Over the past few decades, the popularity of yoga has transformed this ancient science into a full-fledged industry. Now known primarily as a practice of asanas, this multi-layered science of 8-core practices rooted in the foundation of union is more than a series of poses. In addtion to downward dogs and tree pose, another key component in the practice of yoga is pranayama or controlled breathing. Not commonly incorporated into yoga classes, pranayama is highly regarded in Ayurveda for its ability to tune into our breath, reduce stress, and support mind-body balance. To learn more about the benefits and various forms of pranayama, we chit-chaatted with Joe Rich, a practitioner and teacher of Kundalini yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan and Founder of Pacific Coast Ayurveda and the Center For Applied Consciousness in Gualala, California
A Q & A with Joe Rich, founder of Pacific Coast Ayurveda and the Center For Applied Consciousness
What is pranayama?
The yogic science of breathing is called pranayama. Prana is similar to oxygen, which is the most vital nutrient in our body – fundamental for our body’s digestive function, nervous system and glandular systems. Pranayama is the root practice of yoga, it precedes asana practice, which is what most know yoga as today. We could go on for days about the practices of pranayama, their effects, and personalizing the practices! In a nutshell, the practice and mastery of pranayama gives one mastery of their response to life.
What are the different type of pranayama and their benefits?
There are many many types of pranayama, all with unique benefits. A few of the most commonly used in Kundalini Yoga are:
Anuloma Pranayama (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
Balances the left/right sides of the brain and body, or the masculine/feminine, ida & pingala. This is a great breath to start with, and almost everyone can practice this breath.
Sitali Pranayam (Curled Tongue Breath)
Very cooling and calming breath reduces excess heat and inflammation, supports healthy sleep. This is a great breath for pitta.
Breath of Fire
Heating breath that stokes the agni, energizes, increases circulation, loosens the diaphragm. Most important for vata and kapha types, as their agni tends to be imbalanced.
Long Deep Breathing
Concentrated focus on abdominal breathing, and the expansion of the 3 major breath cavities, the abdomen, the rib-cage, and the collar bone. Long deep breathing is practiced in increasing time increments until the practitioner can breathe just one breath per minute. Mastery of this gives a yogi or yogini mastery of their emotional body.
Is there an ideal time of the day to practice pranayama?
Yes, the ambrosial hour just before sunrise, and at sunset. At both of these times, the sushmina, the central pranic channel naturally opens. At this time the ida and pingala are balanced, which allows the sushmina to open, and the kundalini to rise.
For many of us finding time can be challenging, does pranayama need to be practiced daily to feel the benefits? And do we need to practice all of them?
Yes, pranayama should be practiced daily. It can be practiced anywhere, on the yoga mat or in your car on your way to work. Even three minutes per day can be very beneficial. If you don’t have three minutes per day to give to yourself, you should change your lifestyle. You do not need to practice all of them.
When should one not practice pranayama?
If you have an existing health condition that would be worsened by any of the pranayama practices. This would need to be addressed by an MD, or Ayurvedic Doctor.
Can pranayama be approached seasonally? For example, practicing certain types by season?
Yes, but just as importantly it should be practiced by dosha type like mentioned in question #2. Seasonally, it is typical for cooling breaths to be practiced more in the summer months, and heating breaths in the winter months. Calming grounding breaths are ideal during fall (vata season), and stimulating and cleansing breaths are ideal during spring (kapha season).
With the many lineages and types of yoga, are there any key differences in how pranayama is approached or practiced?
Yes. Some forms of yoga do not emphasize breath practice at all, while some put almost complete emphasis on it. With that said, pranayama is one of the eight limbs of yoga, so it’s importance cannot be ignored.
Not many yoga classes incorporate pranayama, is it important to practice breathing prior to asanas?
Yes, pranayama helps to highly oxygenate the blood. If the blood has been oxygenated through pranayama first, then asana (exercises) can be practiced with increased effectiveness and with more benefit.
Some would say how can breathing promote vitality, immunity and greater mind-body-soul health, what would you say those who don’t believe in the power of breath?
It absolutely does! What would I say to someone who doesn’t believe in the power of breath?… Hold your breath for more than 4 minutes!
Joe Rich has been a practitioner and teacher of Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan since 1998. He is a KRI (Kundalini Research Institute) certified teacher as well as possessing a degree in Healthcare Management, a background in counseling emotionally disturbed inner-city teens, running group homes for at-risk youths, and working as an epidemiologist for the CDC. The founder of Pacific Coast Ayurveda and the Center For Applied Consciousness, his work focuses on a holistic view of the individual and his/her “health” – spiritually, physically, and psychologically.