The way I quit smoking was through the use of pranayama (see my recent post on that.) I had been studying yoga seriously for about a year.  My band Ira Gobu was going on the road, so we bought a juicer and brought it along. We had heard of the benefits of detoxing with the use of fresh juices, so we started fooling around with the juicer. When we got to Chicago for the gig, it was the dead of winter, and freezing out!  What a great time to go on a fast!  Not to mention, we were working in a smoky bar.  I think the detoxing must have gone to my head, because I remember taking long walks in the freezing cold.  Naturally, I got sick, with some respiratory disaster, coughing and hacking.  Smoking gave ME up!  I just couldn’t do it while I was so sick, and with the yoga and deep breathing I was doing, plus the fresh juices, all the nicotine was purged out of my body.  When I was over the cold, I found I didn’t have any desire to smoke!  What a gift! A year or two later, I was at a pretty wild party.  I had been drinking along with the crowd and when somebody offered me a cigarette, I took it.  I actually tried to smoke it, but it was so disgusting, I really couldn’t do it.  This time I listened to what my body was trying to tell me, and never smoked again.

The ancient yoga texts describe five sheaths or bodies through which the human being functions.  The physical body, or Anna Maya Kosha, is the dimension of the organs, blood, bones and skin.  More subtle than that is the Prana Maya Kosha, the body of energy which incorporates the vital force which keeps the physical body healthy.  More subtle still is the Mano Maya Kosha, the body of will.  This is the dimension linked to the subconscious mind and includes our mental abilities, knowledge, and perception, as well as our psychological state, namely our feelings about things.  Going deeper, we find the dimension of higher wisdom, Vijnana Maya Kosha.  Here is where our wisdom resides, and our ability to differentiate right from wrong.  The most subtle, yet the most powerful sheath is the Ananda Maya Kosha the body of bliss, which resides in each of us.  25

In working with the yoga asanas, we first tune into the physical body. Gradually, through our regular practice, we become more established in connecting with these more subtle bodies.  In pranayama, we are learning to regulate the pranic energy, which in turn gives us the ability to regulate the thoughts in the mind, at the Mano Maya Kosha level.

The basic pranayama techniques are:

  • Deergha Swasam – the simple three part breath
  • Kapaalabhati- the skull shining
  • Naadi Suddhi–nerve purification
sit for nadi suddi
Sitting for pranayama


the simple three part breath

Sitting in a comfortable posture, either cross-legged on the floor, or sitting in a chair, with feet grounded to the floor, about a foot apart.  The back is long, and the shoulders wide, and the ribs down.  An alternate pose is Vajrasana, pictured above.  Close the eyes, and begin to watch the breath.  The action of the belly should be:  on the inhale, the belly expands, the way a balloon expands when you fill it up with air.  On the exhale, the belly collapses, as if you had let all the air out of a balloon.  If you find you have the belly going in on the inhale, and out on the exhale, you are probably a reverse breather and may benefit from doing deerga swasam lying on the floor, with one hand on the abdomen, below the belly-button, to monitor the movement of the breath. The breathing techniques are done with the mouth closed, unless otherwise noted.

The three parts of the breathing capacity are:

  • The abdomen
  • The rib cage or middle chest
  • The upper chest

Begin to fill up the belly with air, feel it expand, and then exhale slowly, quietly and with control.  Repeat this a few more times, keeping the focus just on the belly.

Next begin to fill the belly and then the rib cage, expanding the breath from the bottom of the lungs and moving upwards.  Exhale from the rib cage, then from the belly and repeat a few times.

Finally, fill the belly, rib cage, and the upper chest with air.  Now the lungs are fully expanded.  You may feel the collarbones rise slightly, but don’t let the shoulders creep up too.  The exhalation starts at the top of the lungs, goes through the mid-section, and finally the belly empties and is drawn in toward the spine.  Continue in this slow deep breathing for a while, up to 2 or 3 minutes.

