PLEASE NOTE: This article assumes that you are familiar with the prerequisites for practicing Pranayama: being able to sit effectively and comfortably, familiarity with Ujjayi breathing and the four parts of the breath, the tools and knowledge for timing and counting your breathing and understanding a written breathing practice.
What is Pranayama?
Pranayama is a collection of practices that are usually referred to as breathing practices. While it is true that the practice takes the form of breathing it is aimed at the subtle substance called Prana. Prana is associated with the animating principle of Purusa (Cosmic Spirit) described in Samkhya philosophy – a life force.
This subtle distinction between air and Prana is useful in understanding the purpose of Pranayama. Unlike air which moves in and out of the body, Prana is a fixed and limited resource – a pool of energy that resides within the body. Prana flows in channels called Nadis. Pranayama practices have a potential to clear these channels and facilitate better flow of Prana throughout the body. This can bring about a change in the quality of Prana – it creates a collected and tightened field of energy, an increased vitality.
Though there are many forms and variations of Pranayama practices the one thing they all have in common is using the nostrils to control the breath. Why the nostrils? There are two primary channels called Ida (associated with the moon & feminine energy) & Pingala (associated with the sun and male energy). Ida & Pingala are associated with the two nostrils – so by using nostril control we are manipulating the flow of Prana in two primary Nadi and through them with the entire energy system.
Nostril control, as we will soon see, requires the use of the right hand. Therefore Pranayama is an independent practice and cannot be performed as a part of an asana (physical) practice. Ujjayi breathing, which is used extensively in asana practice, is not considered a Pranayama because it does not involve nostril control.
Nostril control is performed with the right hand (the left hand is reserved for counting). The index and middle are folded out of the way into the palm of the hand.
Then the thumb and ring finger are brought closer together and form a dynamic vice we will use to control the nostrils.
The hand is brought up to the nose and the thumb and ring fingers are placed on it – the thumb on the right nostril, the ring finger on the left.
The picture above demonstrates a common tendency to leave an unnecessary tension in the little finger. You can and should release it and let is rest below the ring finger. The little finger is not involved in nostril control.
The fingers should be placed right below the bridge of the nose – the soft area right below the bone. In this location you will need very little physical movement to apply control. If you place the fingers at the end of the nose – you will be required to make larger movements which are less effective and unnecessary.
In practice the fingers do not need to be taken off the nose at any time – all that is required is a subtle change in pressure between the two fingers.
The arm should be slightly active and distanced from the body. This may cause some discomfort at first, this will pass with practice. Please pay attention to your wrist joint – it should be flat – a relaxed continuation of the arm.
Because of the asymmetric position of Pranayama practice there can be a tendency, during practice, for the head to twist to the right. This happens when the right arm tires and instead of being placed lightly on the nose, weighs down on it – it is an escape for the arm at the expense of the head, neck and back. When you are starting out with Pranayama it can be useful to open your eyes once in a while and gaze down to make sure your head remains centered.
That’s a lot of details to contain and we haven’t even started to breathe. Pranayama is a subtle practice – some say it is an art. A correct and effective practice will serve you for a long time. Cutting corners now will raise obstacles to your progress and will require more effort and attention to correct later on.
Coming next – Anuloma Ujjayi – a first Pranayama practice.