See or download the video of asana and pranayama
Prana is life-force, the energy that sustains and animates all life. Pranayama is control of prana through regulation of breath. It is prana that animates breath within and makes the winds blow without. It is also this same prana that makes thought rise to the conscious mind. There are not two or more energies but one energy that manifests differently.
Breath is the external manifestation of prana within and the practice of pranayama makes the movement of prana efficient. Efficient movement of prana through breathing exercises is also experienced as efficiency in the mind where the erratic movement of thought is brought to good order.
The yoga element basics apply here as well in full measure. Once you begin the practice, you notice that many adjustments take place within; retention becomes longer as does exhalation. People generally breath shallow and inhale longer than exhaling. This increases the residual carbon dioxide build-up which makes one feel tired and spent. Once you set about pranayama practice, you will notice the intelligence within restoring the body through prana or life-force which flows through the movement of breath. Here again we find a way to give ourselves to this inner intelligence by not cooperating with the ego which will prompt you to retain for a shorter time and gasp for breath more quickly. This does not mean that you push the envelope and breathe aggressively but recognize the false cry of the ego by seeing that it is possible to retain just a little longer and breathe out a little more fully by seeing directly that it is possible. There is no pressure or violence, the inner intelligence simply assures you that it is possible.
Long distance runners know this secret too well that it is the mind that runs through the body and what is referred to as 'second wind' is what happens when the inner intelligence starts running, bypassing the little ego that would rather be… .
Pranayama must be done very intelligently, just like asana practice as the inner intelligence is awakened and empowered and this inner intelligence—aside from being very efficient—knows how to do what needs to be done, while at the same time rejuvenating the entire system. Efficiency is not just in the doing but in doing without loss and with replenishment. This, the ego just does not know.
There are different types of pranayama but here, we shall be concerned with just one simple pranayama—Swami Sivananda's 'Sukha Purvak Pranayama'. Quite similar to the alternate nostril breathing pranayama, this version does not use time as a measure for inhalation, retention or exhalation but asks that you try to pay attention to retention and exhalation in retaining them for as long as is—with the emphasis on 'as long as…'. This simple pranayama done with full awareness and heart will teach you many things about what is possible while restoring overall health and well-being and costing nothing at all. There are many other types of pranayama and cleansing techniques in the yoga system that you can use as needed.
(A young boy practicing pranayama)
Sukh Purvak Pranayama
Sit comfortably in padmasana with eyes closed.
Close the right nostril with the right thumb and breath in very slowly through the left nostril.
Keeping the right thumb over the right nostril, close the left nostril with the last three fingers of the same hand and retain the breath 'as long as' you comfortably can.
Releasing the thumb from the right nostril, gently release the breath through it.
Reverse the cycle by first closing the left nostril with the last three fingers of the right hand and breathing in through the left nostril.
Close the right nostril with the right thumb of the same hand and retain the breath 'as long as' you comfortably can.
Release the last three fingers from the left nostril and release the breath trough it.
Alternating the cycle is one pranayama.
Benefits: All of what we have discussed in the yoga element with asanas apply to pranayama as well. Physically, the body becomes healthier as deeper breathing dispels residual carbon dioxide and one feels increased energy levels. The increased supply of fresh oxygen results in better repair and maintenance and digestion and sleep improve significantly. Mentally, regulation of prana significantly reduces lethargy and restlessness of the mind or tamas and rajas. The mind is in a better state for concentration and meditation.
Time and repetition: Start with 10 pranayama cycles and gradually increase the number to 20 cycles and practice twice a day, in the morning and evening.