On November 18, I began a 40-day kundalini kriya. I find that I embark on a 40-day foray 4-6 times a year; typically, I gravitate toward this discipline when a feeling of stagnation or a yearning for I-don’t-know-what arises. In kundalini yoga, 40 days is believed to be the amount of time necessary to change or establish a habit; when the “habit” is a kriya that generates a particular energetic or spiritual quality, it is that trait you will embed within you. Sometimes I have a specific goal in mind, and I will select a kriya to achieve that end; other times, I let my intuition guide me, and those kriyas often turn out to be the most powerful transformational tools.
Special note: Although not the focus of today’s post, the following or any pranayama could be a 40-day discipline. It would be an interesting experiment to see how a dedicated 6-week breathing practice affects the “texture and color” of your daily life.
The breathing that dominates my latest kriya adventure is open-mouth Breath of Fire: the lips are shaped into an “O” and the quick, but steady rhythm of the Breath of Fire emanates through the circle. Today’s pranayama, however, is not Breath of Fire; rather, I use the O mouth with a long exhale.
In the past few weeks, I find that I have been exhaling this way more often than not. An extended exhale promotes a steadying calmness; the buzz of heightened holiday energy on a daily basis, combined with familial tensions inevitably leads to the need for a sense of stability and peace. You may find that you are breathing out through an open mouth anytime you need to center yourself or simmer down.
When stressors or tensions encroach, long, deep breathing is the first line of defense against falling prey to irritability or pettiness. As the breath sweeps the system with fresh oxygen and eliminates unnecessary carbon dioxide, the nervous system steadies. As the brain receives a continuous flow of oxygen, the mind can remain clear. When external pressures mount, you need that clarity in order to address the situation calmly.
Before a pranayama practice, I like to warm up with some version of spinal exercises; This type of movement increases the circulation of cerebrospinal fluid, which further nourishes the brain. A simple way to accomplish this is with some cat/cows (flexing and extending the spine while on all 4s); continue for at least a minute, so that the muscles along the spine really loosen up and the fluid can circulate.
Then, find your favorite seated posture, or lie on your back. If you are feeling especially depleted or downtrodden, you can lie with your legs up a wall, or propped on a couch. The first step is to bring your awareness to your breath; you may find that your abdomen is tense, your throat is tight, or that you breaths are barely discernible. That’s okay; at this point, you are just bringing your focus to aware sensing.
Special note: Although today’s practice is seated or supine, the beauty of this pranayama is that it works beautifully when you are out and about. Try it next time you are in a long line at the store or in traffic.
Here’s a little trick to help initiate ujjayi breathing, which is deep and steady: Say out loud, “Have a nice day.” Close your mouth, and continue repeating the sentence; it will sound muffled and strange. Make sure that your tongue still tires to articulate each word within the closed lips. Then, begin to slow the pace of the words; at the end—on the enunciation of “day”—notice that your tongue has fallen to the bottom of your mouth, behind your bottom teeth.
This is where you want the tongue to remain as you begin to breathe deeply in and out through your nose. When the tongue is dropped, the throat opens more fully to receive the inhalation; the air then can travel more deeply into the lungs.
Special note: Although classical ujjayi breathing includes short breath retention after the inhale and exhale phases, I have opted here to eliminate that piece. Rather, allow your body to grow comfortable with the conscious process of deepening and lengthening your breath. As your pranayama practice evolves, feel free to try a 2-count pause after each inhale and exhale.
After a few rounds of ujjayi breathing, begin to exhale through an O mouth. (Don’t worry about the tongue during open-mouth exhalation; it only needs to remain “down” during the closed mouth inhalation.) Stay aware of any accrued tension in your face: free your forehead, soften your eyes, and let the ears relax. To enhance your pranayama, allow your eyes to close, and focus upward on your Third Eye.
Now, without changing the length of your inhale, attach a slow, steady count to it; chances are you will count to 4 or 6 by the time you reach the top of your inhale. With that number in mind, exhale through your O mouth, counting at the same pace: However, add 2-4 counts to your exhale. This is extended exhalation.
Special note: Yawning often occurs when one is new to pranayama. As one tries to direct the breath in a specific way, the body may feel a need to reassert control. Let it! Yawn as deeply as you need to, and then return to the guided, focused pranayama,
Extended exhales are the key to easing anxiety and stress. The O mouth, as it is open and reflects infinite wholeness, yields feelings of boundlessness. The long exhale paired with the O mouth allows you to rise above unnecessary concerns, thereby generating the feeling of freedom that arrives when you realize you can move through and past any circumstance.