Pranayama is a highly developed and complex science, and the advanced techniques require expert guidance. The basic form of nadi shodhana without retention, described earlier, and a few other types of pranayama may be practiced safely, based on the instructions given here. But retention of breath does require the sanction and guidance of a teacher well versed in pranayama.
Vigorous, Calming, and Cooling Pranayamas
Kapalabhati Pranayama (Shining Face Breathing)
Kapalabhati literally means “the pranayama that makes the forehead and entire face lustrous.” It helps clean the sinuses and all other respiratory passages, and it stimulates the abdominal muscles and digestive organs. A sense of exhilaration is experienced with this practice.
This exercise consists of a vigorous and forceful expulsion of breath, using the diaphragm and abdominal muscles, followed by a relaxation of the abdominal muscles, resulting in a slow, passive inhalation. This cycle of an active and vigorous exhalation followed by a passive inhalation is repeated several times in quick succession. In the beginning you can attempt between 7 and 21 cycles, depending on your capacity.
Bhastrika Pranayama (Bellows Breathing)
The word bhastrika means “bellows.” In this pranayama the abdominal muscles work like bellows. The beneficial effects of this exercise are similar to those of kapalabhati.
In this exercise, the diaphragm and abdominal muscles are employed as in kapalabhati, but here both inhalation and exhalation are vigorous and forceful. Between 7 and 21 cycles may be attempted, according to your capacity, and the cycles should follow each other in quick succession.
Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breathing)
The word ujjayi may be interpreted as “control or victory arising from a process of expansion.” This pranayama enhances the ventilation of the lungs, removes phlegm, calms the nerves, and fills the whole body with vitality.
Inhalation and exhalation during ujjayi are slow and deep, and they take place with partial closure of the glottis. This produces a sound like sobbing, but it is even and continuous. During inhalation, the incoming air is felt on the roof of the palate and is accompanied by the sibilant sound sa. During exhalation, the outgoing air is felt on the roof of the palate and is accompanied by the aspirate sound ha. During inhalation, the abdominal muscles are kept slightly contracted, and during exhalation, abdominal pressure is exerted until the breath is completely expelled.
Bhramari Pranayama (Bee Breathing)
A bhramari is a large bee. The sound of the buzzing of a bee is made during exhalation in this exercise. Inhale completely through both nostrils. Exhaling as in ujjayi, produce the humming sound of a bee. Repeat for 2–3 minutes. Bhramari soothes the nerves and calms the mind.
Sitali Pranayama (Hissing Breath I)
Sitali and sitkari both are exercises for cooling and soothing the body. Curl the tongue lengthwise until it resembles a tube (those who cannot do this should practice sitkari instead). Let the tip of the tongue protrude outside the lips. Inhaling, make a hissing sound with the breath. Exhale completely through both nostrils. Repeat three times.
Sitkari Pranayama (Hissing Breath II)
Roll the tongue back as far as possible toward the soft palate. Let the lips part, and clench the teeth. Inhaling through the teeth, make a hissing sound with the breath. Exhale completely through both nostrils. Repeat three times.
Advanced Pranayamas Requiring Expert Guidance
The following exercises (surya bhedana, murccha, and plavini) are described here to illustrate important yogic breathing techniques. These three, however, should only be practiced under the guidance of a qualified teacher. An experienced teacher can show the student how to avoid damaging the heart and lungs during the procedure.
Surya Bhedana Pranayama
In this exercise, the breath is inhaled through the right nostril, retained, and then exhaled through the left nostril.
Inhale completely through both nostrils. Apply the chin lock, and then slowly and gently exhale.
Plavini is one of the most advanced pranayama exercises. In this practice, the stomach is first filled completely with air. Then, while the air remains in the stomach, the lungs are filled completely. The breath is retained, and then finally exhaled. This method of inhalation, retention, and exhalation is repeated the desired number of times, and when the exercise is finished, the air is regurgitated through the mouth.
There are a few, more rare, advanced pranayama exercises that are meant exclusively for adept yogis. Such exercises are traditionally imparted to advanced students by their preceptors.
Patanjali, the codifier of the Yoga Sutra, while explaining various ways of bringing the mind under control, also includes the method of pranayama. The whole secret of the science of breath lies in the interpretation of sutra 1:34 of the Yoga Sutra. Here Patanjali says that having control over the pause in the breath is called pranayama. In Sanskrit this pause, or retention, is called kumbhaka. Hence, sutra 1:34 is an aphorism, a brief note which a competent teacher can use to explain the meaning of pranayama to his students. Actually, pranayama in practice means “pause,” though various authors have tried to explain it in other ways. All the breathing exercises are meant to control, eliminate, or expand that pause.
Hatha yoga manuals mention eight varieties of kumbhaka. It is a practical subject, and competent yogis alone know the secrets of the nature of the pause. The kumbhakas should be practiced carefully under a competent guide, never by reading manuals alone. Nor should they be practiced without applying the bandhas (locks).
Editor’s note: In the next post in this series, Swami Rama explains the use of bandhas and mudras.
Source: Science of Breath by Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballentine, MD, and Alan Hymes, MD