Complete Guide to Pranayama for Beginners
The complete well-being of a person depends on having a healthy body, a stress-free mind and a well-developed spiritual side, which implies the values and principles by which they live. Ancient Indian philosophers recognised this and adopted practices which allowed them to live a wholesome, healthy life. These practices consisted of physical exercises, a disciplined way of living and breathing exercises. Collectively they harmonised the body, mind and spirit.
These practices, when taken together, are referred to as Yoga. Yoga, which comes from the Sanskrit word yuj, meaning “to yoke or bind”, has been a part of Indian culture since ancient times. In the last century, it spread all over the world and was practised by people who recognised the wisdom of not taking shortcuts to solving immediate health problems, but instead living a healthy life in the normal course. During the last decade, it has become even more popular and is now an integral part of healthy living, especially for people who have developed problems like obesity, diabetes and hypertension and are looking for ways to overcome them.
Traditionally, Yoga has eight limbs or sections. They are the yama (restraints), niyama (observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration), dhyani (meditation), and samadhi (absorption). Normally, only asana and pranayama are followed by people who use it for exercise and health.
Here we shall concentrate on the practise of pranayama, where “prana” means breath and “yama” is restraint. Controlled breathing using various techniques and exercises is pranayama. There are many ways of performing pranayama that are explained in the Yoga Sutras. Each have their benefits and performing them helps in different ways. Some of the benefits are as follows:
a) Helps in concentrating better.
b) Helps in relaxing and dealing with stress.
c) Conscious breathing makes one aware of the mind and body.
d) Helps in cases of depression, insomnia, diabetes and hypertension.
e) Exercises the respiratory system so that it can be used to its full capacity.
Ideally, pranayama should be practised under the guidance of a Guru or expert. If one is not available in the vicinity though, there are many resources available online that can be used to learn how to do the exercises properly.
Pranayama is about breathing, so it is important that it is done in a place where there is fresh air. It is best done in the morning when the air is relatively cleaner but can be done at any time during the day, except when the stomach is full.
Pranayama consists of three stages, puraka (inhalation), kumbhaka (retention) and rechaka (exhalation). The different exercises in pranayama are variations of these three basic elements in different rhythms and timings, sometimes accompanied by sounds.
We shall look at some of the most popular pranayama being practised and how they are beneficial for us.
1. Kapalbhati: This is an exercise that helps in bringing the system into perfect balance and aids in losing weight. It also helps in cleaning the sinuses through the short and forceful exhalations. The name Kapalbhati means skull shining. This pranayama helps in releasing toxins from the body through the outgoing breath. A body rid of its toxins has a healthy glow which shows all over, especially on the forehead. This is where the name comes from.
i) Sit in a comfortable position with the spine straight and erect.
ii) Hands should be open on the knees facing up. Alternately, the hands can be placed on the lower belly to bring awareness of movement to the area.
iii) Take a deep long breath through both nostrils.
iv) Next, let the breath out forcefully, by contracting the lower belly muscles and pulling the navel towards the spine.
v) Let the abdomen muscles relax and the let the breath flow into the body again. This should be automatic and without any effort.
vi) After twenty such breaths, relax for a minute with the eyes closed breathing normally. Be aware of the sensations happening in the body.
vii) Do two more rounds of twenty breaths to complete the pranayama for one day.
This pranayama is of great benefit to those who are suffering from diabetes. Additionally, it stimulates the digestive organs in the abdomen and improves blood circulation, rejuvenates the brain cells and the nervous system.
Kapalbhati, should not be done by people who have slip discs, pacemakers, hernia and epilepsy. People who have recently had surgery and women who are pregnant or has recently had a baby should also avoid Kapalbhati temporarily. People with heart problems and hypertension should practise after consultation with a doctor and under the guidance of an expert.
2. Nadi Shodhana (Anulom Vilom): Nadi are the energy channels that are present in the human body. When these channels are blocked then we experience various ailments like cold, depression, low mental energy, irritation, itching etc. These channels may be blocked due to stress, mental or physical trauma or an unhealthy lifestyle. Nadi Shodhana clears these blocked energy channels and calms the mind.
i) Sit comfortably, with spine straight and shoulders relaxed.
ii) Place the left hand on the left knee with palm up.
iii) Place the right thumb on the right nostril. Breathe in through the left nostril.
iv) Using the ring finger and the little finger close the left nostril and breathe out through the right nostril.
v) Now breath in through the right nostril while holding the left nostril closed.
vi) Close the right nostril and breathe out through the left nostril. This completes one cycle of Anulom Vilom.
vii) Repeat this cycle for a maximum of three minutes.
viii) If there is discomfort of any kind, (light-headedness etc.) take a short break with normal breathing.
Nadi Shodhana relaxes the mind and helps in gaining mental peace and calmness. It also helps in releasing any accumulated stress and tension.
While practising this pranayama, the flow of breath should be normal and not forced. The pressure from the fingers on the nostrils should be gentle and not hard.
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