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Religiousness in Yoga Part 9: Prāṇāyāma, Pūraka, Recaka, Kumbhaka, Samavṛtti, Viṣamavṛtti, Anuloma, Viloma, Nāḍī śodhana, śītalī, Kapālabhāti, Bhastrikā


Excerpts from “Religiousness in Yoga” by TKV Desikachar

This part introduces the vocabulary of breath-related practices.

Part1: Pūraka & Recaka

… In prāṇāyāma we simply breathe. As long as we observe how the body is responding to our breathing, we have nothing to worry about. Problems develop only when we insist upon holding the breath for a long time without paying attention to the reaction of our bodies.

… it is important that we choose a posture we can stay in for a long time and get out of without feeling numb. Some people find kneeling very comfortable; others can sit in the lotus posture easily; and, in the beginning, it is even all right to sit in a chair. It is only important that the back be straight … The important principle is that the body should not interfere with the breath …

There are many types of prāṇāyāma based on different techniques and ratios. The easiest way to feel prāṇāyāma is just to observe the breath; feel how the breath goes in and out, observe the movement of the abdomen and chest …

The next type emphasizes inhalation. This is called pūraka prāṇāyāma. Pūraka means “to fill in” … a long timed inhalation, a hold for one or two seconds, and then a free exhalation … wait for the body to expel the air.

Next is … recaka prāṇāyāma. Recaka means “exhalation” … free inhalation, a hold for one or two seconds and then a long timed exhalation … often used for relaxation … Through some special techniques it is possible to develop a lengthy exhalation.

Part2: Kumbhaka

Then there is kumbhaka prāṇāyāma. Kumbhaka means “to hold, to stop the breath.” Here we hold the breath after inhalation or exhalation or both … for working in the chest area, but not including the heart, we use pūraka and kumbhaka after the inhalation, and for problems in the abdomen we use recaka and kumbhaka after the exhalation … If we want to calm ourselves, we use recaka and kumbhaka, and if we feel lethargic we use pūraka and kumbhaka

Part3: Samavṛtti & Viṣamavṛtti

Another possibility in prāṇāyāma is that we can fix ratios between inhalation, holding the breath, exhalation, again holding the breath. There are many ratio possibilities that can be classified under two general headings. The first is called samavṛtti prāṇāyāma. Samā means “equal,” vṛtti means “move” … inhalation and exhalation are equal and if the breath is held, this too is equal to inhale or exhale …

The other general type of ratio in prāṇāyāma is called viṣamavṛtti. In this the breathing is not equal; therefore there are quite a few possibilities …

Part4: Techniques

There are different techniques for breathing … one of them is “throat inhalation, throat exhalation” … utilizing the same restriction in the throat that we described for use in āsana. A variation of this is called anuloma ujjāyī … we inhale through the throat and during exhalation we close one nostril completely and the other partially and exhale through the partially closed nostril. This helps to extend the breath. When using nostril control, we do not use throat restriction. Likewise there is a technique called viloma ujjāyī … in which nostril control is used for inhalation. Exhalation is with the restriction in the throat. This is a useful technique for those who wish to extend inhalation.

To extend both inhalation and exhalation … nāḍī śodhana .. means “that which clear the passages through which the breath goes” … we inhale through the partly closed left nostril, exhale through the partly closed right, inhale through the partly closed right, exhale through the partly closed left, and so forth.

… Another useful breathing technique … involves the tongue … the technique is to curl the tongue like a tube and to inhale through it. As we inhale the air passes acrodd the tongue which is usually moist. The air becomes cool and it refreshes the throat … during exhalation, we roll the tongue backwards as far as possible against the roof of the mouth. This keeps the tongue wet so that the next breath will be as refreshing as the first. Exhalation can be done either through the throat or through alternate nostrils. This technique is called śītalī … śīta means “chill” …

There is also one type of breathing used for cleansing. If we have much phlegm or feel congestion, fast breathing is useful … we use only abdominal breathing … our breaths are short, fast, and forceful … This … is called kapālabhāti. Kapāla means “skull.” Bhāti means “that which gives brightness.” … There are modifications of this technique. If one nostril is blocked, we force the air in quickly through the clear nostril and out through the blocked one. This is called bhastrikā … “a bellows.” … We must be very careful with these techniques. With this fast breathing we might feel dizzy. Therefore … we always follow it with slow breathing.

… After āsanas we must rest a few minutes before prāṇāyāma … This intervening time not only gives the body a rest, it helps the mind make the transition.

… Mental attitude is very important in the practice of prāṇāyāma … we have no body movement … Yet, we must have the same attitude of attention. To follow the movement of the breath we should feel inhalation from its beginning at the collar bone down to the diaphragm. Exhalation is the opposite, beginning with the contraction of the abdomen … follow the movement of the breath inside the body. Another beginning technique is to feel the breath only at the place where it enters or leaves the body … These suggestion will keep us in touch with what we are doing, otherwise, our prāṇāyāma exercises will be mechanical. Even the ratio of inhalation and exhalation is not as important as our involvement with the breath. Timing is only an aid to being involved in the prāṇāyāma … When we follow the breath, the mind becomes more and more involved in that activity. This … prepares us for dhyāna, meaning “the mind is ready to go in one direction.”

… It is said that if we are doing one practice session we should do at least twelve breaths … counting with the fingers … begin counting by placing the thumb on the lower segment of the index finger and proceed through twelve counts

… it is better to stay with one technique of concentration … It is much easier to discover something while concentrating on one technique rather than spreading our attention … The area of concentration depends on the ratio and type …

It is really difficult to simply follow the natural movement of the breath because once we focus on the breath, it tends to behave differently. We tend to control or interfere with its natural state. It is “something” simply to follow the breath … we tend to do one of two things – either we will feel the movement and be involved in it, or we fill feel like a witness … like a man watching a river. It we are able to do this, it is almost a state of meditation … Doing this is to still the mind. That is not easy but it is wonderful.

… Number and type, ratios and other techniques are only a means, not a final goal. That goal is not to need any technique. If we can just be involved with the breath, an active witness to the breath, that is prāṇāyāma. But this is easier said than done.

āsanas, unless they are too strenuous, help achieve good breathing … generally we do first āsanas and then prāṇāyāma.

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