It’s a big word for something that anyone can do: Pranayama (breath control or control of the Life Force) describes practices developed 6,000 years ago that are still with us. Pranayama is about moving and controlling the breath to calm the mind, improve moods, slow the heartbeat, and normalize digestion and blood pressure. Pranayama also improves sinus health and strengthens the lungs. Here are some basic practices for morning, noon, and night. There’s nothing needed but a comfortable seat, cushion or yoga mat, your full attention, and optimally, an empty stomach.
“BREATH OF FIRE” (Kapalabathi) Who needs coffee? This is definitely a morning practice that will strengthen your lungs, detoxify the blood, and wake up your brain. Note that it can induce a bit of lightheadedness, so don’t overdo it until you get into the rhythm.
Sit up tall, lengthening the space between your navel and your heart. Breathe in and out through the nose and start to pull your abdomen in during the exhale, and press it out during the inhale. Imagine your belly fills up with air during the inhale and use your abdominal muscles to push the air out during the exhale. It’s like snorting.
Begin to shorten each breath, picking up the pace. The breathing should be audible and fast. Aim for 30 seconds to start. Gradually build up to a longer, faster. Pause to enjoy the buzz. Reset by taking some normal in and out-breaths.
With practice, you will be able to do several rounds without feeling “floaty.”
“ALTERNATE NOSTRIL BREATHING” (Nadi Shodhana)
Have tissues at hand. Like Breath of Fire, this is a profound cleansing practice for the brain and body (and needless to say, your sinuses). Again as with Breath of Fire, you may experience some lightheadedness if you’re unused to practices like this. Take it slow and hit “pause” when you feel the need. Be sure you’re comfortably seated in a chair or on a mat.
Inhale through your left nostril and then close it with your fingers. Open the right nostril and exhale through that side. Inhale through the right nostril and then close it. Open the left nostril again and exhale through the left side. That’s one “round.” Try for 3 or more rounds.
This is deceptively transformative. And calming. The name refers to the actual timing of your breath. Eyes closed and seated comfortably, inhale quietly through both nostrils for the count of “7,” holding the breath for the count of “2” and then releasing on the exhale to the count of “11” with an audible open-mouthed exhale, as though you were trying to fully empty your lungs. This exercise will completely down-regulate your nervous system. Practice every day for 4 or more rounds.
ANY TIME OF DAY
“DEEP BELLY BREATHING” (Diaphragmatic Breathing)
This is an all-purpose exercise for any time of day. Lie on a comfortable mat or blanket (ok, a beach would work, too). Bend knees, place both feet on the earth, let knees fall open so that your feet are touching (creating a triangle). One hand rests on your heart, one hand on your belly. Close the eyes, and breathe deeply through the nose, letting the belly rise and fall. Let your attention move up to the “third eye,” the space between the eyebrows which yogis identify as the seat of your intuition. Breathe in, breathe out, feeling the rib cage expand and the collar bones lift. Feel the relaxation wash over your mind and body. Life is good!
“OCEAN SOUNDING BREATH” (Ujjiayi Pranayama)
Sit up tall with your shoulders relaxed and dropped away from your ears; close your eyes. Become aware of your breath without trying to control it. Take a steady breath through both nostrils. Inhale until lungs are fully expanded. Hold your breath for a second, then constrict the back of your throat, and exhale slowly through the nose as though you were fogging a mirror with your breath but with mouth closed. You will create a sound like an ocean wave. You should feel the breath on the roof of your mouth as you exhale. Try 10 repetitions.
Note: Any of these practices can add value to an existing meditation routine.