic – which creates excitement, passion and disease, and (iii) sattwic-which bestows balance, good health and longevity. Fresh and natural foods are sattwic; packaged and refined foods are tamasic and should be avoided.
A diet of grains, pulses, fresh fruit and vegetables, and a small amount of dairy products is most beneficial and recommended . For non-veg, a small portion of meat, fish or eggs may be added. The diet must also be adjusted to avoid constipation. Overall, the principle of moderation should be followed. The Gheranda Samhita states (5:16):

“One who takes up yoga practices without observing moderation of diet obtains no benefit; rather, he gets various diseases.”


 

Step 1:

Yogic breathing in lying position :
Lie down in shavasana and relax the whole body. Inhale slowly from the diaphragm, allowing the abdomen to expand fully.
Breathe slowly and deeply so that little or no sound is heard.
Feel the air filling the bottom lobes of the lungs. After full abdominal expansion, expand the chest outwards and upwards.
At the end of this movement, inhale a little more and feel the air filling the upper lobes of the lungs. The shoulders and collarbones should move up slightly. This completes one inhalation.
The whole process should be one continuous movement, each phase of the breath merging into the next without any obvious demarcation point.
The breathing should be like the swell of the sea with no jerking or unnecessary strain. Now start to exhale.
First relax the collarbones and shoulders.
Then allow the chest to relax downward and then inward.

Next, allow the diaphragm to move back up into the chest cavity.
Without straining, try to empty the lungs as much as possible by pulling the abdominal wall down towards the spine, while simultaneously contracting the ribcage further, in a smooth, harmonious movement. This completes one round of yogic breathing. Continue breathing in this manner.
Hold the breath for a second or two at the end of each inhalation and exhalation.
While practising, feel the expansion and contraction of
the lungs and the sensation this produces.
Complete 10 rounds of yogic breathing.
Slowly increase the duration of practice to 10 minutes

Slowly increase the duration of practice to 10 minutes
daily.
Do not strain the lungs in any way.
Once the technique has been mastered in shavasana, practise in the sitting position.

 


Step 2:   It is to be practiced after step 1 is mastered . While practicing step 2 step 1 can be stopped.

Yogic breathing in sitting position :

Sit in vajrasana, siddhasana or any comfortable cross-legged posture.
Begin to practise full yogic breathing.
Place the hands lightly on the abdomen and inhale.
Feel the abdomen expanding forward.

Exhale and relax.
Repeat 5 times.

———————–
Next, place the hands on the front of the lower ribcage with the fingertips touching.
Inhale from the abdomen and continue this inhalation into the chest.
Be aware of the distance between your fingertips while inhaling and exhaling. Repeat 5 times.

————————
Now put your hands on the back of your ribcage and inhale. Be aware of the expansion of the chest cavity from behind. Exhale and relax. Repeat 5 times.


Step 3:

Can be done parallel to step  2 in week 2.

 

Viloma Pranayam:

In viloma pranayama the breathing is interrupted throughout inhalation and/or exhalation. In normal breathing, inhalation and exhalation flow smoothly and evenly. Viloma, meaning opposite, here indicates interruption of the natural flow of breath. This practice develops control over the breath flow and is an easy method of extending the breath duration. It may be used as a preparation for nadi shodhana and bhastrika.

Step 3.A:

Technique 1: interruption of inhalation

Lie down in shavasana or sit in any comfortable posture. Relax the whole body and practise breath awareness for a few minutes.
Practice slow, deep breathing with awareness of each inhalation and exhalation. Let the breathing become stabilized.
Begin inhalation with a series of short pauses: inhale-pause, inhale-pause, inhale-pause. Continue in this way until the lungs are full.

The diaphragm and abdomen should remain firm after each pause.
Imagine that you are breathing up a set of stairs. This visualization may make the practice easier for you. On completion of the interrupted inhalation, exhale slowly and smoothly until the lungs are empty. Do not strain. Practise 11 rounds, then relax and breathe normally.

Step 3.B:

Technique 2: interruption of exhalation
Practice in the same way, except that inhalation is smooth and full.
Exhalation is interrupted by a series of pauses until the lungs are completely empty.
The number of pauses depends on the individual capacity. Practice 11 rounds, then relax and breathe normally.

