Why Practice Pranayama
The purpose of doing pranayama is to distribute the prana (life force or energy) throughout the body. After asana practice, the body is open and ready to receive the prana. Potential blocks to the free flow of energy can be dissipated through asana and pranayama practice.
The energy channels in the body, called nadis, become purified by the change in blood chemistry caused by pranayama. Every cell in the body receives oxygen and nutrients and is nourished by these breathing practices.
Pranayama consists of inhalation (puraka), exhalation (recaka), and retention (kumbhaka). In pranayama, the duration of the breath is practiced, with variable lengths of inhalation, retention, and exhalation. The breath is very subtle and must be carefully developed and refined over time and regular practice.
Different styles of Hatha Yoga introduce pranayama at variable points in yoga practice. For example, Kundalini Yoga teaches powerful breathing techniques, along with asanas, from the beginning. Iyengar Yoga, on the other hand, carefully waits two years or more after a regular asana practice has been established, and the poses are steady and consciously performed. Neither system is right or wrong. The goal of Kundalini Yoga is to get the body's energy moving up the chakras. Their use of intense breathing practices, such as kapalabhati breathing, serve this purpose. Iyengar Yoga practitioners believe that the nervous system and the physical body must be made stable, strong, and elastic, and its alignment correct, before pranayama is introduced.
In this chapter, the major types of pranayama are introduced and explained. A supported lying down position is usually the best position in which to begin, for the lungs are supported and open, and less likely to be strained. As pranayama practice progresses, a seated position is beneficial. Then the spine is erect and the energy is free to flow up the spine.
Begin gradually, practicing five minutes a day for two to three weeks, and slowly building to twenty to twenty-five minutes over several months. Practice up to three types of pranayama during a session. Daily practice is essential to build stamina, endurance, and ease of the breath. Then the lungs will be properly exercised and their capacity increased.
There should be at least fifteen to twenty minutes of rest between asana and pranayama or vice versa. After pranayama, it is appropriate to rest in Savasana or in some other restful position.
Pranayama should not be practiced when tired or emotionally upset. The breath should never be forced or strained. If this occurs while practicing pranayama, resume normal breathing and rest in Savasana.
Regular practice of Savasana (corpse pose) readies the body and mind for pranayama. Relaxation of the facial muscles, eyes, ears, tongue, upper palate, and jaw is particularly important for breath work. The mind is freed from everyday concerns, allowing it to focus inward.
Deep inhalations are not recommended for people with cardiac disorders or hypertension. The emphasis should be on the exhalation. Deep exhalations are not to be done by those who are depressed or who have low blood pressure. Instead the emphasis will be on the inhalation.