“I start from one point and go as far as possible. But unfortunately, I never lose my way. I say unfortunately, because what would interest me greatly is to discover paths that I'm perhaps not aware of ... The harmonies have become for me a kind of obsession, which gives me the feeling of looking at music from the wrong end of a telescope.”
John Coltrane

Coltrane: The Story of a Sound

Three Keys to Starting a Pranayama Practice

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Please note:

  • Though I intend to show you that you can start a basic Pranayama practice on your own please keep in mind that that is pretty much all you can and should do on your own. There is a lot of superficial disinformation about what Pranayama is and how it should be practiced. Breath is a very powerful instrument with both immediate and long term effects. Pranayama is an alchemical process that effects (by design!) your energetic body more then it does your biological body. This happens regardless of what you may think you know about it or even feel in your practice. It is possible to trap yourself in a practice you like that has adverse effects on your health.
  • Extra care should be taken in states of illness or recovery when both the energetic and biological bodies are more sensitive to any intervention. A Pranayama practice can be invaluable in recovery but should NOT be self-prescribed and ONLY be used with guidance of a teacher.
  • Pregnancy is not an illness. It is a demanding, more sensitive state of being that affects two sentient beingsĀ  – therefore it deserves a Pranayama practice that is offered with more care and consideration.

There are three things you need to know in order to begin a Pranayama practice: (1) the length of your breath; (2) a breathing ratio; (3) a suitable breathing technique.

Length of Breath

Determining the length of your breath can be achieved with a fairly simple exercise (and a little mathematics) you can find in this post about the four parts of the breath. Once you know your base breathing duration you can apply that to a breathing ratio.

Ratio of Breath

A core teaching in Pranayama is that a practice should focus on lengthening the exhale – the inhale will follow the exhale. From this comes a first rule of thumb in determining a breathing ratio: the exhale should be equal to or longer then the inhale.

It is a good idea to start with a ratio of equal inhale and exhale. For example, if your base breathing duration is 4 seconds – then you should inhale for 4 seconds and exhale for 4 seconds. Practice that for a while until it becomes familiar and comfortable.

From there you can move into a ratio in which the exhale is one and half times longer then the inhale. For example, if your base breathing duration is 4 seconds – then you should inhale for 4 seconds and exhale for 6 seconds.

If your breathing leads you into it naturally then you may add short 1 second holds between inhale and exhale. Please do not play around with holding the breath beyond that – this is where the magical alchemy of Pranayama is intensified and directed. Holding the breath based on your natural preferences or curiosities is very likely to lead you into a dysfunctional practice.

Don’t count seconds on your own – your mind will cheat and twist your sense of time – in the face of effort you will simply count faster. Get a ticking clock or a metronome so you can precisely time your breaths.

Breathing Technique

Your first taste of Pranayama should be with simple Ujjayi breathing. Though it isn’t really a Pranayama practice until you introduce nostril control it is a soft and simple way to get acquainted with structured breathing. It will gift you with a space to first get acquainted with your own breath, with timed breathing and with breathing ratios.

When you are comfortable with timing and counting your breath you can move into an actual Pranayama practice. To do this you will need to introduce nostril control to your practice. Then, a good technique to get you started with nostril contol is Anuloma Ujjayi.

Connecting the Pieces

Putting just these basic ideas together demonstrates an important aspect of Pranayama: it is a gradually evolving process of practice. Each practice introduces a gradual increment built upon the previous practice. Consider these practices:

  1. 6 Ujjayi breaths with an equal inhale and exhale.
  2. 10 Ujjayi breaths with an equal inhale and exhale.
  3. 6 Ujjayi breaths with an exhale 1.5 times longer then the inhale.
  4. 10 Ujjayi breaths with an exhale 1.5 times longer then the inhale.
  5. 6 Anuloma Ujjayi breaths with an equal inhale and exhale.
  6. 12 Anuloma Ujjayi breaths with an exhale 1.5 times loonger then the inhale.

At first each of these is a SEPARATE practice. Stick with it until you feel comfortable and peaceful with it – it can take days, weeks or months. Practice regularly and take your time.

To take your Pranayama practice further find a teacher with whom you can work in a one-on-one setting. A teacher can guide you on a refined exploration of breath through care-full observation and tailoring of personalized practices.

I offer one-on-one online Pranayama teaching at iBreathe.

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