Me: I’m sleeping in tomorrow!
Bryan: So, you’re getting up at what, 5:45?
Bryan: Well, I guess you won’t be able to do all 17 of your morning exercises then.
And I didn’t. That morning, I had time for one set of the 6 movements of the spine, a downdog or two, and finally–pranayama.
Pranayama is the practice of breathwork. It’s breathing but with control, focus, and mindfulness. Yes, we breathe involuntarily all day, but when you take a few moments to do nothing but concentrate on your inhalations and exhalations, the benefits can be felt almost immediately. A greater sense of calm. More energy. Vitality. Like you’re really alive, that you are not numb to the world around you. You feel. After all, inhalations increase sensation.
During my yoga teacher training at Kripalu, we did A LOT of pranayama. It was one of foundations of the style and was incorporated into every class. I think I breathed more during that month than I did the 26 years of my life leading up to the program. The results were intense, especially after one session where we did nothing but different styles of pranayama for an hour and a half. I’m 99% sure I floated out of the classroom that day. I left Kripalu with a new appreciation for the practice and a fondness for oxygen.
One of my favorite pranayama techniques is nadi shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing (also called “anulom vilom” at Kripalu). I try to do it every morning, because it focuses my mind and helps clear both nasal passages.
Most people sit cross-legged; I sit in hero with a blanket between my butt and feet.
The right hand (active hand) goes into Vishnu mudra: index and middle fingers tucked into palm; thumb will close off right nostril; ring finger and pinky, acting as a unit, will close off the left nostril. The left hand (resting hand) can rest gently on your knee or lap.
1. Gently press right nostril shut with thumb. Inhale slowly through left nostril.
2. Close off left nostril with ring/pinky fingers and exhale slowly through right nostril.
3. Keep right nostril open, inhaling slowly.
4. Shut off right nostril and exhale through left.
5. Keep left nostril open, inhaling.
6. Close off left nostril and exhale through right.
So on and so forth. There are several variations of this technique, including adjusting the ratio of inhalation/exhalation counts, retaining your breath at the top of every inhale and bottom of every exhale for a few moments, breathing only through one nostril, so on and so forth. I usually stick to the basics for about 5 minutes. One thing I’ve heard in kundalini classes is that finishing your last exhalation through the left nostril (lunar side) will promote peace and calmness, whereas ending with an exhale through the right nostril (solar side) will promote increased energy; hence, the side I finish on in the mornings!
Another note: You don’t need to be sitting peacefully on a yoga mat or blanket to reap the benefits of nadi shodhana. Sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic is a great time and place to do this, and you may arrive at your destination with blood pressure that’s not off the charts!
My final pranayama of the morning is kapalabhati breath. This is very intense, rapid breathing that involves a quick, involuntary inhalation through the nose followed by a sharp exhalation through the nose while simultaneously contracting the belly. It’s also called “Breath of Fire,” and rightfully so. It will warm you up in seconds! It’s a bit tricky to teach through words and it usually takes people a few tries to get it right. When executed properly, you won’t even be aware of your inhalations, and during your exhalations, your belly will look like it’s being punched by an invisible hand.
Here’s one of my favorite add-ons to kapalabhati, which I learned at Kripalu. It makes a juicer practice even juicier!
After your final exhalation, continue drawing out the exhale as you bend your upper half over your legs. Open your mouth and expel as much air as possible, like you’re vomiting oxygen/carbon dioxide.
Keeping the body empty of air, roll up through the spine and retain the exhale while sitting peacefully. When done correctly (and it takes a few tries), you’ll feel a “vacuum” effect from the belly up through the throat. Keep your pelvic floor engaged and lifted, the belly pulled in, and a slight lock in the throat (this throat lock is called jalandhara bandha).
Stay in this exhalation retention for as long as you can, concentrating on the belly as your mental focal point. Learn how to respond, not react to the desire to inhale. Panic mode will set in quickly, but the lesson is to work beyond the initial “OMG I’m gonna diiiie!” reaction. You will not die, and you may even find that moving beyond that initial fear will feel quite empowering and peaceful.
When the time is right, take a deep inhale through the nose…but only inhale to 2/3 of your capacity, so you’re not stuffed to the brim with air. At this time, shift your focus to the third eye (the space between your eyes, but just a hair higher) and retain the partial inhalation, allowing the oxygen to swirl throughout your body, feeling it dance from your head to your toes. I always feel a gentle, warm “hum” in my head at this point and a faint golden glowing sensation between my eyes, like all the rest of the world has shut off and I am just here. I tend to hold my hands out, palms up during this part, because I feel open to receiving energy.
Again, hold this inhalation until it’s absolutely necessary to finish the other 1/3 and then exhale into normal breathing. I do this sequence about three times and then finally–FINALLY!–end my 47538923893-step morning routine with a big, fat Om!