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Introduction to pranayam

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Pranayam (or Pranayama)

Breathing is life but how little do we know about it! For example, do you know that you use only ONE nostril at a time for our breathing? At any time, either only the right or left nostril will be working.  Test it out now. Place a finger half an inch below your left nostril for a few seconds, and then under your right. You will now which is working at the moment.  Amazing, isn't it?

And now for more. Do you know the active nostril changes, at regular intervals (approximately one and a half hours) during the day? And that for a short period, both nostrils come into play?

The ancient yogis in India knew all this and much more. They knew the intimate connection between breath and mind. For example, when you r mind is angry, watch your breathing. It will be disturbed. And similarly, if you hold your breath for long, your mind will get agitated.  The yogis were trying to get some degree of control over the mind. Since the mind is very subtle, impossible to grasp, they figured out how to use this connection between the breath and the mind. By controlling the breath, they were indirectly able to influence the mind.

There is a lovely fable of a minister punished by a king with imprisonment in a tower. He called his faithful wife to help him to escape, telling her to get a beetle, two drops of honey, a ball of slender and fine thread, a long twine and then a long rope. When the bewildered wife arrived with these things, he told her to moisten the antennae of the beetle with the honey, tie the the fine thread to its body and to leave it at the bottom of the tower wall. Smelling the honey ahead, the beetle slowly crept up the wall until it reached the minister. He then got hold of the end of the thread and asked his wife to tie the twine to the other end. He then pulled up the twine and  then the rope using which he escaped. The idea is how to manage the links between the gross (rope, body) to the subtle (thread, breath), to the very subtle (scent of honey, mind)

Pranayam, or control/regulation of the life force is thus the fourth step in the ashtanga yog system laid down by Patanjali. It comes after yam, niyam and asan.  So the first indicator is, it should be undertaken after getting at least reasonable degree of proficiency in the asans. Control of the body through posture is the first step, control of the breath is the second, which will eventually lead to the control of the pran or life force.

Pranayam is not as complex as it is made out to be, but neither is it something that can be trifled with. The ancient Sanskrit texts state that Pranayam properly done can cure all diseases, but wrongly done will only invite the same diseases!  Breathing is an automatic process controlled by the autonomic nervous system. We do not have any conscious control over it.  Just think what a mess we make of the things we have conscious control on (eg food). Therefore we ought to exercise EXTREME CAUTION before trying to meddle with something that God thought it best to keep away from our hands. It is thus of utmost importance to learn pranayam  from a proper teacher. For this reason again, I will be brief in this section and not go into details.

After having done the kriyas, particularly neti, and also the asans, the body is now ready to receive maximum benefit of pranayam. I will cover the preliminaries only here.

The first thing to learn is sectional breathing. We breathe through three parts of the chest  upper, middle and lower as well as the abdomen. We have to first learn how to breathe through each part individually before we can breathe through all of them.

- Sit in any comfortable pose and then lift both arms up and bend them backwards at the elbow to touch your back below the shoulder blades. Now take a few deep breaths through the upper chest. You can feel this part working in this posture.
- Now place your hands on your side chest, just under the nipple. Take a few deep breaths through the middle chest.
- Now place your hands on the sides lower chest  where the rib cage ends. Take a few deep breaths through the lower chest.
- Place one hand on the navel. Take a few deep abdominal breaths.
- Now try to take a "tidal breath" involving inhalation and exhalation through all these parts. Visit http://www.holistic-online.com/Yoga/hol_yoga_breathing_traditional.htm
for more details on this process

Practice the above for a few days. Now we proceed to "nadi-shodhana" or purification of the nadis. This is a preliminary process to pranayam, recommended by none other than Shri Sankaracharya over a thousand years ago.

Preparation for Nadi Shodhana
- Block your right nostril with your thumb. Breathe in and out deeply and silently (but not forcefully) through your left nostril 4-5 times
- Repeat by blocking the left nostril and breathe in and out through the right nostril.
- Now block the right nostril, inhale through left. Now release the right nostril and breathe out through it, while simultaneously blocking the left nostril. Repeat this a few times.
- Repeat the above process reversing the nostrils i.e. block left, inhale through right and then block right, inhale through left

Practice the above for at least a week. Now we can begin the actual nadi-shodhana.

Step 1 - Block right nostril, inhale through left. Block left, Release right, exhale through right
Step 2 - Inhale through right while left stays blocked
Step 3 - Release left, block right, exale through left

It is important there are no gaps between the three steps
Repeat steps 1-3, two to five times ONLY, according to capacity, three times a day  at sunrise, noon and sunset. Midnight is also recommended but probably impractical. In  a few months, your nadis (psychic channels) will be purified as per the texts. The excercises in this page are harmless if followed as per the directions in this page You are now ready to learn pranayam from a teacher. Further information is available in the inks and articles section alongside.  Good luck!