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The Self-Care of Pranayama

Natalie McGreal | May 27, 2014

Hey there, guess what? I don’t practice vigorous asana everyday. Gasp! But it’s true. I am a yoga teacher, and I don’t practice deep backbends, inversions and challenging arm balances every single day.

Why not? Well, because on certain days—considering the time of month, the season, my massage workload, etc.—my body, mind and spirit do not benefit from (or I simply cannot do) a vigorous asana practice.

But there is something that I always benefit from: taking time to be conscious with my breath.

Pranayama is a Sanskrit word that means “extension of the life force.” It is one of the eight limbs that comprise the complete practice of yoga.

Along with the extension and movement of life force, vital energy and all that other fancy stuff, pranayama at it’s most basic helps the mind and body to feel good. And by good I mean less anxious and more calm and peaceful, which is enough reason to carve out some time to practice.

There are many exercises available to help us guide the breath and prana (AKA life force) into certain energetic regions of the body, as well as the whole body.

If you are new to pranayama, I suggest starting gentle and slow. Start at the beginning. Practice observing your unaltered breath. This may be done lying down or sitting on a chair or cushion. As you sit quietly with the eyes closed, observe. Note the general quality and characteristics of each breath cycle. Is the breath smooth or rough? What is the depth of each breath? Does each breath happen with ease? Develop an intimate awareness to your breath.

From here, move on to shaping the breath. Begin with Sama Vritti, AKA “equal parts breath,” and experience a deeper connection to the breath as it moves through your body. Sitting comfortably on a chair or cushion with your eyes closed, gently guide your breath so your inhales mirror your exhales in texture and length. Using a count is helpful, and I suggest beginning with a steady paced count of four. If it feels comfortable after practicing for a while, you can increase the length of your inhales and exhales.

As you continue on your yogic journey, you will find many other pranayama practices with different purposes and benefits, such as Nadi Shodhana or “alternate nostril breathing.” Nadi Shodhana gives us direct access to the Third Eye, the first chakra or the “command center.” It harmonizes the right and left hemispheres of the brain, and purifies and balances the nadis, or subtle energy channels, in the body. As is a common result with many pranayama practices, Nadi Shodhana grants a calm and centered mind.

Keeping the sinuses clear and healthy will definitely allow for a more comfortable pranayama experience. Stay away from foods or environmental triggers that create inflammation in the body and sinuses. Flushing the sinuses with a neti pot will also keep the airways healthy and clear.

Ayurvedic nasya oil can also be used to keep the nostrils and sinuses moisturized and healthy. Nasya can be as simple as pure sesame oil, or you can acquire special blends from your Ayurvedic practitioner that work beautifully. These formulas vary, but often contain eucalyptus for its decongesting abilities and other oils such as sandalwood for their pleasant aromas. Nasya is usually used once in the morning and right before bed by placing two to three drops in each nostril. After applying the drops, massage the sides of your nose and sniff in a couple of times. If this technique leaves oil everywhere on your face except in your nostrils, the oil can also be placed on a clean pinky finger and applied manually directly into the nostrils.

Another way to promote healthy nasal passages and lungs is with self-applied massage techniques. It feels great and can do wonders for a congested nose to use the fingers to massage certain points around the face including the brow, the nose and under the cheekbones.

Using massage techniques called “tapotement” on the sinuses and lung area can also be very effective in opening these spaces. Tapotement is a variety of percussive techniques used to relax tissue, move fluid, loosen mucus in air passages and inspire rejuvenation physically and emotionally. One technique is to take the three middle fingers of the dominant hand, and tap rhythmically across the pectoral muscles of the chest, back and forth under the clavicle, and then up and down the sternum. Do this, and feel your chest become open and alive with energy.

It’s powerful to take time each day to be conscious of the breath, whether that means observing its natural uncontrolled rhythms or shaping it with a pranayama practice. It’s also powerful to realize that we have authority over our general wellness and health. Our breath can be changed for the better by a combination of pranayama and self-care techniques including massage and use of a neti pot and nasya oil.

Start small, be gentle and be kind. Bring more oxygen into the body, and thus bring in more peace.

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