Step 3.C :

Technique 3: interruption of inhalation and exhalation
This practice combines both interrupted inhalation and interrupted exhalation.
Inhale with a series of pauses until the lungs are full.

Then exhale with a series of pauses until the lungs are empty.
Try to control the abdomen, but do not use force. Take a normal respiration between each round. Practice 11 rounds.

Practice note: The number of pauses may vary in the three techniques, but will normally be from three to five. More control of the breath can be obtained by increasing the number of pauses. Increasing the force of the breath can also be done.


 

Step 4.A:

To be done after step 3 is mastered.

Rhythmic breathing: ( inhale : exhale= 1:1 )

Sit in a comfortable asana with the head and spine erect or lie in shavasana.
Practise body awareness for a few minutes, allowing the breath to become steady. Be aware of the natural flow of the breath. Commence yogic breathing. Inhale first from the abdomen then expand the cavity of the chest, filling the lungs. Exhale in the reverse order.
The breathing should be relaxed and comfortable, without strain.
Count the time it takes to complete one inhalation.
Then exhale for the same duration as the inhalation. You
may also count by mentally repeating the mantra Om.
Be aware of the duration of each breath.
Let the air flow freely through the throat.
Do not use excessive force.
Continue the practice for 5 minutes.
After completing the practice, return to normal breathing.
Become aware of your body and surroundings, and slowly
open your eyes.

Take the count upto 10 each for inhalation and exhalation.

 

Step 4.B:

Extended exhalation :

Same as above but the inhale : exhale ratio is 1:2


 

Step 5:

In step 5 Kunbhaka or breath retention is introduced.

Advice and precautions: Seek competent guidance before attempting the practices of kumbhaka. These techniques should be approached slowly, moving systematically and comfortably through each stage. Kumbhaka should not be practised by people with high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems, vertigo, cerebral diseases and mental defects. The previously described techniques of inhalation, exhalation and rhythmic breathing should be perfected before starting internal retention (antaranga kumbhaka). Again, internal retention should be mastered before proceeding to external retention (bahiranga kumbhaka). If the body or mind feels tense in any way, it means that one has exceeded one’s natural capacity. One should then stop and go back to the previous stage. By practising slowly, the foundation will become solid.


Ratio of inhalation, retention and exhalation: The practitioner must adjust the inhalation, retention and exhalation so that the feeling of suffocation or discomfort is not experienced at any stage of pranayama. One should never feel the necessity of catching a few normal breaths between any two successive rounds. The period of exhalation should not be unnecessarily prolonged; otherwise the following inhalation will be done in hurried manner and the rhythm will be disturbed.


 

Step 5.A:

Technique I: internal retention (1:1:1)
Sit in a comfortable position or lie in shavasana.
Relax the whole body.
Practise yogic breathing for a few minutes.
Begin counting to 4 on inhalation and on exhalation.
Continue for a few minutes. There should be no tension
in the body or mind.
Now begin internal retention.
Inhale for a count of 4, hold the breath inside for a count of 2 and then exhale for a count of 4. If you feel any strain, go back to normal breathing. Continue for 11 rounds.
When this practice becomes comfortable, extend the count of internal retention  to 4. This is a 1:1:1 ratio.
Practise 11 rounds and gradually increase to 21 rounds. If the breathing is rhythmic and the body and mind are relaxed, the practice is correct.


Step 6 :

To be practiced after Step 5  is mastered .

Technique 2: extended internal retention and exhalation (1:1:2 and 1:2:2)
Practice the ratio of 4:4:4, allowing this ratio to become stabilized.
Gradually extend the exhalation to a count of 8. This is the ratio of 1:1:2.
Breathe normally in between each round if the feeling of breathlessness arises.
Return to the ratio of 4:4:4 whenever strain is felt. When the ratio of 4:4:8 is comfortable continue the practice without normal breathing in between. Practise 11 rounds and slowly increase to 21 rounds.

When the ratio of 4:4:8 becomes comfortable, the count of inner retention can be increased slowly to the count of 8. Then practice with the ratio of 4:8:8.


 Step 7:

Samavritti Pranayama (equalizing breath)
The word sama means ‘equal’, ‘even’ or ‘perfect’; vritti literally means ‘movement’ or ‘action’. In samavritti pranayama the respiration is divided into four equal parts. The inhalation, internal retention, exhalation and external retention are of equal duration, making the ratio 1:1:1:1. This practice pro-duces an even and rhythmic flow of breath. However, external retention is difficult to master. The practitioner should be aware of any internal signals arising during the practice, and release any tension forming in the body or mind before continuing the next round.

