Pranayama is known as a Hatha Yoga practice to control and expand the vital energy (prana). In traditional texts such as Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Gherand Samhita, there are many different types of pranayama and their benefits are immensed. Each technique of pranayama is used specifically to bring about a specific change and benefits in the body-mind complex.
Broadly speaking all the different pranayama techniques are categorized under four different categories-
According to the science of Hatha Yoga, the flow of breath in each nostril is intimately connected with various opposite and dual functions such as right and left hemisphere activities, sympathetic and Para sympathetic dominance, action and relaxation in the body. It can be said that we are dominated by cyclic fluctuations, and that these fluctuations are reflected in the breath. Most notably in the breath in each nostril.
The science of Hatha Yoga, more specifically named as Swara Yoga also observes that the predominance of breath in the right and left nostrils alternates on an average of ninety minute cycles. Between the changes in dominance, there exist a state of balanced flow which is the period when all systems operate at optimum level and capacity and the spiritual energy (Atma Shakti awakened).
According to Swara Yoga and Hatha Yoga tradition, predominance air flow in one specific nostril signifies predominant state of one of the specific nadis (energy flow) in the body. For an example predominance of right nostril signifies dominance of Pingala Nadi (Solar energy or vital energy current) whereas predominance of left nostril represents predominance of Ida Nadi or the psychic or mental pranic force. Once these two are in the state of balance and harmony then the third energy force is active which is Sushumna Nadi or uplifting spiritual energy.
Literally Nadi Shodhana means purification of Nadi (energy channels). This is one of the most significant pranayama practices in Hatha Yoga and Kundalini Yoga tradition.
To perform Nadi Shodhana pranayama one may sit in any one comfortable position with the spine erect. Then bring right hand in front of the face in Nasagra mudra (hand gesture) with first two fingers resting on at the eyebrow centre and placing the thumb on the right nostril and ring finger on the left to close and open the nostrils.
Now to start the first stage of the practice start inhaling from the left nostril with slow, deep and rhythmic breath while keeping the right closed with the thumb. At the end of inhalation close the left nostril and open the right and breathe slowly and deeply.
After exhalation through the right nostril now inhale through the right and exhale through the left. This completes one round of the practice. This stage of Nadi Shodhana pranayama is also called alternate nostrils breathing. As this basic stage of the pranayama is mastered then gradually one is graduated to other stages of the technique which incorporates different breathing ratios.
This process of Ujjayi breathing works on extending the breath with complete comfort, awareness and relaxation. Ujjayi pranayama involves a very gentle contraction of glottis in the throat while breathing in and out. This gentle contraction of the throat helps controlling and regulating the flow of each inhalation and exhalation. As a result each breath becomes very smooth, conscious and deep.
There are number of heating pranayama techniques in Hatha Yoga which activate, vitalize and distribute prana in the body. By nature this activating group of pranayama techniques are highly vitalizing and energizing.
The technique of Kapalbhati pranayama is performed by reversing the normal breathing cycle. By making inhalation passive and exhalation active. It initiates action by activating the vertical movements of diaphragm in the body. During the practice exhalation is forced out of the body by contraction of abdominal muscles and upward movement of the diaphragm followed by subsequent passive inhalation and relaxation of abdominal muscles. Normally Kapalbhati pranayama is performed at the rhythm of each contraction per second. But later on with practice rhythm of the breath can also be increased.
Bhastrika belongs to the same category of heating or activating pranayama. Effect wise, Bhastrika pranayama is physically and energetically more intense and demanding than Kapalbhati pranayama. It is called bellows breath because it activates metabolic and pranic fire (agni) by initiating movements in the abdomen as similar as that of bellows.
Technically it is quite similar as Kapalbhati pranayama. Only difference is here is that in Bhastrika both inhalation and exhalation are active and forceful whereas in Kapalbhati pranayama only exhalation is active. In Bhastrika pranayama one requires a control over the diaphragm. During this practice it is very common that one may start feeling dizzy and feel hyperventilated. Therefore to do this pranayama effectively one has to gradually develop control over inhalation and needs to regulate it consciously to avoid dizziness. This entire practice should be performed in relaxed state of body and mind.
There are number of pranayama techniques which leave a cooling effects on the body. These cooling pranayamas have effects on the mouth and all the blood vessels located there. There are many blood vessels in the mouth and the tongue, these techniques of cooling pranayama directly cool down the body because blood carries heat in the body. Once mouth and tongue are cooled down then the circulation of cooler blood result in cooling down the rest of the body and especially the brain.
Literally Sheetali means cooling. In this technique of Sheetali pranayama breathing take place through the mouth by rolling the tongue from the sides. With the rolling of the tongue a tube like structure is created through which one inhales deeply and then at the end of inhalation one closes the mouth and exhales through the nose. This entire process is repeated a number of times with long, slow and deep full yogic breathing (incorporating three stages of breathing- abdominal, chest and clavicular breathing). For a better cooling effect one should perform it for 10-15 times with relaxed body, breath and mind.
Sheetkari also means cooling breath, it is another variation of cooling category of pranayamas. It is more convenient for people who cannot roll the tongue from the side. In the practice, lips are opened and teeth are exposed and then a long, slow and deep breath is taken through the mouth and at the end of inhalation lips are closed and exhalation happens through the nose. Once one inhales through the teeth, breath creates a hissing sound and results in cooling effects in the entire mouth region. Like Sheetali pranayama, Sheetkari can also be repeated for 10-15 times.
Sushant is Meditation & Philosophy Teacher and Academic Director at Rishikesh Yogis. Sushant carries long years of experience teaching practical as well as philosophical aspects of Kundalini yoga, Kriya yoga, Hatha Yoga and Tantra philosophy.