The Single Most Powerful Tool In Your Armory
We all aspire for a calm, peaceful, and steady mind. We have seen yogis and monks—and perhaps even friends and family—exhibit that state of total bliss. How can we take our mind to a state that is unperturbed by the chaos that surrounds us in the form of stress, anxiety, work pressure, emotional conflicts, and inner dilemmas? Can we do it by simply telling ourselves to become calm? For example, let us assume a situation at work so arises that makes you so angry and makes you want to react immediately and then you tell your own mind to calm down. Does that work? Or, another example, if you are instructed to NOT think about a pink giraffe for 10 seconds, can you really do that?
Hint—you are likely to specifically think about a pink giraffe. And here’s why.
Managing the Mind From the Level of the Mind is Impossible
Art of Living founder Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar makes an insightful observation, “One cannot handle the mind from the level of the mind. It is for this reason that although counseling or psychiatry seem to help in the beginning, it is not able to provide a complete cure in the longer term. Forcing positive thoughts on oneself is not enough,” Gurudev says. This applies to any aspect of our lives—be it material or spiritual goals.
Stability of Mind and Pranayama
“There is little use in having a machine that you cannot operate without a manual,” says Sri Sri, “Spiritual knowledge is like a manual for life. Just as we have to learn how to operate the steering wheel, clutch, brake, and so on to drive a car, similarly, to move towards stability of the mind, we must know the basic principles about our life force energy. This is the whole science of pranayama.”
Pranayama and Emotions
Our mind and emotions are closely linked to the prana or life force. When our prana or life force fluctuates, our mind also goes up and down through an emotional roller coaster. When your prana is low, you are likely to feel negative emotions like sadness, anger, heaviness, feeling of low, regret and overall negativity. When your prana is high, you are bound to experience positive emotions like joy, enthusiasm, happiness and a rush of high that comes from a source within.
Prana is the universal life force and ‘Ayama’ signifies regulation or extending or dimension. They are one of the most effective ways to prepare your body and mind for a deeper meditation.
Breath, Mind, and Pranayama
What helps us increase our prana is pranayama—the secret lies in our breath! Our breath connects the body and mind. Our emotions are closely linked to the way we breathe. When you are sad, you are likely to experience longer outbreaths versus when you are happy. Similarly, when you are at a place of worship, your breath becomes steady. Pranayama is the art of reversing this loop in our favor, to develop a say over our emotions and mind. When we start paying attention to our breath, when we regulate this breath, we come closer to a newer dimension within us which is peace and joy.
“With the help of these breathing techniques, as prana rises in the body, one starts to feel a transformation as direct experience and not as a forced mental exercise. One starts becoming happier, creative and more in command of their mind and emotions,” says Sri Sri.
Pranayama and Nadi
The prana or life force is said to flow through 72,000 nadis or subtle energy channels and energy centers (Chakras) in the body. Based on how smoothly the prana flows through these nadis, our mind is likely to be calm, enthusiastic, and energized. When the energy centers are blocked due to improper flow of prana, to that degree, we find our emotions go topsy turvy and the mind struggles to find a state of balance. Practicing pranayamas helps you regulate the flow of prana through these energy channels specifically. Even illnesses are said to first show up in our subtle body before manifesting in the gross body. Pranayama is a powerful way of keeping illnesses at bay.
Types of Pranayama
Ancient seers devised specific ways to regulate the breath for specific effects in the form of pranayamas. For example, if you cannot stop overthinking, try the Bhramari technique, or if you want to simply clear up the energy channels, kapabhati or skull shining technique is your go-to, or if you are lacking in energy, a few rounds of bhastrika should do the job for you! Here are some techniques for you to try:
Bhramari or Bumble Bee Technique
How is it done?
- Sit straight with your spine erect and close your eyes. Sit up straight in a quiet, well-ventilated corner with your eyes closed. Keep a gentle smile on your face.
