The Basics of Pranayama

Much of my experience of pranayama has been with Philip Xerri who teaches in the tradition of Swami Gitananda. In this and teachings derived from this, we look more closely at pranayama as a specific practice. Not just the commonly done practices, but the precursors to those practices. For example, I do not think you will ever gain the full benefit of a practice like nadi shodana while you remain unaware of the musculature of the breathing apparatus and what really constitutes a “full breath”. Philip Xerri likens it to the practicing of scales and arpeggios as a preliminary to playing music. Swami Gitananda speaks of two primary building blocks – the Mahat Yoga Pranayama (Full Breath) and the Sukha Purvakha Pranayama. If these are not practiced initially, the more “advanced” practices are built on a weak and incomplete foundation.

The Mahat Yoga Pranayama is the first main pillar. It brings awareness into the physicality of the lungs and apparatus of breathing. It highlights the three sections of the lungs, ie lower lung or abdominal section (adham), middle lung or intercostals (madhyam) and upper lung or clavicular (adhyam). Without this practice the instruction “breathe in” results in a rather general unspecific response – in and up. There is movement, but it is not focused and not localised. With this practice of breathing into specific areas, you start to work with fine movements of specific muscle groups.

The Sukha Purvakha Pranayama is the second main pillar of pranayama preparation. In this practice you leave off the physicality of what parts of the body are driving the breath, and where the breath is going. You start to deal with the act of breathing. Feel an in breath, feel an out breath, feel a breath hold – both in and out. You start becoming aware of the duration of the components of the breathing cycle. The word sukha means sweet or symmetrical. The word benefits purvakha means ‘the parts between’. As the practice develops, we work with the in-breath and the out-breath and also the breath holds in and out, all in various combinations. We increasingly explore and develop what it means ‘to breathe’.

Having spent time on the two foundation pillars, when you do start on the more commonly known or “classical” pranayamas, the whole practice of breathing is at a very different level to that before you started. These practices open up the lungs and attune the nadis.

Progressing onward from a stronger foundation, there is practice and development of the main classic pranayamas. Also we work with the principle that pranayama is the fourth ‘limb’ in Patanjali’s Asht Anga or Eight Limb practice as detailed in the Yoga Sutras. Pranayama is an external, physical practice. But also it is an internal practice, leading to deepening concentration and quieting of mind. With this in mind, we also develop practices that deepen concentration, working with various concentration techniques. We increasingly explore and develop what it means ‘to concentrate’.