Basic Pranayama Techniques
Given below are instructions for some of the basic pranayama techniques. A list of the most commonly practiced pranayama techniques, along with links to blog posts where detailed instructions are given, is available on my blog here.
For all the breathing techniques given below, it is important to sit in a comfortable seated posture, keeping the spine upright and the body relaxed.
The word "ujjayi" is derived from the Sanskrit root "ji" (जि) with the prefix "ud" (उद्) added to it. So the combined root is "ujji" (उज्जि) which means "to be victorious". Ujjayi (उज्जायी), thus means "one who is victorious" and "ujjayi breath" would mean "the victorious breath".
Because of the various benefits it provides (listed below), Ujjayi is highly recommended as the breathing technique to be used during any of the yoga practices (asana or pranayama) that require you to breathe deeper than your natural breath. For example, while practicing Sun Salutation, it is recommended that each movement be made slowly and synchronized with the appropriate deep inhalation or exhalation. In this case, since the breathing is slow and deep, Ujjayi is recommended for each breath. Similarly, while practicing pranayama techniques involving deep breathing, like the "alternate nostril breathing" called "Naadi Shuddhi", it is recommended to use the ujjayi breath.
Sectional Deep Breathing
The sectional breathing techniques are used as a preparation for the full, deep yogic breathing practice in Pranayama. These can correct the breathing pattern and also help to increase lung capacity by encouraging fuller breathing into different areas of the lungs. Deep breathing into different parts of the lungs brings in abundant supply of fresh oxygen into these areas. This helps improve the health of the lungs as well as making more oxygenated blood available for each and every cell of the body. Because our attention is focused on different parts of the lungs, our overall awareness of the breathing process is enhanced. In the following breathing practices, keep the eyes closed so you can completely focus on the depth and quality of breathing as well as on the movement of the arms and shoulders.
Deep (Yogic) Breathing (Deergha Shvaasam)
In the deep sectional breathing sequence described earlier, we try to engage three different areas - top, middle and bottom - of the lungs in a deep breathing pattern. In the deep, full yogic breathing we combine the three sectional breaths into one single breath involving deep inhalation and exhalation. For each inhalation and exhalation, we use deep and soft Ujjayi breaths. We also employ the movement of the arms synchronized with the flow of breath. This helps deepen our awareness of the breathing cycle and how the breathing is impacting different parts of the lungs.
Duration of each inhalation and exhalation depends upon individual capacity. This capacity will improve over time with constant practice. Over a period of time, try to develop a ration of 1:2 between the durations of inhalation and exhalation.
Breath of Fire or Skull shining (Kapalabhati)
In the classical Hatha Yoga text "Hatha Yoga Pradeepika", Kapalabhati is described as one of the six cleansing kriyas (shatkarma). However, because it involves manipulation of the breath and its well recognized benefits, it is widely practiced as a part of the pranayama techniques. The focus in this pranayama is on exhalation which is brisk, short and forced. Inhalation after each exhalation is passive and automatic with no effort. Simultaneous with the exhalation, the abdomen is pulled in with the navel moving back toward the spine.
Performing Kapalabhati is easy. The lungs, when opened, act as a vacuum. Therefore, you will not have to focus on breathing, merely moving your diaphragm. Using your abdominal muscles, move the diaphragm in and out while keeping your lungs open. As the diaphragm is forced in, air will be forced out of the lungs. As the diaphragm is allowed to relax, air will be drawn in to your lungs. Increase the speed of your contractions until you are rapidly breathing with emphasis on exhalation.
Detailed instructions on the Kapalabhati technique, benefits and contraindications are available here.
Alternate Nostril breathing (Naadi Shuddhi)
Also known by the names "Naadi Shodhanam" or "Anuloma-Viloma", Naadi Shuddhi (नाडी शुद्धि) is one of the most commonly practiced pranayama techniques in yoga. The word "naadi" means "nerves". In fact, in yoga the term naadi is applied to psychic channels associated with the flow of prana (vital life force). According to some ancient texts, there are 72,000 such naadis in a human system. The words "shuddhi" or "shodhanam" both mean "cleansing" or "purification". So the term "naadi shuddhi" literally means cleansing of the subtle nervous system. A clean naadi system allows free flow of prana which helps bring more vitality and energy to the system.
In this breathing technique, we use deep, soft (almost soundless) ujjayi breaths for each inhalation and exhalation.
Rapid Breathing (Naadi Sanchaalana)
In this breathing technique, we increase the breathing rate to approximately 100 breaths per minute. Remember our normal breathing rate is between 12 and 15 breaths per minute.
Technique: Make Vishnu Mudra with your right hand (see picture above) and close the right nostril with the right thumb. Through the left nostril begin to breathe at a rate of approximately 100 breaths per minute. The breathing should be even, smooth and comfortable. Try to breathe for up to one minute (~100 breaths). Do not strain. If you cannot complete one hundred breaths, stop when you begin to feel uncomfortable. Take a couple of natural breaths and then repeat the process through the other nostril closing the left nostril with the last two fingers. Finally, repeat the process with both the nostrils open.