Hatha Yoga is composed of more than just asanas (postures) although the correct practice of asanas is essential to Hatha Yoga, this is only part of the complete picture. In opening the body and removing both physical and energetic blocks located in corporeal form, asana practice acts as preparation for the practices of Kriya and Pranayama.
Kriya is a word that is used to include various practices that cleanse the body from the inside out so that one can breathe better, digest better and therefore think and exist better. There are many kinds and forms of Kriya but in this entry I am going to focus upon the basics that are appropriate for most all levels.
Please note: I do not want to discourage anyone from participating and enjoying the benefits of these practices, but please find a qualified instructor to guide you through it. The breath is a very powerful mechanism of transformation, but with this power comes great responsibility the possibility of personal harm and/or danger. If too much too soon is practiced than a danger of psychological disassociation, physical fainting or even stroke (if high blood pressure is an issue) could occur.
There is a common misconception that all breathing exercises are forms of Pranayama. This misunderstanding is understandable as Prana is often translated into energy and energy is associated with breath. However, before reaching the level of Pranayama where one is able to truly feel and understand the movement of Prana throughout the body, breathing and non-breathing Kriyas that clean the respiratory and digestive tracts, should be performed and practiced.
Why is this cleaning necessary? Just visualize a pipe. If that that pipe is full of gunk it will be difficult to send air through it. However, if it is clean, than air is able to flow in and out with ease. Two of the great practices that allows this ease of air flow through the body is Asana (that supports and strengthens correct posture) and Kriyas (that clean out the air ducts of the body´s respiratory and digestive mechanism).
The following Kriyas work on the opening of the nasal passage way and the cleansing of the digestive tract so more energy (a TON of energy is dedicated towards digestion and elimination of substances from the body) can be dedicated toward maintaining correct posture and deep controlled breathing. Here is a list of the basics:
Kapal Bhati: Literally translated means ´shining skull´. It is also known as the breath of fire. This is a great practice for achieving clarity of thought and increasing heat within the body. The practice of Kapal Bhati involves an active and forceful exhale through the nose and a passive inhale through the nose. The abdominal muscles are involved and help to expel excess stagnant air so new air can enter. Keep the facial muscles relaxed. The key here is PASSIVE inhalation. Active inhalation is a different Kriya.
Bhastrika: This means ´Bellows Breath´. Like the bellows used to feed the fire of a silver smith, this breath also increases the fire within the mind and body and cleanses it of impurities. Both the exhale and inhale are active, deliberate and complete. It is different from hyperventilation since hyper ventilation involves shorter quicker breaths that are not complete and do not fill the torso cavity.
NOTE: After visiting an ayurvedic doctor I was informed that those who have a strong Pitta (fire) or Vata (air) constitution should limit their practice of both Kapal Bhati and Bhastrika as this can irritate these elements and create imbalance. On the other hand it can be very useful for Kapha types who find it hard to get moving.
Nodi Shoni: Without retention, Nadi Shoni is used to train for Pranayama and it is a way to balance both parts of the brain. If you observe your breath and close one nostril or the other, you will notice that it is easier to breathe through one or the other. Depending on the time of time we all have one side that is more dominant. The left nostril is associated with the right brain activity and the right nostril with the left brain activity. First thing in the morning and in cycles throughout the day there are times when we can breathe through both nostrils equally and therefore have equal access to the entire brain, not just one side or the other.
Practicing Nadi Shoni helps to extend that period of equilibrium between nostrils and the two halves of the brain. It is practiced by closing the right nostril, breathing in through the left, than closing the left and exhaling through the right than inhaling through the right and exhaling through the left. Continue the breath with the same constant rhythm/count in both nostrils and finishing by exhaling through the left.
Uddiyana Bandha: Bandhas are difficult to explain and really need the guidance of a teacher. With Uddiyana Bhandha the practicioner exhales completely so then they activate the deep abdominal muscles suck everything up towards the rib cage from the pelvic floor. Hold for as long as is comfortable, than release. Great all digestive problems as well as increasing lung capacity.
Nauli: Nauli is an extension of Uddiyana Bandha. With hands placed on the knees, either standing or sitting, one performs Uddiyana Bandha then by switching the body weight from one hand to the other, the abdominal wall is pushed out and the movement back and forth provides a massage to the internal organs. For this reason it is great also for digestive problems as well as menstruation issues, though it is not recommended to practice this or Uddiyana during menstruation. I leave that decision to each woman to decide according to her own intuition.
Non Breathing Kriyas:
Jala Neti: This Kriya involves using a solution of salt water (consistency of a human tear) and then using a neti pot, pouring it through one nostril and letting it drip out the other. Excess mucus is then removed.
Sutra Neti: This is also known as the gold thread and involved threading either a small rubber string or thread through the nasal passage and then pulling it out via the throat. It is complicated and again, really should be done with supervision.
Both the Sutra Neti and the Jala Neti should be done before breathing Kriyas and/or Pranayama as they both work to clean the upper respiratory tract. They also help to increase the sense of smell and taste as well as sensitivity to temperature and pressure changes. They both help with sinus problems, relaxation and increased awareness by increasing the balance and intake of breath through both nostrils.