- Place your right index finger on your right ear cartilage and left index finger on your left ear cartilage.
- While breathing out, press the cartilage lightly
Keep the cartilage pressed in, and make loud or high pitched humming sounds.
- You can repeat this 3-4 times.
- Once you have repeated it, be in no hurry to open your eyes. Just observe the calm settle in.
- Gradually you can either open your eyes or continue to sit for a meditation practice of your choice.
- Relief from anxiety and restlessness or worry
- Recommended for hypertension
- Calms the agitated mind and prepares you for meditation
- Recommended for those with migraine
- Improves concentration and memory
Ujjayi or Victory Breath
Ujjayi is a pranayama that signifies expansion or victory from bondage. Also when you practice the ujjayi breath, the chest and belly expand like a victorious soldier or warrior.
How is it done?
Ujjayi is a particular pattern of breathing that requires you to constrict your throat and breath, as if you were Darth Vader. It is also called the ocean breath because of the sound created by the movement of air in a constricted throat which resembles the sound of waves in the ocean.
Few things to keep in mind while doing Ujjayi breathing:
- For Ujjayi breathing, constrict the back of the throat slightly while breathing. You will be able to hear the movement of air in the back of the throat feebly, as if it were the sea waves.
- Continue to breathe in and out through the nostrils in Ujjayi with mouth closed; the breath is long and smooth.
- In Ujjayi, take full breaths such that when you inhale your chests expand and the belly expands and when you exhale the stomach goes all the way in.
- Keep your eyes closed and observe the breath movement.
- Balances cardiorespiratory and nervous system
- Releases stress, anger and replaces it with calmness
- Slows breath which is linked to longevity
- Clears up subtle nadis
- Clarity of mind
- Improves immunity
- Better sleep
- The sound draws and holds attention on the breath more easily, resulting in stress relief and emotional cleansing
- Ujjayi is an effective tool for you to experience yoga or the union of the body, mind and spirit through breath
- Using ujjayi while practicing asanas, improves the depth of your practice as the mind is brought totally in the present moment by the breath; also improves the stability of your posture.
- Just few minutes of ujjayi breathing can empty your mind of worrying, repetitive or negative thoughts and leave you calm, centered and focused.
- The heat produced from ujjayi breath
- Detoxifies internal organs
- Releases body tightness
Bhastrika or Bellow Breath or Breath of Fire
A few rounds of Bhastrika practice gives you more energy than a cup of coffee. It infuses you with prana and wakes you up. Bhastrika is a forceful breathing exercise that makes prana or life force gush into your system. It is for this reason this pranayama is called the breath of fire. It is called bellow breath because the forceful movement of breath is likely to remind you of a bellowing bull or cow that is angry.
How is it done?
- Sit in vajrasana or sukhasana (cross-legged, easy pose). Vajrasana is recommended as it helps to keep your spine absolutely straight which allows for unrestricted flow of prana in the body.
- Make light fists with both your hands and hold them in front of the shoulder with the nail side facing outward and knuckles facing inward.
- Take a deep breath in and as you do that, raise the hands up and open the fists towards the sky.
- Now exhale with some force and as you exhale, bring your hands down in their original position in front of your shoulders.
- Repeat this for about 20 breaths.
- Release the fists and place them on your lap with the palms facing the ceiling.
- Breathe normally.
Each round of bhastrika consists of 20 breaths. You can do 3 rounds of Bhastrika 20 breaths each round. After the practice, release the vajrasana. Observe the sudden rise of energy in the body, the gush of energy. Also observe the mind and the sudden silence. Be with it for a few minutes. Keep breathing normally with awareness. After this, you can move into a guided meditation or a meditation practice you may have learned.
Nadi Shodhan Pranayama or Alternate Nostril Breathing
One of the most popular and effective pranayamas is Nadi Shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing practice. Nadi shodhan translates to the process of cleansing the nadis or subtle energy channels in the body. The three main nadis in the body are Ida, Pingala, and Sushumna. These nadis can be blocked due to stress, toxicity or trauma. Apart from not letting you have a good meditative experience, what happens when these three nadis are blocked?
