The next few techniques are pure pranayama practice, in that they are complete exercises and not to be multi-tasked into your life. Find a comfortable chair or floor position that allows you to sit up straight, close your eyes and bring your attention to the breath.
Criss-Cross Breathing, Indian Style
Nadi Shodhana means “clearing the channels of circulation” and is described as alternate nostril breathing. Studies have shown this technique has a quieting effect and is very helpful in reducing anxiety (and headache or other pain associated with it), overcoming insomnia and quieting an obsessive, compulsive mind.3
The basic technique is this: After a proper warm up (10 even breaths) inhale deeply, then close off the right nostril with your right thumb, exhaling through the left; smoothly inhale through the left, then close off your left nostril with your third/fourth right fingers, exhaling through the right.
There are several different variations that alternate nostrils in various patterns, designed to fine-tune the subtle effects of heating and cooling, energizing and relaxing. No matter what the approach, this technique is effective because it recognizes that the brain is divided into two hemispheres, the left brain controlling the right side of the body as well as artistic and creative sensitivities, and the right brain controlling the left side of the body, as well as the analytical and logistical functions. Nadi Shodhana addresses these disconnects and creates a criss-cross of energy that balances the actions of the brain, creating peace and presence.
A note of caution, nadi shodana should not be practiced when the sinuses are clogged. To do so would require force instead of flow, and this technique is designed to balance.
If you are feeling foggy and unfocused, the bellows breath can create exhilaration, improve digestion, increase metabolism and invigorate the liver, spleen, pancreas and abdominal muscles. Visualize the hand held bellows used to stimulate the flames of an indoor fire place, and you’ll understand how this breath can ignite the fire of life (agni), burning the stagnant rubbish around our internal organs, clearing channels and removing blockages.
When you are moving fast, you breathe harder. Your body increases your oxygen intake to meet the energy needs of the body. More oxygen equals more energy. So wether oxygen intake increases in response to muscular movement or mental intention, the result is the same. More oxygen equals more energy.
After a proper warm up, in a space that supports your internal focus, fully exhale, and then begin forceful complete exhalations followed by forceful deep inhalations through your nose at the rate of one second per cycle. The breathing movement should be from your diaphragm. Keep your torso as stable as possible while your belly moves in and out.
Start with a round of ten Bhastrika breaths, then resume normal breathing and simply observe the sensations in your body. If you feel able, after 15-30 seconds, begin another round of twenty breaths. Pause and observe for 30 seconds, and if you feel it safe and appropriate to continue, do a round of 30 breaths.
A variation of the bellows breath is the shining breath, called kapalabhati. It is less intense, and can be used to unclog sinuses in times of infection, allergy and general weakness. Where bellows breath is for burning, shining breath is for cleansing.
Sit comfortably and forcefully expel all the air from your lungs, then allow them to fill passively, breathing with your diaphragm. Do this ten times, allow your breath to return to normal and tune into your physical body. Listen to what it tells you! This cycle may be repeated three to four times.
Fine-Tuning the Technique
The next dimension of a pranayama practice is to consider ratios for each phase of the breath. The most simple example of this is to create samavrtti (samameans same, vrtti means movement) Consider the breath to be the inhale and the exhale, with a pause between each. Establish a count and make the inhale match the exhale, keep the pauses short and same.
A breathing pattern where the exhalation is longer than the inhalation is aimed at providing more time for cleansing and release. Any extended retention during the pauses should be sustainable for 8-10 breaths, and must not compromise the smooth flow of inhalation and exhalation. Trust your intuition and follow your inner guide. Pranayama is always healing. If something doesn’t feel right, stop external attempts to control and simply honor internal instinct.
Breath is the gift of life. When we work with the breath, we create the space to experience each situation in life as pure potential and positive karma. When we fall into unconsciousness breathing patterns, we become reactive, confused and disheartened. Putting on our own oxygen mask and allowing our breath to acknowledge and respond to our own needs is the only way our body and mind can be of service to others.