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January 2011

Practicing Breathwork. Honoring Ancient Practices

By | Blog

Many people know that I am a yogi. I was initiated and given the name Guchu Ram Singh in August of 1980 by the legendary Haidakhan Babaji. He is known as the Immortal Yogi Christ of India and is written about in the classic book, “Autobiography of a Yogi.” He was Pramahansa Yogananda’s guru’s guru’s guru.

And so, I am blessed to be part of an ancient living lineage. I’m a bonified, card carrying practicing yogi even though I no longer shave my head and I haven’t worn robes or carried prayer beads around with me for many years. You could say I am a western yogi, or a yogi in disguise.

I am definitely a rebellious yogi—innovative, creative, unconventional, and often irreverent. I believe we shouldn’t be putting new wine in old bottles… or is it old wine in new bottles? Anyway… We live in uniquely new times, so we need new and unique methods and techniques.

I have never been able to sit in the full lotus position and I have no intention of ever mastering that pose or any of the other pretzel positions. My focus has always been on the essence, the ultimate aim, and the original purpose of yoga.

I know too many people who have practiced hatha yoga for many years, and they can get into a hundred difficult and complicated poses. I have to admit they are very flexible, they have great posture and they look really good in stretch pants and tight shirts, but their consciousness hasn’t evolved one iota, and they are no closer to enlightenment, liberation, self-realization, or God for that matter, than they were when they rolled out their yoga mat for the first time.

That being said, it’s a good idea to keep your back straight or to imagine lengthening your spine while you breathe. And there are some ancient pranayama practices that deserve our attention and respect because they are simple yet powerful, they are tried and true. They have remarkable benefits.

We are all living through a very challenging time. You could call it a global health crisis or even a spiritual crisis. To navigate these difficult times, we need to be especially conscious and aware, relaxed and calm, as well as energized and resilient. In other words, it’s a good time to practice breathwork!

In times like these, it’s always a good idea focus on the basics of breathwork. And so, I invite you to practice six of my favorite pranayama exercises. They each have their own ancient Sanskrit name, but what you call them is nowhere near as important as the health benefits they bring.

If you want to be healthy and strong, clear and calm, you will want to master the following yogic breathing exercises.

Sama Vritti Pranayama. This is a very simple practice. Make your inhales and your exhales equal in length. For example, breathe in for a count of 4 and breathe out for a count of 4. Or practice a 3-3, or a 5-5, or a 6-6 count. Start with a pattern you can comfortably manage. Slow and relaxed, smooth and steady are the keys. This practice has a calming effect on your heart rate and for many it is a good way to deal with stress and confusion, anxiety and panic attacks.

Ujjayi Pranayama involves contracting your throat a bit as you breathe in and out to create a scratchy sound, just this side of snoring. I call it the Darth Vader breath. It also reminds me of the sound you get when you put a large seashell close to your ear. This practice helps you to focus on breathing and it also stimulates the vagus nerve. Some people use it to help manage their emotions.

Nadi Shodhana is what you might call ‘alternate nostril breathing’. Start by breathing out thru one nostril while blocking the other, then breathing in thru the other while blocking the one. Alternately closing and opening each nostril using your thumb and ring finger of either hand. Keep switching back and forth like this for about five minutes, or as long as comfortable to fuel, balance and harmonize your mind and body, your left and right brain.

Kapalabhati Pranayama is also called the ‘breath of fire’. It’s a great way to clean and charge your respiratory system, your nervous system, your cardio-vascular system, as well as your immune system. It’s perfect for warding off mental fogginess, general fatigue, as well as physical illness. Sit up straight. Breathe thru the nose. Contract your belly to quickly and forcefully exhale a short burst of breath and let the inhale be quick and reflexive. Breathe as fast as you can comfortably manage. You only need do it for a minute or two to feel the powerful benefits.

Savitri Pranayama is very similar to what is called “box breathing.” It is used to focus the mind and body and to balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. Breathe in, hold, breathe out, hold. Use a 3-3-3-3 count, a 4-4-4-4 count, or a 5-5-5-5 count. Practice for about five minutes to trigger the health benefits. This technique helps build lung capacity and it can relieve stress. It is used by elite military forces, first responders and corporate executives to prepare for important or stressful events or activities.

Mahat Yoga Pranayama is what you might call the full yogic breath. The idea is to smoothly fill all three breathing spaces, starting with the lower space (from the perineum to the belly button), then the middle space (from the belly button to the nipple line), then the upper space, from the nipple line to the chin). It’s like filling a glass of water: it fills from the bottom up. This exercise helps develop great breath control and it has many fantastic health benefits.

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