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basic pranayama for beginners : प्राणायाम

Dear Students,

Pranayama is the key to your practice. The breath is it. I often say “yoga and meditation” because in the West, yoga is considered to be something apart from meditation. It is not. Likewise, pranayama is no less yoga than asana (physical postures). The are all parts of a larger whole.

If you are only interested in yoga for exercise purposes, fine. As a friend says, “Diet yoga is probably better than nothing.” Even so, breath work is good for your body, metabolism, and stress levels. I really can’t recommend it enough.

The first type of yoga I started doing regularly was at Integral in NYC. The sequencing of their level one class is simple, straightforward and brilliant. I was never captivated by their more advanced levels in the same way, so I moved on. But no other style I tried included much pranayama, with the exception of Genny Kapuler (an amazing teacher for beginners and advanced practitioners alike. No one interested in yoga should pass through NYC without trying her class), who often includes it in asana class, as well as teaching a class devoted to pranayama every Monday. I began to notice in funky, free-for-all vinyasa classes that I had fun during and felt good immediately after, but the feeling didn’t stay with me long. It wasn’t much different than working out. Pranayama made the difference. The most pranayama you’ll get in popular yoga classes is some kapalabhati, which is great, but certainly not the most relaxing. And while you may want more fire from the skull shining breath (kapalabhati), I see your shoulders. You really could use some deep breaths.

I keep pranayama very simple, partly in hopes that the practices will become second nature to you and you’ll do them on your own. If you want an hour and a half of pranayama, go to Genny’s. There are very deep and complicated practices, some known for destabilizing an unprepared mind. These aren’t on the menu. You should learn pranayama with a teacher, and then practice on your own. The most basic practice I teach is an antar kumbhaka, or breath retention on inhalation.

Antar Kumbhaka for Beginners

  • Sit or lie comfortably with an open chest. Once you’re accustomed to this breath, you can do it standing or even upside down.
  • Feel your breath. Notice where it is, how it feels, and how you feel. Then return your attention back to the breath.
  • Put your tongue at the back of your upper teeth, where it hits the gum. Keep it there for the entire practice.
  • Inhale through your nose to the top of your chest for 4 counts. Hold your breath for 7 counts. Exhale through your mouth, around your tongue, for 8 counts.
  • Repeat up to 4 times. Once accustomed to it, you can repeat up to 8 times. Do this practice as much as you like. If you do it twice a day, you will transform. (Haha. Just kidding. You will feel better though.)

This breath is very soothing. I sometimes do it once at the beginning of savasana, to settle in. It can also be done when you feel on edge, before you go to sleep, before you eat, before an interview, and so on. It’s more effective in these situations if you practice it frequently, but it’s always worth a try.


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yoga for insomnia


Over a year ago I designed a class for insomnia, because a number of students asked what could help them sleep. I did a bit of research, but for the most part I offered what had helped me the most. Sometimes a pose just shifts me out of monkey mind toward slumber. There are all sorts of recommendations in the interwebs, including some sequences with poses (especially backbends) I would never do at night, much less before sleep. But we’re all different. Below is a series of what has worked for me.

These poses are all take or leave. You don’t have to do them all, in fact, you could just choose one or two and hold them for a few minutes. If you know you hold in a certain area, choose a pose that will help you release there. If you aren’t sure, ask. Choose poses you enjoy so that you aren’t fighting with yourself before bed.

If insomnia is a problem for you, your habits around bedtime are important. First, you should have a bedtime. Seriously. If you drop in bed when you can’t hold your head up in front of the computer anymore, but your mind is still reeling, you won’t sleep. You need to set a reasonable time to retire and commit to it. I try to be ready for bed an hour before that time, and get in bed with a book. You don’t have that time? Log out of facebook. You have time. Electronic devices, news, stimulating TV and movies, even stimulating music can keep us from settling down. So, an hour or two before bed, unplug. Then try this series.

