On this Silent Easter Sunday, it seems appropriate to offer a routine that promises a true day of rest, thus establishing a “resurrected” mood and deep sense of centeredness. I created this practice based on postures and mudra that support the pranayama of retained exhale, or bhaya kumbhaka. When one allows the breath to remain out, the parasympathetic nervous system is triggered. Most significantly, circulation relaxes, and one enters a state of peaceful neutrality.
The warm-ups for this pranayama are as crucial as the breath work itself. To begin, come into an easy crossed-leg pose. Place the left hand on the right knee, and slowly twist the torso to the right; make sure that the twist begins in the low spine, and that the head is the last thing to turn. Bring the right arm up to shoulder level, palm open, facing the side. Keep the arm up and parallel to the floor throughout the duration of the twist; this will encourage a deeper opening of the chest, so that the lungs can move more freely, despite the pressure of the twist.
In the twist, inhale as you squeeze the right hand into a tight fist; exhale to release and relax the fingers. Continue the inhale, fist; exhale, release rhythm for 1 full minute. Then, inhale deeply, and exhale as you gently release the twist to return to center. Inhale as you raise your arms overhead; exhale, and shake them vigorously as you lower them down.
Now, take the twist to the left: right hand on left knee, left arm reaching into the twist at shoulder level. Again, inhale to make a fist; exhale to release. Continue the breath rhythm for 1 minute. Then, inhale, and exhale to slowly return to the center. Raise the arms up on an in breath; shake them as they come down on the exhale.
Then, uncross your legs, extend them out, and shake them free. Switch the cross of the legs: If your first posture was right leg crossed in front of left, you now cross the left in front of the right. To repeat the twisting sequence, start with a twist to the left. Again, breathe with the fist movement for 1 minute before switching sides for another minute of twisting.
After you have completed the entire twist sequence, come onto all fours for a full minute of Cat/Cow spinal flexes. Breathe deeply in and out through the nose as you further awaken the spine and remove any remnants of tension in the back. When you have finished, come into your favorite seated meditation pose.
Before you create the (somewhat tricky) mudra for this meditation, first practice the pranayama a few times. Typically, when one thinks of “holding” the breath, one thinks of the breath held in. Further, the notion of a “hold” mirrors the body’s typical response to that state: tension. Thus, yogis prefer to refer to “held” breath as suspended inhale, or retained exhale: The words themselves allow space for the body to feel at ease while the breath remains motionless.
For a quick breath warm-up, inhale deeply, and exhale through an open mouth with the tongue extended. Let the exhale occur in a short-long double beat: huh-huuuuuh, or ha-haaaaah. After 3-5 rounds of this, inhale deeply, and exhale through the nose, using the double-breath through the mouth at the end of the exhale to ensure all breath is out. Again, repeat 3-5 times.
Now, breathe in through the nose, exhale fully through the nose—using the double-beat mouth breath at the end only if you feel the need—and allow the breath to linger in the out stage for 4 seconds. Take a discerning sensory eye to your body: Note where any tension arises. Often, when one first tries exhalation retention, a slight sense of panic arises, as the body wonders why there is no air coming in. Scan yourself for tell-tale tension; consciously release any feeling of stiffening or tightening that you find. Repeat the inhale with retained exhale a few more times, breathing in when you feel the need.
The mudra to accompany this pranayama unites the Heart and Lung meridians. When the mudra is placed at heart-level with the arms fully extended forward, those meridians are stretched and stimulated. Consequently, the relaxing and revitalizing effects of the pranayama are deepened.
Because the end points of the Heart and Lung meridians lie on the inside edge of the pinky nail, and the inside edge of the thumbnail (respectively), it is nearly, if not completely impossible to unite them on the same hand. Thus, the inner left pinky next to the nail touches the inner right thumbnail: The same cross-touch occurs with the right pinky and left thumb. (Once cross-touch will naturally find its home above or below the other.) Admittedly, this is feat for the fingers, and you may have to work a bit to find a comfortable placement.
When you have created the mudra to the best of your hands’ abilities, check that the other three fingers of each hand are relaxed and extended. Ideally, the palms of the inherently linked hands face up, with the pinky edges of the hands touching as completely as possible. With the mudra intact, extend the arms forward at the level of the heart, with no bend in the elbow. Close the eyes to gaze inwardly up to the Third Eye.
Begin bhaya kumbhaka pranayama as outlined above. Because you have added the challenging mudra to the breath pattern, be conscious of any tension that may once again try to encroach upon the practice. Allow it to sink out and away from you as you continue the inhale with exhalation retention pranayama for 3 minutes: Increase the duration of retention a few seconds as you grow more comfortable with the breath. Then, release the mudra, and move into traditional svasana. Rest for 5-11 minutes.
Happy Easter Sunday…