More often than not, pranayama routines begin with an admonition to “connect with the breath.” I, like many teachers, suggest long, slow breaths as the means to achieve this connection: However, if one lacks breath awareness, to instruct deep breaths as a tool presents a counterintuitive challenge.
So, today’s pranayama practice begins with developing a sense of how breath creates movement within the body. To begin, lie on your back with knees bent, feet flat on the floor and hip-width apart. Let the knees fall in toward each other; this position helps to relax the lower back, which in turn frees the body of breath-inhibiting tension.
Place the palms on the sides of the rib cage. Inhale through the nose, and consciously guide the breath to push the ribs out to the sides. Often, the ribs jut up; encourage the breath to expand the ribs sideways. As you exhale through the nose, feel the ribs return in and slightly downward. Continue this breath and the resulting movement pattern for 1 minute.
Now, place the right palm on the navel with the left hand resting on the right. Focus the mind’s eye on the diaphragm: Take your focus to just underneath the bottom ribs: Inhale through the nose, and follow your inner eye as it tracks the diaphragm on its downward trajectory; imagine how it slightly pushes down on the digestive organs. In turn, the low belly will push up slightly into the palms As you exhale, “see” the diaphragm rising back up toward the ribs as the belly deflates. This down and up pumping action also helps with digestion: When one is stressed, however, the breath shortens, the diaphragm is less active, and digestion thus suffers.
With both the rib cage expansion and diaphragm pumping in mind, train your focus to become attentive to both simultaneously. As your physical awareness increases, you may begin to develop the rhythm and pacing of the inhale and exhale. Remain on your back, hands resting by your sides on the floor, as you begin the first patten of today’s practice: Inhale steadily through the nose to a count of 6; suspend the breath in for a count of 3; exhale slowly through the nose for 6; retain the empty breath for 3. Continue for 1 minute.
Next, help yourself into your favorite seated posture. Rest the hands on the knees, palms down; close the eyes, and gaze up to the Third Eye. Inhale for 8; suspend for 6; exhale for 8; keep the breath empty for 4 counts. Continue for 1 minute.
Now, place the hands on the shoulders, fingers in front, thumbs behind; be sure that the upper arms are parallel to the floor with the elbows pulled back slightly. As you inhale through the nose, twist to the left; exhale through the nose to twist to the right. Move as slowly as you need to at first, and then as the spine warms, twist more quickly and powerfully; continue to match the inhale and exhale to the left and right twist, even as the movement speeds up. Breathe powerfully with the twisting motion for 1 minute.
Sit quietly for a few breaths after the twists. Then, extend the legs straight out in front of you; use whatever props you may need, so that the spine is long. Maintain the length of the spine as you bend forward to hold the shins, ankles, or toes: This forward bend asks that you keep space between the torso and legs; the long spine is the crux of the position. Focus the eyes straight ahead, and begin Breath of Fire through the mouth with the tongue hanging out: Continue this strong panting for one minute.
Now, return the legs to your seated meditation pose. Bring the arms overhead, interlace the fingers, and extend the index fingers straight up. Try to keep the palms together, and extend through the elbows. With eyes closed and gazing at the Third Eye, begin Breath of Fire through the nose. Continue for 1 minute.
Again, sit quietly for a few breaths, hands palms down on the knees. When you are ready, bring the right thumb to the right nostril: Close the aperture, and begin breathing in and out through the left nostril. Continue for 1 minute. Then, close the left nostril with the right ring finger; breathe in and out through the right nostril for another minute.
Release the right hand to the knee. Rest each hand on its respective knee, palms now up: Form Gyan Mudra, i.e., index and thumb tips touching. With this mudra and closed-eye gaze to the Third Eye, breathe in deeply and steadily through the nose; exhale long and slow through rounded lips. Continue for 1 minute.
When you are ready, ease down onto your back for a renewal of pre-Svasana attention to the connection of breath and body. Repeat the opening awareness exercise, first with hands on the ribs for several breaths, then with hands on the belly for a few more deep breaths. FInally, relax the arms onto the floor, palms up, and retreat into Svasana for at least 5 minutes.