February was awarded month-hood relatively late in the game. Along with January, it was the last to be added to the Roman calendar in 713 BC. The addition of these two served to define the no-man’s-land of winter that Romans had traditionally considered a monthless period. February originally took its place as the last month of the year, where it remained for almost 300 years. As such, it seemed a perfect time to purge the old in order to make way for the gifts of the coming year. Named after the god “Februum,” its name literally means “purification.”
We in the Western world often associate purification with physiological cleansing. We think of fasting to cleanse our tissues, practicing neti nasal wash to clear our sinuses, colonics to purge waste from our gut and sweating to take advantage of our skin’s great eliminatory power. Traditional yogis utilized these methods as well, but also recognized the power of cleansing the body’s subtle energy systems. For this, they employed pranayama, the breathing exercises that expand the breath as carrier of our prana, or vital life force.
Pranayama cleanses the nadis, some 72,000 energy pathways that make up the “energy body,” distributing prana to the far reaches of our body/mind. The main energy channels are the shushumna, the central channel that follows the path of the spine and continues to the top of the skull; the ida, or “moon” channel that originates left of the shushumna and spirals upward around it; and the pingala, the “sun” channel that originates on the right and spirals up.
Pranayama is one of yoga’s unsung heroes. It was traditionally considered to be an equal partner with asana (the physical postures) in the practice of Hatha Yoga. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the traditional text on Hatha Yoga, devotes most of its instructions to pranayama practice. Asana prepares the body for pranayama by strengthening and freeing the structure so that prana can move effortlessly and abundantly through us.
Pranayama is the gateway to the meditative practices that are considered to be the heart of yoga. The breath and mind are inextricably linked. When the breathing quiets, the mindstuff slows down. When the mindstuff slows, the breath rate follows.
There are many types of pranayama, and it is best to explore these with an experienced teacher. While pranayama is a powerful ally, practiced improperly it can wreak havoc on the body/mind. That said, I will introduce a simple, safe practice that can help calm the nervous system and cleanse and balance your nadis.
Pranayama is traditionally practiced either supine or sitting. Because it’s easier to stay alert when sitting I suggest starting with a sitting practice. You may sit on a meditation cushion or bench, or a stack of blankets. Sitting on the front edge of a chair with your feet firmly planted on the floor is another good way to maintain the neutral, vertical spine that supports free breathing. (For more information on healthy spinal position, see this post for a description of Sukhasana, the traditional cross-legged position.)
No matter how flexible you are it is important that you sit with your pelvis higher than your ankles so that your pelvis tips forward and your lumbar spine curves inward. If you find your pelvis tilting back, elevate your hips by adding extra blanket height. Make sure you do not need to tighten your core muscles in order to sit upright.
Settle onto your seat. Tune into the contact points in your base—sit bones and pelvic floor. Relax your body into your base. Rest your hands, palms up or down, on your thighs. Let your upper arm bones hang straight down from your shoulders rather than angling forward. Tilt your head slightly forward. Relax your belly.
Now breathe naturally, feeling how your body receives the breath. Pranayama techniques should be practiced in an abdominal breathing pattern. In other words, on the inhalation, your abdomen should expand outward. This allows the respiratory diaphragm to release fully downward, creating space for the lungs to expand. On the exhalation, the abdomen should relax back.
Abdominal breathing supports your parasympathetic nervous system, increases CO2 and lymphatic flow, decreases heart and breathing rates and muscle tension, and increases O2 flow to tissues. Chest breathing, a pattern where the abdomen contracts on inhalation and expands on exhalation, yields the opposite of these healthy effects, and can cause physiological stress if we layer pranayama techniques onto this already unhealthy pattern. Donna Farhi’s The Breathing Book is an invaluable resource for learning healthy breathing habits that underlie pranayama practice.
After about five minutes of natural breathing, begin to breathe deeply, pulling the inhalation all the way down to the pelvic floor, allowing the abdomen, and the ribcage to expand sequentially. Relax your shoulders, neck and face as you inhale. Then exhale long and slow. Never force the inhalation or exhalation when practicing pranayama. Breathe deeply, without strain, observing your breath. Is it bumpy or smooth? Do you feel constriction anywhere in the body? Try relaxing your structure where it feels tight. Do you want to take a normal breath? Please listen to your body’s cues, and take natural breaths whenever it feels right. If after 5 breaths your breath feels uncomfortable, bumpy or strained, do not continue.
If you are feeling relaxed, you may experiment with breathing in a ratio of 1:1.5, inhale to exhale. In other words, take a 4-second inhalation, followed by a 6-second exhalation. Continue this for 5 to 10 breaths. Lengthening the exhalation helps empty the nadis of stagnant energy, making way for fresh prana. After you finish, sit and note how you feel. Are you agitated or calm? Tired or energetic?
You may then try a technique called nadi shodhana, alternate nostril breathing. Nadi shodhana balances the ida and pingala nadis, which govern the left and right brain, as well as the passive and active energies. With your left hand in your lap, curl the right index and middle fingers into your right palm. Before your next exhalation, gently close your right nostril with your thumb and exhale through the left. Then inhale through the left nostril. Before you exhale, remove your thumb and gently close the left nostril with your ring and pinkie fingers. Exhale and inhale in this position. Continue alternating for 6 to 12 breaths, ending by inhaling through the right nostril. Sit for a few minutes being present with your breath and your mind.
Our breath is the carrier of life. All living things breathe. Even the simplest of beings—single-celled animals—inhale and exhale. The breath is the only physiological function that continues all day long without our needing to direct it; yet we can easily guide it in order to change our psycho-physiology. Receive each inhale as a gift; offer each exhale back to the world.