  • Start with a few optional sun salutation As. Don’t jump though. Step forward and back. Do no more than three.
  • Lie on your belly for salabhasana (locust pose), but in this variation, don’t lift your chest. Only your legs. Lower and repeat once, holding until you feel a bit tired.
  • Relax for 10 to 30 breaths, feeling your front body move against the floor as you breathe.
  • Press back to balasana (child’s pose). Stay here as long as you like.
  • Roll up and take a few long forward bends. Forward bends calm the mind and start moving your awareness inward. If you feel fidgety or anxious, just keep drawing your awareness back to your breath, and deepen it. Don’t engage the muscles as much as you would in an active class. Try to relax and let go. The longer you stay in the pose, the quieter you will become.
        1. Paschimottanasana (seated forward bend) with a few pillows or blankets on your lap or under your knees to make it restorative
        2. Janu sirsasana (head-to-knee(ish) forward bend), also with lots of pillows, and/or
        3. Tarasana (diamond pose)
  • If, and only if, you have a strong sirsasana (headstand) practice, do it. If you aren’t totally there, skip it for now.
  • Sarvangasana (shoulderstand): As Geeta Iyengar notes in Yoga: A Gem for Women, “Sarvangasana and its variations are useful for developing a healthy mind. The nervous system is calmed and one is freed from hypertension, irritability, nervous breakdown, and insomnia. They are a boon for combating the stresses and strains of our daily life. They give vitality and self-confidence.” So this is your moment. Hold for 25 breaths to 5 minutes. Then lower the legs for halasana.
  • Halasana (plow). This pose is a miracle for insomnia. It’s one of the two poses that just shift something for me and in comes the Sandman. If your feet do not reach the floor, rest them on a bed or chair. Do not let your legs dangle. It is not restful. And you deserve better.
  • Roll out of plow as gracefully as possible and if you are not ready for sleep, try a restorative pose or two. Supta Baddha Konasana (supine bound angle pose) is nice and can be done in bed. Use blankets or pillows under your knees.
  • Supta Virasana (supine hero pose) is the other miracle pose for me (keep in mind, I might hold differently than you, but for me, it works). I think it’s the quad stretch, but this pose helps me sleep. Be VERY VERY careful with your knees. Use a bolster or pillows under your back and a block under your butt. DO NOT do the pose if you feel any knee strain. Just don’t. Hold 25 breaths to 5 minutes. Then take a slow, quiet down dog to iron you out.
  • Supta Matsyendrasana (Supine spinal twist) — our classic closing twist, any leg variation you like.
  • Savasana (corpse pose) is our final pose. Take your index and middle fingers together, and hold your ring and pinky fingers down with your thumb for some chandra bhedana pranayam (moon piercing breath).  In class we do a similar breath through each nostril with a different hand position. Here, use each hand (index and middle fingers) to close off the respective nostril. To help sleep, you will inhale left, exhale right, over and over. Don’t switch the inhalations. Instead, keep repeating inhalation through the left nostril and exhalation through the right for 3 to 5 minutes. Then relax your arms, palms up. If you aren’t in bed, get there and relax flat in corpse.

This should help you sleep. If you have questions, want a video, or more pics, drop me a line or comment. If you have sleep problems and want me to design a sequence just for you, drop me a line. I use a sliding scale, and you can always bring an insomniac friend and split the cost.

Sweet dreams,

asana blog pranayama yoga habits

how to slide pranayama into your day

Light on PranayamaAfter working on my general blog all week, which includes some info about my ashtanga retreat in Sri Lanka, I’m tempted to write about nethra vyamamam (yogic eye exercises). My eyes are burning after staring at the computer screen all day and I haven’t done these practices regularly in years. Alas, I’ll stay on topic: fitting pranayama into the day. Lauren asked how to fit it in when not practicing asana, and Amy wants to know the same.

To Lauren, I say try to get a little bit of asana in every day, even if it’s just a long adho mukha svanasana (down dog) or a surya namaskara (sun salutation) or two. Even viparita karani (legs up the wall) is better than nothing. If you have ten minutes, consider these.

I try to do five minutes of pranayama in the morning or before bed. If I’m energetic, I just sit down and do it. If I’m exhausted, I make my way into legs up the wall and rest there a few minutes. Then I begin some gentle pranayama. If it’s morning, I might sit up afterward and do more vigorous pranayama if I have time, and end with a savanasa (corpse pose). If you don’t have five minutes? You need pranayama even more than when you do. Squeeze it in! It will create the space you need to minimize stress by stepping back so that you don’t overreact to situations and make small problems bigger by creating mind storms (vritti) over little things, like unpleasant service or a missed subway.

Which techniques I choose are similar to what I’d choose for a class, mentioned in the last post.

I suspect you want some ideas about pranayama on the subway and at your desk. Yes, you can take a 5 minute break and breathe. You know this—the real question is how to create the discipline to do it. Creating a habit is probably the best option. “Habit is a cable; we weave a thread of it each day, and at last we cannot break it” (Horace Mann). Until the habit is formed, make yourself take a break for pranayama everyday at the same time daily, or when you are doing something specific, like riding home on the train, or when you begin to feel a certain way. After hours at the computer, I begin to feel a bit spacey. That’s my time.