Technique: (1:1:1:1)

Sit in a comfortable position and relax the body and mind.
Become aware of the natural breath and its spontaneous rhythm.
Commence yogic breathing.
Count to 4 on inhalation, count to 4 on internal retention, and to 4 for exhalation. Continue in this way for a few minutes.
Now, after exhalation, hold the breath outside for the count of 4.
Take several normal breaths in between each round. When the feeling of breathlessness or gasping for inhalation subsides after external retention, dispense with the normal respiration in between rounds.

Practice 11 rounds and gradually increase to 21 rounds. When 21 rounds can be completed without exhaustion, slowly increase the count of the ratio by one until the count of 10:10:10:10 is reached. The mastery of samavritti pranayama enables one to undertake the classical pranayama practices . 


Four sittings of pranayama practice should be undertaken daily at the following times: early morning, midday, evening and midnight. While practicing one must sit facing east or north. Nadi shodhana pranayama should be practiced for at least three months until the count of 20:80:40:40 is achieved, before commencing any other pranayama.


 

Nadi Sodhan Pranayama:

Nadi shodhana is the first pranayama described in the classical yogic texts. Ideally, other classical pranayamas should be attempted only after practising nadi shodhana as instructed by the teacher for a specific period. The word nadi means ‘energy channel’ and shodhana means ‘to cleanse’ or ‘to purify’. Therefore, nadi shodhana is a practice whereby the pranic channels are purified and regulated. This prepares one for the practice of other pranayamas, so that maximum benefits can be derived and one does not experience any pranic imbalance.

Nadi shodhana is also a complete practice in itself and the higher stages achieve the ultimate aim of pranayama: kevala kumbhaka. Nadi shodhana is practised by alternating the inhalation and exhalation between the left and right nostrils, thus influencing the ida and pingala nadis and the two brain hemispheres. This leads to control of the oscillations of the body-mind network, bringing balance and harmony throughout the system.
Nadi shodhana is truly a balancing pranayama, because whether the imbalance lies in the physical or mental body, this practice can restore equilibrium. Swami Satyananda has said, “If one wants to lead a spiritual life, this very pra-nayama is sufficient. It will steady the way to meditation and samadhi.”

As a daily practice, nadi shodhana may be used to vitalize the pranic energies, release pranic blockages and achieve a balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic ner-vous systems, so that life’s situations can be handled better. As a therapeutic tool, it can be applied for almost all physical and mental disorders, although this must be done under expert guidance. For those who wish to use nadi shodhana as a spiritual practice, it may indeed awaken the dormant shakti and direct it through sushumna, the path of spiritual awakening, leading to deep states of meditation.
The practice is presented here in three parts, beginning, intermediate and advanced. Proper advice should be obtained before commencing any of these levels. As with all techniques, each stage should be mastered before proceeding to the next, so that the duration of inhalation, exhalation and retention can be controlled without strain and without the need to take extra breaths in between rounds. One should not be alarmed by the long ratios of the advanced level. They are difficult to master and are intended only for the serious sadhaka. The practitioner who becomes competent in all the stages of beginner and intermediate levels will gain the full benefit of the practice, physically, mentally and spiritually.

 

 


Beginner’s level
The following two techniques of nadi shodhana may be practised by everyone and are used to maintain the balance of body and mind in daily life as well as in therapeutic situations.
Technique I: preparatory practice
Stage I:

Sit in any comfortable meditation posture, preferably siddhasana, siddha yoni asana or padmasana. Keep the head and spine upright. Relax the whole body and close the eyes. Practise yogic breathing for some time. Adopt nasagra mudra with the right hand and place the left hand on the knee in chin or jnana mudra. Close the right nostril with the thumb. Inhale and exhale through the left nostril 5 times, keeping the respiration rate normal. Be aware of each breath.
After completing 5 breaths release the pressure of the
thumb on the right nostril and press the left nostril with
the ring finger, blocking the flow of air.
Inhale and exhale through the right nostril 5 times,
keeping the respiration rate normal.
Lower the hand and breathe through both nostrils together
5 times, keeping the respiration rate normal.
This is one round.
Practise 5 rounds.
The breathing should be silent.
Practise this stage until it is mastered, before commencing the next stage.

