21-Day Back to the Mat Challenge: Day One. Breathe.
Good morning. Happy New Year. Breathe.
In yoga, breath practice is called pranayama. Pranayama is a composite of two Sanskrit words: “Prana,” meaning life force, and “Yama,” meaning control. Control your life force. Is there a more fitting way to start a new year?
The breath has an incredible transformative power. Engage it!
Take a comfortable seat and close your eyes. Bring your attention inward and find quiet. Inhale slowly and deeply. Lengthen your spine, let your ribcage expand, reach the crown of your head toward the sky. Exhale slowly and deeply, keep that length but relax your shoulders. Let your torso stay wide. Continue breathing in this way for 10 or 20 breaths. Listen. Notice deeply.
Open your eyes and move to a kneeling position sitting on your heels. If this is uncomfortable on your knees, place a folded blanket on the inside of your knees. If this is still uncomfortable, sit on a chair, keep your feet flat on the floor, your spine long. Rest your hands, palms down, on your knees.
Time for Kapalabhati! Kapalabhati (kah-pah-luh-BAH-tee), skull-shining breath, is an invigorating and warming practice that tones and cleanses the respiratory system. Some people call it bunny breath, which is pretty adorable.
Here’s a description of how to perform Kapalabhati: It consists of short, powerful exhales and passive inhales. Sitting up with a long spine, use the sharp contraction of your abdominal muscles to force the air out of your nose. As you release the contraction, your inhale will happen naturally. Let it. Focus your attention solely on the exhales. Though the force of Kapalabhati can be powerful enough to shake your whole body, let its work stay within the abdominal cavity only. Keep your shoulders down, let your neck relax, keep the rest of your body as still as possible.
Let’s do it! Take a full breath in and a full breath out. Now take in a little sip of air and begin Kapalabhati for 10-20 breaths. Let go of the practice and breathe normally for two or three breaths, then repeat Kapalabhati for 10-20 breaths (or more). Use a faster tempo this time if it’s comfortable. Repeat one more time (or not) after a round of normal breaths and then collapse.
Lie back and collapse completely onto your mat. Notice deeply. Notice how the surfeit of oxygen rejuvenates, restores, and animates your cells. Let the surge of energy ripple throughout your body. If the purpose of yoga, as Patanjali would have us believe, is to still the fluctuations of the mind (chitta vritti nirodhah), you can find it here.
And now savasana. Let go of everything, even the noticing.
Take the Kapalabhati practice slowly at first. If you feel woozy or anxious at any time during this practice, return to your normal breathing!
Some yogis consider Kapalabhati Pranayama an advanced technique. Please be aware that some traditional practices do not allow students to practice Kapalabhati Pranayama until they have practiced and mastered more basic Pranayama techniques for several years. Other practices believe that yoga is an evolving practice like medicine and have adapted techniques and methods to make yoga’s benefits more easily accessible. Choose the path that best suits you.
Here is the short version of today’s practice:
- Take a comfortable seat
- Close your eyes, find quiet
- Bring your attention inward
- Inhale, lengthen the spine
- Exhale, keep that length
- Feel your ribs and belly move as you breathe
- Continue in this way for 10 or 20 breaths
- Open your eyes and move to a kneeling position (sit back on your heels)
- Perform Kapalabhati for 20-50 breaths, Repeat
- Lower yourself down to your mat, feel the effects of the breath