Benefits, Tips and Technique • Yoga Basics

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The breath is a powerful tool in the practice of yoga, helping us control our prana or life force energy, shaping our thoughts, feelings, and actions. A wonderful intermediate breathing technique to cultivate a calm and peaceful mind is Sukha Purvaka Pranayama. This gentle yet potent practice involves inhaling through one nostril, holding the breath, exhaling through the opposite nostril, and suspending the breath for an equal count. This pranayama breathing technique can not only center your mind but also reduce stress, enhance lung function, and bring a delightful sense of lightness and well-being to your everyday life.

What is Sukha Purvaka Pranayama?

Sukha Purvaka Pranayama is a yogic breathing technique also known as Shwasa Prashwasa, Gita Pranayama, or Sukha Pranayama. “Sukha” means “pleasant, gentle, mild, or comfortable,” and “purvaka” means “previous, prior, first.” Thus, Sukha Purvaka Pranayama translates to “Easy comfortable breathing.” The technique involves inhaling through one nostril, holding the breath, exhaling through the opposite nostril, and suspending the breath, all for an equal count of 4, 6, or 8.

The Health Benefits of Sukha Purvaka Pranayama

  • Reduces Stress and Anxiety: By slowing down the breath rate and deepening all phases of the breath cycle, this practice helps create a steady breathing rhythm, which in turn calms the mind and reduces hyperarousal, restlessness, anxiety, and agitation.1
  • Improves Lung Function: This pranayama involves controlled inhalation, retention, exhalation, and suspension of breath, which helps to expand lung capacity and enhances respiratory health.
  • Enhances Mental Focus: This technique is known to enhance mental focus and composure by creating a sense of ease and relaxation in both mind and body. It helps anchor you to the present moment, releasing negative thoughts and emotions, and fostering a state of mental clarity and tranquility.
  • Balances Energy Pathways: Sukha Purvaka Pranayama cleanses the energy pathways of the subtle energy systems, specifically balancing the Ida (left) and Pingala (right) nadis. This balance awakens the dormant Kundalini energy, leading to increased vitality and overall well-being.
  • Cardiovascular Effects: Studies have shown that the structured sequence of breath control in this breathing exercise can help lower heart rate and alleviate symptoms of high blood pressure.2
  • Induces Lightness in Mind and Body: Practicing Sukha Purvaka Pranayama regularly induces a feeling of lightness (Laghima) in the mind, heart, and body. This feeling of lightness contributes to a sense of well-being, contentment, and ease, making daily activities more enjoyable.

Using Kumbhaka (Breath Retention)

An essential part of Sukha Purvaka Pranayama is the practice of holding the breath after both inhalation and exhalation. “Kumbhaka” is a Sanskrit word that translates to “breath retention.” We practice kumbhaka to strengthen our breathing, stabilize our senses, increase inner awareness, calm the mind, and energize the body. It is important to never hold the breath past the point of discomfort. Advanced yoga students can add one or more bandhas with kumbhaka to intensify the practice.

Cautions and Contraindications

While Sukha Purvaka Pranayama is safe, there are a few precautions to know:

  • Pregnant women and people with high blood pressure, anxiety disorders, lung, heart, eye or ear problems should not hold the retention of breath. Instead, simply work on equalizing the length of the inhalation and exhalation.
  • If you feel dizzy, lightheaded or discomfort, stop and return to a normal, relaxed breathing pattern.
  • Always consult with a qualified instructor or healthcare provider if you have any health concerns before starting any new pranayama practice.

How to Practice: Step-by-Step Instructions

Sukha pranayama encompasses four phases of the breath cycle—inhale, hold, exhale, and suspend—each maintained for an equal count. It is a combination of Nadi Sodhana(Alternate Nostril Breathing) and Sama Vritti (Equal Breathing), so these two exercises should be learned prior to practicing this technique.

1. Find Your Seat

Find a comfortable cross-legged seated position on the floor, with the back of the body straight. Rest the back of your hands on your legs with palms up and tips of index finger and thumb touching (Jnana Mudra). Make sure you are not holding tension in your body and take special care to have the shoulders relaxed. If you are not comfortable on the floor, a chair can be used, but make sure the feet can rest flat on the floor and the back is straight. You can also practice this lying down on your back with knees slightly raised by placing your legs on a bolster.

2. Find Your Breath

With the mouth closed, inhale and exhale through the nose in a slow, even continuous flow. Use diaphragmatic breathing so that the belly rises and falls with little or no movement in the chest.

3. Set Your Pace

Slow and deepen your breath as much as comfortable. Most importantly, breathe in and out at your own pace. If you begin to struggle, then shorten the length and number of counts.

4. Begin the Breath Cycle

  • Block your right nostril using the Vishnu Mudra hand gesture and inhale through your left nostril for a count of 4.
  • Block your left nostril and hold the breath in for a count of 4.
  • Unblock your right nostril while keeping the left blocked; exhale through the right nostril for a count of 4.
  • Block both nostrils and hold the breath out for a count of 4.
  • Inhale deeply through your right nostril with the left still blocked for a count of 4.
  • Keep both nostrils blocked while holding in air for a count of 4.
  • Unblock the left nostril while keeping the right blocked; exhale smoothly out from the left side for a count of 4.
  • Unblock both nostrils and hold the breath out for a count of 4.

5. Find Your Flow

Repeat the four-part cycle for another 2-6 rounds of breath. When you are comfortable with the practice, you can increase the duration of pranayama practice to 10-30 breaths or a maximum of 10 minutes. Only continue as long as you can stay present and focused with the breathing practice.

6. Rest and Integrate

After completing your Sukha Pranayama practice, it is essential to take some time to rest and integrate the benefits you have received. Slowly transition out of your seated position and lie down on your back in Savasana (Corpse Pose). This resting phase allows your body and mind to absorb fully the calming effects of the breathing exercise. Close your eyes and take a few moments to observe any changes in your body, such as a slower heart rate or a sense of lightness. Let go of any remaining tension, allowing yourself to sink deeply into relaxation. Stay in this pose for at least 5-10 minutes.

Practice Tips

  • Start with shorter breath counts and gradually increase as you become more comfortable.
  • Don’t push yourself to hold your breath longer than what feels natural.
  • Early mornings, preferably before meals, are best suited for a quiet, uninterrupted practice of pranayama.
  • For a more advanced version, add ujjayi breathing to your technique. This will add a warming effect and help block out external noise.
  • To make this breathing exercise more intense and challenging, you can increase the length of the count up to 6 or 8.
  • If you find you are struggling with the breath, simply shorten and lower the count to 2 or 3 until it feels easier. You can also remove breath holding and simplify the breathing cycle with only inhalations and exhalations.
  • If you feel any discomfort, dizziness or strain, stop and return to normal breathing. It’s important not to push beyond your limits.
  • A daily pranayama practice is recommended to quickly learn this technique and receive its many benefits.
  • Most importantly, do not shift into unequal ratio breathing, as this will affect the quality and benefits of pranayama practice. If you cannot maintain an equal ratio, it is best to stop, rest for a few breaths, then try again.
  • Keep your mind focused on the breath cycle. If your thoughts wander, gently bring your attention back to your breathing.
  • If you’re new to pranayama, consider learning from a qualified instructor to ensure you’re practicing correctly and safely.

Final thoughts

Sukha Purvaka Pranayama offers many benefits that enhance both mental and physical health. By incorporating this technique into your regular yoga practice, you can experience reduced stress, improved lung function, balanced energy pathways, better digestive health, and an overall sense of lightness and well-being.

References



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