Caution: The performance of pranayama is not a practice to be undertaken casually. There have been many reports of adverse reactions to the practice, and it is always recommended that pranayama be studied only under the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher. For example, people suffering physical ailments, such as high blood pressure, should never forcefully hold their breath. People with psychological problems are similarly advised to avoid the practice, unless being taught by an expert. Hopefully, it is obvious that pranayama is not something that can be learned from a book, or a Web page. Seek personal instruction wherever possible. For more information on precautions before practicing yoga, please check the Before You Practice section.
As we discovered in the section The Yogic View of Energy, pranayama is made up of two words: prana, the ever-present life force, and ayama, which means to extend or release. Often students, and even some teachers, misinterpret this latter word to be yama, which means to restrict or control. Thus pranayama is sometime thought to mean the control, or restriction, of the breath. This confusion is understandable since, even with ayama, there is an element of control of the prana in this practice, but pranayama is not meant to restrict the flow of energy. Quite the contrary; pranayama is the stimulating, freeing, and then channeling of the life force within us.
Guidelines for Practice
Traditionally pranayama is done early in the morning. But, not everyone is a professional yogi, and realistically, getting up at 4 a.m. is not going to happen. Benefits can be obtained from the practice at any time, but it is suggested that you avoid strong, energizing pranayama practice in the evening, or you may find sleep hard to come by. Advanced students may schedule their pranayama practice in the afternoon and just do one long session of only pranayama, without adding any meditation or asana work.
You may wish to plan for your pranayama practice to occur between your asana practice and your meditation practice; however, some teachers use pranayama before the asana practice to help open up the nadis. Certainly, before commencing a Yin Yoga session, this may work well. Sometimes a brief Shavasana is nice as a transition from the pranayama practice to the asana, or meditation practice.
The stomach must be empty. The body should be healthy and free of toxins. This means that if you have been drinking alcohol recently (in the prior few days), or you have been binging on a lot of junk food, you may need to refrain from a serious pranayama session (anything over five minutes in length). Your diet should be pure. Do not practice pranayama when you are ill.
Choose a quiet, clean, uncluttered environment; the great outdoors is wonderful, especially in places that have a high concentration of natural Chi – high in the mountains, beside streams or the ocean, under a special tree. After a rainfall, or early in the morning, the air has more Chi than on a hot, dry afternoon.
Go slowly at first: never strain. The breath is always through the nose, unless otherwise indicated. Side effects that may arise from improper practice could include feelings of heat or coldness, itchiness, tingling sensations, and feelings of lightness or heaviness. If these symptoms continue, stop the practice and seek guidance. In fact, it is best to do pranayama practice under the watchful eye of a knowledgeable teacher.
Once you are ready to proceed with the practice, all that remains is to choose which kind of pranayama you are going to do – that depends on what you want to achieve. You can use pranayama to stimulate and increase energy, or to balance energy. We will look at three particular practices beginning with two energizers.