Obviously, your choice of pranayama will be somewhat determined by where you are. In public, apa japa, deergha swasam or the krama breath are good choices. If your work space is somewhat private, you can do almost anything that won’t get in the way of your ability to return to what you were doing (nothing too intense). Make a note of how you feel after each exercise. If time permits, write it in an email or in your calendar so that you can reflect on how it’s helping. This can help to ingrain the habit.

If you find that you have trouble making yourself practice, do pranayama before whatever you usually do—before you open your book or ipod on the train, before tea, coffee, or chocolate, before calling a friend or searching out co-workers at the water cooler (Andrea). And make sure you’re practicing pranayama regularly with a teacher, which can be inspirational itself. If your teacher doesn’t do pranayama, ask if s/he’ll start. Many teachers are shy to instruct it because they think it’s not wanted.

In researching yoga blogs, I happened upon this bit about going home and getting on the mat instead of the internet, even for a minute. Yes! For me, that minute can turn into a 90 minute practice—even when I’d thought I was hungry.

blog favorites pranayama

pranayama प्राणायाम

Thanks for all the excellent comments. Because I’m delighted and surprised that there’s an interest in pranayama (breathing practices), that’s where I’ll start.

Pranayama translates from the Sanskrit, प्राणायाम, as “restraint of life force.” Prana is life force, or energy, similar to qi (chi) in Chinese medicine. It is said to travel most easily with the breath, and prana is sometimes translated as breath, or even as spirit. Iyengar says that, “It is as difficult to explain Prana as it is to explain God….prana is the principle of life and consciousness. It is equated with the real Self (Atma)….Chitta [mindstuff, or thoughts] and prana are in close association.”

The suffix -āyāma translates as regulate, restrain, or most commonly, control. In the Indian edition of Light on Pranayama, the opening page explains, “Pranayama, the yogic art of breathing, leads to a control of emotions which in turn brings stability, concentration, and mental poise.” Who doesn’t need a bit of that?

Pranayama Yoga
Pranayama Yoga chart Reproduction of illustration from Yogini Sunita’s, Pranayama Yoga: The Lotus and the Rose: The Art of Relaxation, Walsall, England, 1965

This is a vast topic, and I’d love input from teachers more versed in it than myself. Some argue that pranayama is too powerful for beginners to practice. I disagree. I learned the fundamentals of yoga in a class at IYI that taught three pranayama techniques at the end of every class. When my practice advanced, I explored other classes around the city, and while many were amazing, I noticed that without the pranayama (which is absent in most classes), the classes weren’t as grounding and the effects didn’t last as long.

I don’t want to get into how to do pranayama here. It’s best to learn from a teacher in person, rather than by reading about it. I do think it’s valuable to talk about different types of pranayama and their benefits. The quick parenthetical explanations below are meant as quick descriptors or reminders—not instructions!

In the last post Sarah commented, “I love to do some sort of centering technique before asana to draw my attention to the midline, like nadi shodana (alternate nostril) or a ham-sa kriya (attention up and down the spine). I would love to hear what other people do after asana, if not going right into meditation.”

I, too, like to begin class with pranayama, not only because I find it impossible to squeeze into the end of my short, 60-minute classes. I usually start with a reclined apa japa (simple awareness of breath) or deergha swasam (complete, three-part breath), followed by krama breath on the inhalation (inhale-hold for three steps of inhalation), or a seated nadi shodana, sitali (inhalation through rolled tongue), or kapalabhati (skull-shining, with quick expulsions on the exhalation and natural, small inhalations). It depends on the mood of the class. If they need to settle, I’m partial to nadi shodana. If they need energy or if it’s cold in the room, kapalabhati. If it’s hot, sitali. If they’re a little dull, krama. I haven’t taught murcha (covering the ears) or bramuri (murcha with humming on exhale) yet, but I plan to start, as I love them. I think bastrika is too intense for my short classes, so I don’t teach it. I do teach the bandhas (locks), but subtly.

After asana, I don’t usually have time for pranayama, but in the IYI classes that I mentioned, deerga swasam was taught directly after savasana (corpse pose), followed by kapalabhati, nadi shodana, one minute of meditation, and closing chants (in that order).  If I had time, I’d definitely teach any of the above-mentioned breaths after asana, except kapalabhati or bastrika as there isn’t enough time afterward to ground. I also might add krama on exhalation as well. How do others approach this? And how do you discipline yourself to end in time for pranayama, if time is short?

In comments on the last post, Lauren said that she’s “interested in learning more on the different breathing techniques and how I can incorporate these techniques into my life when I am not practicing.” I’ll speak to this in the next post.

An aside: I imagined that all the unemployed were probably sending people to long term volunteer stays at places like Kripalu and other ashrams. Indeed, the New York Times did a story on it the other day.

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