The longer the exhale, the more benefit you gain, as the prana remains longer in the body.   One way to slow down the exhalation is to use the glottis in the hissing breath, ujjayi, the victorious breath.  This is a conscious partial closing of the glottis muscles at the back of the throat, just behind the larynx. The result is that the breath makes a soft hissing sound. The friction from the closing of the glottis creates heat in the body, and is widely used in some schools of yoga throughout the asana practice.  When used in a meditative state, it calms the mind, and gives a good focal point for the restless thoughts. Ujjayi also brings good circulation to the throat, and is helpful in  relieving sore throats.  It is also said to improve the digestion and respiratory problems, and bring a luster to the face.

CAUTION:  As a beginner, you want to be cautious not to strain the throat.  You can build up to a longer practice over time.

   Kaapalabhathi – The skull shining breath

This is also known as the “breath of fire”. I like to think of it as “mental floss”.  It is helpful in removing impurities from the bloodstream, and warming up and energizing the body,

TECHNIQUE: Begin with a short inhalation, just into the belly.  Then make a forced exhalation, without scrunching up the nose, out of the nostrils, as if you were trying to remove a feather from the tip of your nose.  The belly is forced in on the exhale. Automatically, the breath will come in again, so allow that to happen naturally.  Repeat several times, 20 to 40 times for beginners.  Then make a deep three part inhalation and a long slow exhalation.  This is one round of kaapalabhaati.  Do two more rounds, and then move on to the next of the breathing practices, naadi suddhi.

Recently, when teaching a class of beginners, I noticed that most of them were having trouble with the reverse breathing, and I came up with something fun to help correct it.  I bought a bunch of party squawkers, the little things you blow into when they bring out the birthday cake, and they make a loud sick-duck noise.  It was almost impossible to blow repeatedly into the squawker without engaging the abdomen correctly.  Another trick is to slow the kaapalabhaati down, so that you are forcing the air in, deliberately, before pushing it out.  Often when we slow things down, we can better understand the mechanics of how things work, and build on that awareness over time

CAUTION:  If you begin to feel dizzy, please stop and take a break.  You can try again later if you wish, but don’t overdo.

Naadi Suddhi – The alternate nostril  breath

         Because kaapalabhaati is stimulating, it is usually followed with a gentle, calming breath, naadi suddhi, which balances the right and left brain, and is appropriate especially before meditation.  Naadi is the Sanscrit word for nerve, and there are 350,000 naadis in the body.  There are 14 main naadis, similar to the meridians used in acupuncture,which are channels carrying blood, water, and vital fluids throughout the body.  Although we usually think of the naadis as being in the physical body, they have their counterparts in the subtle bodies as well.

         For Naadi Suddhi we use a mudra, or seal, with the right hand, first by making a gentle fist, then extending the thumb and the last two fingers.  The index and middle fingers are tucked into the fleshy pad at the base of the thumb.  Bend the right elbow, bringing the fist up toward the nose, keeping the arm close to the chest.  After taking a full breath through both nostrils, close off the right nostril with the thumb, and exhale through the left nostril.  Inhale, using the simple three part breath, through the left nostril, and close it off with the last two fingers, and exhale through the right side.   Continue in this pattern, always switching nostrils after the inhalation.      

         Generally, we gain more benefits from pranayama by gradually making the exhalations longer than the inhalations.  After you’ve had a few months practice, you can begin to have more awareness and control over the exhalation.  Begin to count the inhalation, using an OM between numbers:  Om 1, Om 2, Om 3, Om 4, Om 5.  Then count the legnth of the exhalatiion, and see what the ratio is.  Ultimately you will want an exhalation that is twice as long as the inhalation.

         Initially, practice Naadi Suddhi for about 3 minutes.  As you gain more control, and your exhalations are twice as long as the inhalations, increase the number of repetitions.  When you are able to do  several  rounds comfortably, you are ready for the more advanced practice of Sukha Purvaka. 

         The more focused the mind is during pranayama, the greater the benefits.  Remember to keep the breath soft, silent  and fluid.



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