Pranayama: The Cleansing Breath Practice
The practice of pranayama is the practice of breathing consciously. There are different types of pranayama patterns and practices in yoga. The overall purpose of any pranayama technique is to bring our minds and bodies into union.
Other words for prana include: life-force, vitality, and “that which is infinite everywhere”.
Ayama means stretch or extend and is the action part of conscious breathing.
Examples of pranayama patterns include techniques of holding the breath, speeding up the breath, slowing down the breath, or focusing the breath in the chest or the belly. Specific patterns will create various immediate effects in the body and mind. For example, breathing into the upper chest lifts our energy levels and stimulates body and mind for action. However, in the end, any pranayama pattern is meant to bring us closer to full awareness.
We have a fire, called agni, present in our bodies situated in our bellies right around the navel. Agni is like an inner flame that (among other purposes) burns the rubbish in our bodies. When we have too much waste in our bodies it can accumulate all over but more specifically in the lower abdomen. When we exhale, the draft moves air and the flame of agni upward. The air continues out of our bodies taking the burned waste with it.
When waste is released from our bodies it leaves more space for prana. When we have too much waste in our bodies, not only is there less room for prana but it isn’t able to move freely either. When we practice pranayama regularly we create conditions for prana to move freely within.
The Yoga Sutra describes the flow of prana with this lovely image: If a farmer wants to water his terraced fields, he doesn’t have to carry the water in buckets to the various parts of his fields; he has only to open the retaining wall at the top.
If he has laid out his terraces well and nothing blocks the flow of the water, it will be able to reach the last field and the furthest blade of grass without help from the farmer.
In pranayama, we work with the breath to remove blockages in the body. The prana following the breath flows by itself into the cleared spaces. In this way we use the breath to make possible the flow of prana.
From The Heart of Yoga by TKV Desikachar
This practice is a cleansing practice. Spring is a natural time for cleansing but this practice can be done any time. Our bodies naturally cleanse themselves through coughs and colds – removing the congestion and heaviness of winter.
For this breathing pattern the exhalation becomes twice as long as the inhalation.
Sit with your spine long and tall. Gently close your eyes. For this practice, breath in through the nose and out through the mouth.
Start by simply tuning your mind into your breathing without altering your natural breathing rhythm. After a few breaths, notice how smooth your exhalation is. If it is not smooth and it has breaks and is choppy, try to make it smoother: create an even volume of air being expelled the entire duration of the exhale and an equal amount of pressure blowing out the whole time.
Make it like a water tap that is left at a certain position allowing the water to flow at the same rate the entire time rather than turning the tap up and down.
Next, while trying to maintain a smooth and easy exhale, notice the length of your inhale relative to your exhale. Begin to make the exhale longer. You can count down in your head if that helps.
You can start with: Inhale 1, 2, Exhale, 4, 3, 2, 1. Gradually work your way up to inhaling for a count of 4 and exhaling for a count of 8.
Be patient with yourself. It may take a few practices to achieve the longer exhale. Try this practice for 2-3 minutes at first then go for 10 minutes at a time. You can add a visualization too: imagine you are expelling anything you don’t want or need with your exhale; visualize expelling anything superfluous that is cluttering up your insides.
Then let your breath return to its own easy natural rhythm for a moment or two. Notice your energy level and how your body feels. Come back into the room whenever you are ready.
For more breathing practices that lead to self-healing, try The Release Method.