Introductory pranayama

Guidelines for pranayama practice, including preparation, asanas and breathing exercises, as well as contraindications.

    First, construct a lift…
  • Construct a lift from a neatly pleated blanket (or a use a ‘chereode’ Pranayama lift either on the floor or raised on blocks according to comfort) with a securely placed support for your head of sufficient height to ensure the chin inclines towards the chest.
  • Laying on the lift, make sure that the entire waist is well supported and lengthened (seek the advice of a experienced yoga teacher where uncomfortable).
  • Lay with the arms a comfortable distance from the body, palms up.

Before beginning of Pranayama practice, it is advisable to have made some in-depth study of earlier branches on the yoga tree that is the Yamas, Niyamas and the Asanas, at least to a preliminary understanding of how some of these principles are applied in practice. So it is advised that the perspective Pranayama practitioner has been going to a yoga class where these principles are explained in practice for at least six months on a regular basis. The basic guidelines and advice below should also be read and comprehended and a help should be sought out where uncertainty arises.

All this being said, the following practice is very simple and is preluded by a few supportive asanas to help prepare the practitioner mentally and physically to get the most out of the practice.

  • The practitioner should chose a clean, quiet space where they know they will not be disturbed for the length of the session (about 45 minutes to an hour).
  • Pranayama practice should not be undertaken after a meal. Leave 45 minutes to an hour after a light meal, or up to two hours after a heavy meal.

Then begin with…

  1. Balasana
  2. Adho mukha svanasana (at a wall)
  3. Purvottanasana (at wall)
  4. Uttanasana
  5. Ardha halasana
  6. Sukhasana

Now begin…

  1. Take a deep breath in and exhale all ‘tidal air’ before starting Prranayama practice.
  2. Rechaka and Puraka (exhalation and inhalation). In this elemental Pranayama technique, the foundations for other Pranayamas are laid.
  3. Begin to follow the breath. As the breath arises in awareness, be mindful that your awareness is at least training to be free from judgement and expectation.
  4. Allow a deepening of the breath to originate from natural adjustments that occur through bringing the inner or the imprinted nervous system to lie alongside the actual body or current posture.
  5. Think of your whole body/self as being filled with ever sub dividing energy channels and visualise them soften to receive the energy as it comes in with the puraka keep a grip on the ribs and chest when breathing out rechaka so that the out breath is deep and steady.
  6. Further advice

    • If the airways become blocked or you need to swallow in mid cycle, then try non forcefully to finish that cycle. If any ‘tidal air’ is breathed in during rectification of the problem then this must be expelled again before returning to pranayama. This is done by taking a deep breath and fully expelling the tidal air. This is always the case in regards ‘tidal air’ that it should be expelled before beginning a pranayama cycle.
    • If headaches or irritability occurs, take note of contraindications below and observe your practice. Note it is very unlikely that either condition will occur during lying down pranayama.
    • Like with asana, meditation, mantra, bhakti, if there is a feeling of force, then we are stepping outside the advice of the yamas. This is not a sin or something wrong but comparable with a man trying to find north by throwing away his compass. It is fruitless trying to take until experience is ready to give, so if we are not present and ready then when experience gives us the green light, we are neither willing to move nor know when it is timely.
    • Although in pranayama we are breathing into the chest, we must keep the abdominal area free, it’s not a case of either or but a subtle balance between the abdomen and the chest. This is particularly important towards the end of an in breath so that the spleen, liver and stomach can release, allowing more down feeling in the diaphragm feeding more up feeling in the chest. So there’s a sense of lengthening the abdomen to feed the chest if the chest is taking time to release and inflate, then the abdomen acts as a kind of overflow.
    • When extending the length of the in breath, think of the marathon runner and consider pace.

    Contraindications

    1. Keep the brain soft and ‘unswollen’ and don’t allow tension to build around the eyes.
    2. Lying down pranayama is suitable for all, including those new to the practice because it allows the student to concentrate on the practice without having to worry about posture and also to keep body and mind free from tension.
    3. During lying down practice, the diaphragm needs to keep releasing, the abdomen does not over inflate but we use its movement to feed the chest (provide room for the diaphragm). Therefore, watch out for force, keep the abdomen soft and listen to your experience above all else.
    4. Rechaka and puraka need to be practiced and developed first as they plant the seeds for ujjayi and kumbhaka. Ujjayi is the foundation of viloma. From these three, all other pranayama evolve (rather like with colours, there are a primary three from which all others are mixed).
    5. Always keep your eyes closed during pranayama. Unless sleepiness is irresistible, then the eyes may be opened but must be kept passive and steady.
    6. Under no circumstance should we be forceful (practice satya). If the nadis (energy channels) are not open and one forces, it’s like pushing against a coiled up spring, or pouring water into a blocked up sink – eventually there is back flow.
    7. Too much practice can for the same reason be problematic (build your practice honestly). If your practice is too lengthy prana backs up and forces itself where ever it can flow potentially causing an overflow of prana there. This is most common in the head and/or the solar plexus and this can lead to headaches or being over fired up.

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Quotes

Question: ‘I’m trying very hard in my practice but don’t seem to be getting anywhere.’

Answer: ‘This is very important. Don’t try to get anywhere in the practice. The very desire to be free or to be enlightened will be the desire that prevents your freedom.

— The Venerable Ajahn Chah