Stage 2:

 

Stage 2: Begin to control the duration of each breath. Breathe deeply without strain.
Count the length of the inhalation and exhalation through the left, right and both nostrils.
While inhaling, count mentally, “1, Om; 2, Om; 3, Om”, until the inhalation ends comfortably. While exhaling, count, “1, Om; 2, Om; 3, Om”. Inhalation and exhalation should be equal. Practise 5 rounds. The breathing should be silent.

Practice note: The length of the breath will spontaneously increase after some days of practice. When the count reaches 10 without any strain, go on to technique 2.


Technique 2: with alternate nostril breathing
In this technique the basic pattern of alternate nostril breathing is established.
Stage I:

Begin with equal inhalation and exhalation, using the ratio 1:1.
Close the right nostril with the thumb and inhale through the left nostril.
At the same time count mentally, “1, Om; 2, Om; 3, Om”, until the inhalation ends comfortably. This is the basic count. Breathe deeply without strain.
Close the left nostril with the ring finger and release the pressure of the thumb on the right nostril. While exhaling through the right nostril, simultaneously count, “1, Om; 2, Om; 3, Om”. The length of inhalation and exhalation should be equal.

Next, inhale through the right nostril, keeping the same count in the same manner.
At the end of inhalation, close the right nostril and open
the left nostril. Exhale through the left nostril, counting
as before.
This is one round.
Practise 5-10 rounds.

Practice note: After one week, if there is no difficulty, increase the length of inhalation/exhalation by one count. Con-tinue to increase the count in this way until the count of 10:10 is reached. Do not force the breath in any way. Be careful not to speed up the counting during exhalation to compensate for shortage of breath. Reduce the count at the slightest sign of discomfort.

Stage 2:

After perfecting the above, the 1:1 ratio may be changed to 1:2.
Initially, halve the length of the inhalation. Inhale for a
count of 5 and exhale for a count of 10.
Repeat on the other side.
This is one round.
Practise 5-10 rounds.
Practice note: During the ensuing practice, continue extending the breath by adding one count to the inhalation and two to the exhalation, up to the count of 10:20. The extension of count should be built up slowly.
Contra-indications: Stage 2 of technique 2 begins the process of introversion, which is not recommended for a depressed or withdrawn person. The extension of stage 2, involving longer counts, is not recommended for people with heart problems.


Note : Progress beyond this point is sadhana to be undertaken only under the strict guidance of a master.


Intermediate level

Technique 3: with antar kumbhaka (inner retention)
In this technique antar kumbhaka or internal breath retention is introduced. The inhalation and exhalation should be silent, smooth and controlled.
Stage I:

Begin breathing with equal inhalation, inner retention and exhalation.
Close the right nostril and inhale slowly through the left nostril for a count of 5.
At the end of inhalation, close both nostrils and retain the
air in the lungs for a count of 5.
Open the right nostril and exhale for a count of 5.
At the end of exhalation, inhale through the right nostril
for a count of 5, keeping the left nostril closed.
Again, retain the breath for a count of 5 with both nostrils
closed.
Open the left nostril and exhale for a count of 5. This is one round using the ratio 5:5:5.Maintain constant awareness of the count and of the breath.
Practise 5-10 rounds.
Practice note: When the ratio of 5:5:5 is comfortable, the count can be lengthened. Gradually increase the count by adding 1 unit to the inhalation, 1 unit to the retention and 1 unit to the exhalation. The count of one round will then be 6:6:6. When this has been perfected and there is no discomfort, increase the count to 7:7:7. Continue in this way until the count of 10:10:10 is reached. Do not force the breath. At the slightest sign of strain reduce the count.

Stage 2:

After perfecting the ratio of 1:1:1, change to the ratio 1:1:2. Initially use a shorter count. Inhale for a count of 5, perform internal kumbhaka for a count of 5 and exhale for a count of 10.
Practice note: After mastering the count of 5:5:10, gradually increase the count by adding 1 unit to the inhalation, 1 unit to the retention and 2 units to the exhalation. The count of one round will then be 6:6:12. When this has been perfected and there is no discomfort, increase the count to 7:7:14. Gradually increase the count over several months of practice until the count of 10:10:20 is reached.