Blocked Ida nadi, which signifies feminine lunar energy, is linked to depression, flu, common cold, blockage in the left nostril and poor digestion.
Blockage in the Pingala nadi, which is equated with masculine solar energy, results in anger, frustration, overheated body, dryness, hunger, lust and blockage in the right nostril.
Sushumna nadi runs through the central spine from the base chakra all the way to the crown chakra and proper function of the sushumna nadi is needed if you want to still your mind and raise your awareness.
How is it done?
- Sit with your spine erect, shoulders loose, and have a gentle smile on your face.
- Let your left hand be on your lap with the tip of thumb and index finger lightly touching each other and other fingers folded into a light fist.
- Here are the three important touch points—the right index finger tip touches the middle of your eyebrows, the right thumb is placed on the sides of the right nostril. The ring finger and little finger on your left nostril. These three fingers will work like lids to close or open the nostrils in the following instruction.
- Now, press the right ring finger lightly against the left nostril, so no air can get in from that side. As you place your ring finger on the left nostril, breathe in deeply from the right nostril.
- As you breathe in, close the right nostril with the right thumb. Taking a short pause, release the ring finger and let the breath out from the right nostril.
- Repeat the exercise from the right nostril. Close in the left nostril with the right thumb and breathe in from the right nostril. As you breathe out, close in the right nostril and let the air out from the left. This makes a single round of Nadi Shodhan.
- Practice at least 9–10 similar rounds of Nadi Shodhan pranayama.
Keep your eyes closed throughout the practice and even after completion of the rounds. Gently observe the mind as it settles down and prana starts moving gently from the base chakra to the crown chakra.
Nadi shodhan pranayama is called a preparatory breathing practice for asanas or meditation as the correction of the flow of prana stills the mind and clears out restless activity in the mind. An important tip here is that the result of the pranayama is reinforced when followed up by a short meditation.
- Balances the main nadis that course through the body
- Most effective breathing technique to center the mind in just a few minutes
- Balances the right brain and left brain hemispheres
- Regulates your body temperature
- Improves sleep function
- Invigorates the nervous system
- Improves focus and clarity of mind
- Deepens your meditation or any other spiritual practice
- Better respiratory function and effective utilization of dormant lung capacity
Some people report feeling tired after a meditation session. To avoid this, after you finish your meditation practice, practice a few rounds of nadi shodhan pranayama so the toxins released during meditation are let out of the system.
Pranayama and Meditation
Pranayama in its basic essence prepares you for meditation. Meditation is a mindful art of doing nothing, which may be hard to do for many of us, given our constant impulse to act in order to achieve something. What makes it easier and more effortless for us to meditate is pranayamas. When the prana flows through the body-mind complex smoothly without resistance, you are likely to be more centered, meditate better and deeper. Pranayamas are a mechanism to eliminate the need for you to ‘focus’ or ‘concentrate’ in order to dive within yourself, because breath as a tool is the most powerful and simplest of ways to unite the mind, body and spirit in meditative awareness.
Why do you need to learn these techniques from an instructor?
Like any form of art, you need proper guidance if you want to learn meditation or the art of right breathing.
How intensely should you breathe while practicing bellow breath?
How do you examine if you are not exerting too much force on the back of your throat in ujjayi?
How to know if you are not pressing your right nostril too hard?
or, how to meditate after practicing pranayamas?
All these questions can be best answered by a certified instructor. Just reading about the different types of pranayamas, meditations, and their purpose is not enough. In the manifest world, for learning a musical instrument or a sport that has a set of rules, you need a guide or an instructor. But the inner life is far more mystical, there are fewer rules and it reels largely in the realm of the unknown. A seasoned expert can help you navigate this intangible hitherto unexplored territory of bliss.