The early yogis discovered that if they could even out the breath, they could even out the jumpiness of the mind. Over time, they elaborated that discovery into the practices called pranayama.
You will probably notice that your breath is uneven and erratic. The breath is sometimes quick and sometimes slow, sometimes smooth, sometimes harsh; sometimes it even stops for a moment or two and then begins again. You might also notice that some parts of the lungs receive the breath more readily than others, or that your inhalation and exhalation are quite dissimilar. As much as you can, notice these qualities of your breath without interference and without judgments.
After several minutes of observing your breath in this way, begin shaping the breath to make it smoother and more regular. Without hurrying, you want gradually to guide your breath from its naturally rough and ragged gait toward a smooth and even rhythm. Make every part of the inhalation just like every other part of the inhalation, and do the same with the exhalation. This evening-out of the natural breath is called samavrtti, which means “same action” or “same turning.”
It’s the basis for all the more advanced pranayamas, and it’s the single biggest step you can take on the path from breathing unconsciously and erratically to breathing consciously and evenly.
Remember the three little pigs and the big bad wolf? All the old fairy tales can be read as yoga texts in disguise: If your seated posture is a house of straw, or even a house of sticks, the big bad wolf is going to huff and puff and blow your house right down. Your seated posture has to be a house of bricks.
Spend several minutes establishing a firm and balanced seated posture that you can maintain, without distraction, for the duration of your pranayama practice.
In order to practice pranayama in the seated position, you must employ jalandhara bandha, the chin lock or throat lock. This tucking down of the chin to your sternum (breastbone) regulates the flow of prana in the neck and to the head and heart. In Light on Pranayama, B.K.S. Iyengar cautions, “If pranayama is performed without jalandhara bandha, pressure is immediately felt in the heart, brain, eyeballs, and the inner ear. This can lead to dizziness.”
To accomplish jalandhara bandha, raise the top of your sternum toward your chin; retaining that height, tuck the hinge of your jaw toward your inner ears. Then softly lower your chin toward your sternum. There should be no strain. If your neck is a bit stiff, place a rolled cloth between your sternum and chin, and hold it there by continually lifting your breastbone. In the beginning, gravity and your breath will cause your spine to waver and collapse again and again. But with dedicated practice, your posture will become firm, yet still responsive to the breath.
Up to this point in your exploration of pranayama, you’ve been working to clarify and refine the movements of the breath. In the next step, we’ll also work with the gaps between the movements of the inhalation and exhalation. At the end of each inhalation, the breath naturally stops moving, just for a moment, before your exhalation begins. Similarly, at the end of your exhalation, there’s a slight pause before the next inhalation begins. So each breath cycle really has four stages—inhalation, pause, exhalation, pause—though unless consciously extended, the pauses tend to be very brief. The practice of consciously extending these pauses is called kumbhaka, or retention.
Once you gain some proficiency with the smoothly moving breath of ujjayi, you can begin to investigate these pauses. Your goal should be to open and expand the still moments between the movements of inhalation and exhalation. In Light on Pranayama, Iyengar says, “[Kumbhaka] … means the withdrawal of the intellect from the organs of perception and action, to focus on the seat of Atma (purusa), the origin of consciousness. Kumbhaka keeps the sadhaka [student] silent at the physical, moral, mental, and spiritual levels.”
The practice of pranayama cannot be hurried. It can easily take a year or two of daily practice to master the material covered in this article. And pranayama demands daily practice. Pranayama, much more than asana, is a practice you engage in not just for its immediate, direct benefits, but for the steadiness, depth, and patience that are the eventual fruits of practice.
Excerpts from Yoga Journal Article Breathing Lessons by Tony Briggs