 

Stage 3:

Change to the ratio 1:2:2.
Inhale for a count of 5, hold the breath inside for a count of 10 and exhale for a count of 10. Practise until the ratio and count are comfortable and there is no tendency to speed up the count during retention or exhalation due to shortness of breath.
Practice note: When this has been perfected, the count can be gradually increased by adding 1 unit to the inhalation, 2 units to the retention and 2 units to the exhalation. The count of one round will then be 6:12:12. In this manner, gradually increase the count to 10:20:20.

Stage 4:

Change to the ratio 1:3:2.
Reduce the count of inhalation to 5. Hold the breath inside for a count of 15, and exhale for a count of 10.
Practise until the ratio is comfortable and there is no tendency to speed up the count during retention or exhalation due to shortness of breath. Practice note: When this has been perfected and there is no discomfort, the count can be gradually increased by adding 1 unit to the inhalation, 3 units to the retention and 2 units to the exhalation. The count of one round will then be 6:18:12. In this manner, gradually increase the count to 10:30:20.

Stage 5:

Change to the ratio of 1:4:2. Begin with the count of 5:20:10.
Once this count has been established, it can be gradually increased.
Practice note: Add 1 unit to the inhalation, 4 units to the retention and 2 units to the exhalation. The count of one round will then be 6:24:12. In this manner, gradually increase the count to 10:40:20.

Contra-indications: Technique 3 is not suitable for women in the later half of pregnancy. It is not recommended for persons with heart problems, high blood pressure, emphy-sema or any major disorders. From stage 2 onward it is not recommended for asthmatics.

Benefits: The inner retention of breath, which characterizes technique 3, activates various brain centres and harmonizes the pranas. The benefits increase with the progression of the ratios. The ratio 1:4:2 is most widely recommended in the yogic texts. It gives profound psychological and pranic effects and is used as a preparation for kundalini awakening.


Advanced level

Technique 4: with antar and bahir kumbhaka (internal and external retention)

In this technique bahir kumbhaka or outer breath retention is introduced. The practitioner should not try to hold the breath outside for long at first, even though it may seem easy.

Stage I:

Begin with the ratio 1:1:1:1 and a count, such as 5:5:5:5.
Inhale through the left nostril, counting to 5. Retain the breath in antar kumbhaka, counting to 5. Exhale through the right nostril, counting to 5. After exhalation, close both nostrils and hold the breath outside, counting to 5.
The glottis may be slightly contracted to hold the air out-side. Exhale slightly through the right nostril immediately before inhaling. This will release the lock on the lungs and the glottis and bring the respiratory system smoothly back into operation.
Inhale slowly through the right nostril, counting to 5.
Retain the breath, counting to 5.
Exhale through the left nostril, counting to 5.
Again, hold the breath outside, counting to 5 with both
nostrils closed.
If necessary, exhale slightly through the right nostril before breathing in at the start of the next round. This is one round. Practise 5 rounds.

Practice note: When the ratio has been perfected with an easy count, gradually increase it by adding 1 unit to the inhalation, internal retention, exhalation and external retention. The count should slowly be increased from 5-6, 6-7 and so on, until the count of 10:10:10:10 is reached. Do not increase the count until the exhalation and breath retentions are comfortable.

Stage 2:

The next ratio is 1:1:2:1. It should be commenced with a low count and extended gradually as previously instructed. Begin with the count of 5:5:10:5.

Practice note: Once this ratio has been established, the count can be gradually increased. Add one unit to the inhalation, one unit to the internal retention, 2 units to the exhalation and one unit to the external retention. The count for one round would thus become 6:6:12:6. Over time, the count can be slowly increased. Do not increase the count until exhalation and breath retentions are comfortable.

Stage 3:

The next ratio is 1:2:2:1. Begin with the count of 5:10:10:5.
Increase the count when the exhalation and breath retentions are comfortable.

Stage 4:

The next ratio is 1:2:2:2. Begin with the count of 5:10:10:10.
Build up the count gradually without strain.

Stage 5:

The next ratio is 1:3:2:2.

Begin with the count of 5:15:10:10.
Increase the count gradually, without strain.

Stage 6:

The final ratio is 1:4:2:2.
Begin with the count of 5:20:10:10.
Increase the count gradually, without strain.

 

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