I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that yoga has infiltrated mainstream pop culture. One could find a yoga studio in virtually every large city in the world. Yet the way yoga is practiced can vary widely from place to place.
For instance, where I live in California, most yoga practitioners that I’ve met tend to equate yoga with stretching, breathing, and some meditation practices. It’s true that these practices are part of yoga. However, if you were to ask a yogi in India who practices yoga traditions as described by Pantanjali (yoga’s most widely accepted founding teacher), you would learn that there is actually a plethora of yogic practices that have little or nothing to do with movement or stretching.
Many teachers maintain that the term “yoga” from Sanskrit is best translated as “work.” Therefore, if one desires to dedicate one’s self to yoga one is dedicating oneself to a lifetime of work. This work includes purifying and maintaining the health of one’s body, but it also includes the work of purifying and gaining control of one’s mind and desires. Ideally, the end goal of practicing yoga is that one’s entire life becomes their yoga, and at this point they are one with God.
If that sounds like a bit too much for you to swallow, don’t worry. Remember that although yoga historically comes from spiritual teachers, it is a practice, not a religion. Therefore there are no rules saying you must believe this or that, or that you are forced to do anything. Or that you are forbidden from doing anything else.
Yoga is work, but it is also a journey. So enjoy it as you please. This series is written with the intention of sharing yoga practices that yogis in the Western world may not have been exposed to before. If you read about a practice that sounds good to you, I encourage you to try it. If you like it, keep doing it. If something does not appeal to you, then skip it. You can always return to it later, or not. The choice has always, and will always, be yours to make.
Introduction to Pranayama:
Pranayama is often translated as meaning “breath work” or “breath control.” As is usually the case with translating Sanskrit, this is not quite a complete translation. “Prana” is best described as the “life force” or “vital energy” that flows through all living beings; therefore prana and breath are intrinsically related, but in the yogic understanding they are two distinct entities.
However, if we wish to work with our prana – to learn to strengthen it, rejuvenate it, channel it, etc. – the most direct way to do so is with our breath. By focusing and controlling our breath we can circulate energy through our bodies in various ways.
Many pranayama practices involve sitting still with closed eyes and breathing in a particular way for a given number of repetitions or given amount of time, followed by a period of relaxed breathing. Good general advice for someone who is new to pranayama practice is to relax throughout the process. Some pranayama practices can be quite difficult for those who have not previously tried them. However, if you feel strained, tense, or out of breath then you will not reap the benefits of the practice.
First and foremost, relax and make your breathing comfortable. When you are steady in maintaining ease in your breath, then you may push yourself to try more advanced techniques.
Because of the still and breath-focused nature of pranayama, it is a useful tool for warming up the body before getting into an asana practice. Equally, it can be used for cooling down the body after performing asanas.
Nadi Shodhana Pranayama
Nadi Shodhana is a Pranayama practice that involves alternating one’s breathing between the two nostrils in order to open up nasal passages and create a circulating flow of prana throughout both sides of the body.
I like to practice Nadi Shodhana for a couple minutes before getting into my asana practice. Starting my practice with some rounds of pranayama allows me to turn my focus toward my breathing, which helps me maintain that breath awareness through the asanas. It allows my body to warm up a bit, and gets my circulation flowing.
To begin a Nadi Shodhana practice find a comfortable seated position.
If it works for you, I recommend sitting on the floor – perhaps on your yoga mat or on a cushion for comfort. Whichever sitting position allows you to be most comfortable while keeping your back straight is best. A few sitting positions commonly used include: lotus, half-lotus, cross-legged, or rabbit (on your knees). Alternatively sitting on a chair with feet flat on the ground is fine for those who can’t sit comfortably on the floor.
When you have found your seated position, take a moment to actively relax into the position and find some stillness. Remember to keep your back straight and your seat rooted into the floor.
Maintaining a straight back in a seated position–even for one minute–can be very difficult for those who have not previously practiced seated meditation. If this is the case for you, try to find the balance between exerting the effort to keep your back straight and being relaxed. It seems like an oxymoron at first, but keep trying, it will get easier with continued practice.
