In ancient yoga texts, prana is the life-force or energy manifested through the breath. Pranayama is the practice of controlling this life-force by directing the breath. Each breathing exercise aims to achieve particular results, and different branches of yoga use different pranayama. Some pranayama are energizing, some are warming, others are cooling or calming. Performing these pranayama within a yoga class may help you get deeper into poses or give you the energy to keep going when you begin to feel tired.
You can try them off the yoga mat, too, when you need to warm up or cool down or if you're seeking a new wave of energy. Take a few minutes from your stressful day to re-energize by doing some deep breathing. Sample two of the more accessible pranayama techniques at home and see if you notice a positive change in your life-force.
Ujjayi pranayama: may the life-force be with you
Many yoga teachers will use metaphors as they strive to help students understand asanas (poses) or pranayama. Ujjayi (oo-j-eye-ee) pranayama is sometimes described as sounding like waves in the ocean or like a snake's hiss. Other teachers opt for a more pop-cultural metaphor: when you do Ujjayi, your breathing should sound a bit like Darth Vader's breathing. Imagine whichever metaphor brings you the clearest vision or understanding of the technique. And remember that it's alright to giggle in yoga class.
- To get an idea of what Ujjayi should sound like, try this: breathe in through your nose and, when you exhale, hold your palm in front of your mouth and try pushing the breath up and out of your throat with an extended "haaaaaa" sound. You should hear your breath and feel warm air on your hand. It's like when you fog up a window with your breath (hey, add that to your growing metaphor list).
- Do this a few times to get the hang of making the sound and the feeling it creates in your throat. Make sure your throat isn't tightening or gripping when you do this. Let it happen naturally. Once you've got it down, try it with your mouth closed.
- Practice this breath for a few minutes at first. If you begin to feel light-headed, stop and return to your normal breathing.
- After you've practiced for a few minutes, lie on your back with your legs spread hip-distance apart and your arms lying out to your sides, palms facing up. Close your eyes and breathe normally.
Simhasana pranayama: Lion's Breath
Picture a regal lion lounging on the savanna, opening his mouth wide in a grand roar, tongue bared and stretched, mane shaking. This is the essence of Simhasana (sim-HAHS-ana) pranayama, also known as Lion's Breath. It's a slightly silly-looking practice, this Simhasana, a bit humbling the first couple of times you do it. Kids love Lion's Breath precisely because it's bit silly. Stretching, toning, and relaxing the muscles of your face, cooling the breath, Simhasana is fierce and fun.
- Kneel down and sit on the backs of your legs and feet.
- Push the palms of your hands against your knees, spreading your fingers out like mighty claws.
- Breathe in deeply through your nose.
- Exhale through your mouth, opening wide like a roaring lion, letting a "haaaa" sound move with your breath from the back of your throat. Spread and stretch your tongue like you're trying to reach the tip of your chin.
- Try this breath a few times. If your knees hurt sitting this way, you can also try sitting in a comfy cross-legged position.