A person can go for days without eating food a day or two without water and only a few minutes without breath. The breath is the foundation of life and without it, you die and when it is restricted, your life energy is also restricted. This is why all of the practices of Yoga center around creating more space for the breath. Asana works with posture so that can happen and Pranayama teaches us how to control the energy breath provideswhen there is correct posture.
Pranayama is composed of two different Sanskrit words. Prana, commonly interpreted as energy but has a more direct translation of nutrition and/or food, and Ama, meaning breath. Therefore, one might define Pranayma as ´breath nutrition´. Therefore, by practicing Pranayama one is practicing how to give proper oxygen nutrition the both the brain and body.
In addition to proper oxygen nutrition, Pranayma is also the practice of controlling the breath to still the mind. The quiet mind is found when the breath ceases, which this ceasing of breath is called, retention. So any pranayama must include retention. This retention is the difference between breathing Kriyas and Pranyama. Furthermore, controlling of the rhythm of the breath also calms the Chitta (mindstuff) and activates the para-sympathetic nervous system, especially when extending the exhale. This is why the extension of the exhale is used during various relaxation practices, the most obvious being the Lamaze birthing breath.
Pranayama, when correctly practiced, has a plethora of mental and physical benefits. These benefits include, but are not limited to, improved posture, digestion, respiratory and metabolic functions (due to the Bohr effect) which of course translate into improved sleep, physical fitness, mood, energy levels, complexion of skin and concentration.
Basics of Pranayama practice:
In theory practicing Pranayama is simple and straight forward. The problem is that many of us have deeply integrated, incorrect breathing and posture habits that prevent us from understanding how to practice correctly. It is recommended to find a qualified teacher who can correct and observe you in your practice before practicing on your own.
The traditional form of practicing pranayama involves sitting with a firm base. This entails the sitbones being placed on a firm surface with a 30 degree angle between lumbar spine and pelvic floor. Sitting like this helps to maintain the natural curvature of the spine. However, if hip flexibility is reduced and sitting in such a pose hurts, it is better to find comfort (Sukha) and stability (Sthira) by sitting in a chair or in supported Virasana (Hero´s Pose) with a block between the feet and under the sit bones. Avoid sitting on a soft surface as this will cause the spine to collapse and restrict breath movement.
Open Chest, Strong core:
Slightly lifting the rib cage and activating the intercostal muscles of around the rib cage and under the armpits creates more space for the lungs to move in and out in 360 degrees as well as the diaphragm to move down towards the pubic bone, thereby creating greater space for greater breath and intake of oxygen. The most helpful que I have received for becoming aware of these muscles around the ribcage is pressing the shoulder blades back in towards each other, move them down away from the ears, and then maintain that space around the clavicle bones and then push the shoulder blades out and way from each other without collapsing forward.
In combination with the open chest, it is also important to keep the bottom abdominal muscles engaged to support the lumbar spine. The breath in Pranayama is not the same breath practiced in Savasana (Corpse Pose) where the belly is completely relaxed. The belly still expands in Pranayama but with practice one will notice how the active rib cage and active abdominals increase the internal pressure of the torso and help to expand and maintain voluntary control over the breath.
Ratio of Breath:
In the beginning it is advised that the practitioner aims for a ratio of 1:1. Inhale (Puraka) equal to exhale (Rechaka). Slowly this can increase until the exhale is twice as long as the inhale. Than retention (Kumbhaka) and eventual Bandhas can be included for a ratio of 1 (Puraka): 4 (Kumbhaka): 2 (Rechaka). Move gradually. Yoga is not a discipline of force and it according to Yoga sutra it can take up to 12 years of consistent practice for one to perfect the practice of pranayama. But don´t let that discourage you from starting and experiencing the benefits of this discipline. Most practitioners notice the benefits within 3 months.
According to Hatha Yoga Pradipika these are the basic forms of Pranayama:
Surya Bedi: Inhale via right nostril and exhale via left. Associated with the sun. Left Brain. Heating breath.
Chandra Bhedana: Inhale via left nostril and exhale via right. Associated with the moon. Right Brain. Cooling breath.
Ujjayi: Slight tightening of the Glottis in the throat. That tension will create a sound as you inhale and exhale via the nose. It also automatically activates the deep core muscles and is the only pranayama that can be performed doing other activities such as walking, standing or practicing asana, which is done in Ashtanga Yoga. Breath should remain smooth and unforced.
Sitkari: Cooling breath (Great for Sevilla!!!). Spread tongue against the bottom front teeth. Open the mouth and keep teeth slightly parted, like you were smiling a big Cheshire cat grin, and breath in via the mouth and exhale via the nose.
Shitali: Similar to Sitkari. Also a cooling breath but the tongue is rolled up on both sides and breath is taken in via the small space between both sides of the tongue.
Bastrika with retention: 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. At the end of each round inhale via the right nostril, retain the breath, than exhale via the left. See Kriyas about possible counter indications for this breath.
Bhramari: Bumble bee breath. This is a great breath for bring attention and focus inside and improving the immunity system. A sound like a bumble bee is made from inside of the throat (that sound you make at the end of the question, ¨eh?¨is what you want to aim for) and there is an option of closing the ears with the thumbs and placing the fingers on top of the head to increase the effect.
Murcha: Advanced practice. Retention of breath to an almost unconscious state.
Plavani: Advanced practice. Filling the stomach and lungs completely full of air to reach the visceral borders of both. Supposedly allows one to float on water…
Nadi Shoni with retention:
There is confusion between what is Nadi Shoni and Anulom Vilom. From my own studies and questions I have come to understand Nadi Shoni to be name of the breath and Anulom Vilom the technique. Nadi Shoni is a Kriya unless retention is added. When retention is added the practices goes like this:
Inhale left nostril, hold and close both nostrils, exhale through the right, than inhale through the right, retain the breath and exhale through the left than inhale through the right, retain the breath and exhale through the left. Continue the breath with the same constant rhythm/count in both nostrils and finishing by exhaling through the left. Eventually the goal is to reach a ratio of 1 (inhale):4 (retention):2 (exhale).