Now that you are still in your seat let your eyes softly close. Take a few full breaths in and out and simply take note of how your breath feels. Is it full and deep, or shallow and strained? Find any places where it is held or tense, and see if you can relax the tension away to allow for a fuller breath. While doing this, take care to keep your efforts easy. Continue to scan your body from your face down to your toes, and relax away any tensions that might arise.
After you have completed a few cycles of breath, you are ready to begin Nadi Shodhana.
Choose one hand to start with–let’s say your left. With that hand make a fist–a relaxed fist–and then extend your thumb and pinky finger. You are effectively making the “hang-loose” hand sign. With the other hand you can chose another relaxed mudra of your choice, or simply leave it open–palm facing up or down.
Bring your left hand up in front of your face, while taking care not to raise your shoulder. In this position, you will be using your thumb and pinky finger respectively to close one nostril and then the other as you breathe solely through your nose. As you do so, the most important part is that you maintain relaxation throughout your body, and awareness of your breath.
In the morning time, it is suggested that one begins with their right nostril; in the evening time, the left.
Let’s say it is morning time. Press your left thumb against your left nostril enough to seal it closed. Inhale through your right nostril deeply. When your breath is full, hold it for a brief moment, only long enough to release your thumb and instead press your pinky finger against your right nostril to close it. Now exhale through your left nostril. After you have exhaled completely, leave your hand as is and inhale through your left nostril. At the top of the breath, switch nostrils and exhale through your right nostril. Thus one round of Nadi Shodhana is complete.
But don’t stop there. Repeat this cycle of breathing again and again. For first time practitioners, I’d recommend trying to complete 10 rounds, or perhaps continuing for two minutes if you don’t want to count. As you continue the practice you may gradually increase the number of rounds, or the time you maintain the practice as you see fit. If you feel that your arm gets tired of holding your hand in front of your face, you can simply switch hands between breaths.
However many rounds you complete, be sure to finish the last one by exhaling through the same nostril you first inhaled through (in this example, the right nostril).
After completing a satisfactory number of rounds, allow both hands to relax on your lap and breathe normally again. Again take note that your body is maintaining good posture and relaxation from head to foot. Sit in stillness and rest for about one minute.
Next, ideally, you repeat the process starting from the other side. So if it’s morning and you started by inhaling through your right nostril, this time you will start by inhaling through your left. Do the process for the same number of rounds, or same amount of time as you did for the other side. Again switch hands as necessary if they tire.
When you have completed this side, allow the arms to relax on your lap, and breathe normally for a minute or two. Pay attention to any subtle sensations that you’ve stirred up inside. Sometimes I feel as if a whirlpool is circulating in my torso, chest, or throat. This is the sensation of the prana flowing freely through your body. It is a very good sign. I like to remain in my seated posture, feeling these subtle sensations until they’ve faded.
Conclude your practice however you see fit. Chanting a few om’s, and the Shanti mantra is one nice way to wrap things up. Or move on to your asana practice. However you wrap up your Nadi Shodhana, be sure to move slowly when coming out of your seated position. If you were seated on the floor, it is likely that your feet or legs may have fallen asleep during the practice. I like to extend my legs in front of me and shake them both side-to-side and up and down before I get up.
Some yogis recommend practicing Nadi Shodhana for at least a couple of minutes each day–perhaps when you wake up and before you go to sleep. Making this practice part of your daily routine will increase the effectiveness of its benefits.
This practice improves one’s circulation and breathing. By breathing fully through one nostril at a time, you force your nostrils to fully expand which in time encourages your nasal passages to widen–effectively allowing you to breathe more fully.
This practice is also said to be helpful in reducing and removing emotional blockages, which can be correlated with blockages in one’s airways and circulatory system.
I can personally attest that when I engage in Nadi Shodhana I always come out of it feeling more clear-headed, relaxed and lighter.