This is my experience from learning Yoga breathing and pranayama using the book Yoga — en praktisk vaegledning (Yoga — a practical guide) by Swami Nirvikalpananda Saraswati for instruction. This article is meant to help you teach yourself the technique. It is not meant to be authoritative with regards to definitions or Yoga theory. Pranayama is a breathing practice in Yoga. It is particularly useful in situations where you feel threatened, because it helps you retain your calm. Pranayama is often recommended to the beginning occultist. Among authors who recommend it are Robert Anton Wilson and Aleister Crowley.
Wear loose-fitting clothes or no clothes at all. Make sure your nose is clear, so you can breathe freely. If you have a cold, you will have to wait till you are recovered. Not only is it impossible to do pranayama when you cannot breathe through your nose but if you have a sore throat the first deep breath will send you into a violent cough attack.
The purpose of the first step is to learn to distinguish between belly breathing and chest breathing. Lie on your back on a comfortable flat surface. Relax and start following your breath. Put one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Relax. Belly breathing: When you inhale, the hand on your belly rises, while the hand on your chest remains still. As you exhale, the hand on your belly goes down again, whereas the hand on your chest remains still. Repeat this for 5-10 breaths. Chest breathing: When you inhale, the hand on your chest rises, while the hand on your belly remains still. As you exhale, the hand on your chest goes down again, whereas the hand on your belly remains still. Repeat this for 5-10 breaths. Alternate between belly and chest breathing for 5-10 minutes. Repeat every day. It is vital that you master this step before going on to step 2.
Purpose of step two is to combine belly and chest breathing in one breath. This is called Yoga breathing. Lie on a comfortable flat surface. Relax and follow your breath. Put one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Relax. Yoga breathing: Start inhaling with belly breathing. When you feel that you cannot inhale any more this way, go over to chest breathing until the chest part of your lungs are full. Then you exhale using chest breathing first and then belly breathing until you have emptied your lungs completely. Breathe very slowly. If you feel dizzy, you are breathing too fast. If you feel out of breath, you are breathing too slowly. Follow your body’s signals. If you have problems distinguishing between belly and chest breathing, go back to step one again.
Sit or stand with your spine upright. Use Yoga breathing and follow a set pattern. To do this you need to somehow count the rythm. I use ordinary counting, but I imagine that you might aswell use words instead. The rythm 4-2-2 works very well for me. That means I count to 4 while inhaling, hold my breath while counting 1 and 2, and exhale on 3 and 4. I have also seen a 4-4-4-4 rythm recommended and now find it more efficient. It means adding an extra element, namely holding your breath between exhalation and inhalation. Be careful not to hold your breath for too long. Again, listen to your body’s needs. Yoga breathing should be a more or less effortless process, so your breath should not be louder than usual. I had problems with starting the exhalation inaudibly. If you experience this too, there is a trick to it: you inhale just a wee bit before exhaling. You are supposed to be able to use pranayama in virtually any situation, so to practise making it an “invisible” process is definitely worthwhile. That way you can use it, for instance when you walk up to the platform before making a speech or when listening to someone in an argument. I also had problems with my diaphragm going rigid. When this happens I can make it relax through softly patting on the diaphragm. The stimulation seems to confuse the muscles on the inside into relaxing. It did not happen any more when I got more used to the practice.
It is a good idea to practise step one for a week, then combine step one and step two for one week, and then try all three steps in your daily session during the third week. This way you repeat the first basic steps every time. I followed this advice and feel that I have learnt the basics quite well. I still feel the need to practise distinguishing between belly and chest breathing from time to time. Pranayama works better if you practise it regularly. Do not do it all the time, but a few times a day will not hurt, quite on the contrary. My Yoga book recommends doing pranayama before meditation, but after asanas.
Copyright 1994 Ceci Henningsson This article may be freely distributed and copied in its entirety as long as this copyright notice is attached to it.
(Updated: October 11th, 1994.)