We will now begin an advanced pranayama practice called spinal breathing. It has several components to it, and is done right before our daily meditation sessions. The procedure of meditation will not change in any way. First we do our pranayama. Then we do our meditation.
Sit comfortably with back support, and close your eyes just as you do when you meditate. Now, keeping your mouth closed, breathe in and out slowly and deeply through your nose, but not to the extreme. Be relaxed and easy about it, breathing as slowly and deeply as possible without discomfort. There is no need to be heroic. Work your muscles so each breath begins in your belly and fills you up through your chest to the top of your collarbones, and then comes back down slowly. Next, with each rising inhalation of the breath, allow your attention to travel upward inside a tiny thread, or tube, you visualize beginning at your perineum, continuing up through the center of your spine, and up through the stem of your brain to the center of your head. At the center of your head the tiny nerve makes a turn forward to the point between your eyebrows. With one slow, deep inhalation let your attention travel gradually inside the nerve from the perineum all the way to the point between the eyebrows. As you exhale, retrace this path from the point between the eyebrows all the way back down to the perineum. Then, come back up to the point between the eyebrows with the next inhalation, and down to the perineum with the next exhalation, and so on.
Begin by doing this spinal breathing practice for five minutes before your regular meditations. We don't get up between pranayama and meditation. Just keep your seat, and begin meditation when your pranayama time is up. Take a minute or so before effortlessly beginning the mantra, just as originally instructed. Once you get comfortable in the routine of doing pranayama and meditation, one after the other, increase the time of pranayama to ten minutes. You will be doing ten minutes of pranayama and twenty minutes of meditation twice each day. Continue with this practice.
In a week or so, or whenever you are feeling steady with the ten minutes of pranayama before your meditation, add the following features: On the exhalations, allow your epiglottis to close enough so that there is a small restriction of the air leaving your lungs. The epiglottis is the door in your throat that automatically closes your windpipe (trachea) when you hold your breath or swallow. By partially closing it as you exhale, a fine hissing sound will occur in your throat. This is called "ujjayi." Be easy about it. Don't strain. Keep the slow, deep rhythm of breathing you have become accustomed to as you add this small restriction in the throat during exhalations. On the inhalations, allow the throat to relax and open more than usual. Do not restrict the air coming in. Rather, allow the deepest part of your throat to open wide, comfortably. Do not change the slow, deep rhythm of breathing you have been doing. Keep your mouth closed during pranayama. An exception would be if your nose is stopped up and you can't breath easily through it. In that case, use your mouth.
While all of these mechanical actions may seem complicated at first, they will quickly become habit as you practice. Once the mechanical habits are in place, all you will have to do during pranayama is easily allow the attention to travel up and down inside the spinal nerve with your automatic slow, deep breathing. When you realize that your attention has slipped away from this easy up and down procedure of traveling inside the nerve during spinal breathing, you will just easily come back to it. No forcing, and no strain. We easily come back to the prescribed route of attention in pranayama, just as we easily come back to the mantra in meditation.
This pranayama will quiet the nervous system, and provide a fertile ground for deep meditation. With this beginning in spinal breathing, we are also laying the foundation for additional practices that will greatly enhance the flow of prana in the body. Once we have stabilized the practices we have learned so far, we will be ready to begin gently awakening the huge storehouse of prana near the base of our spine.
The guru is in you.
Note: For detailed instructions on spinal breathing, see the AYP Spinal Breathing Pranayama book.
Addition from the AYP Easy Lessons for Ecstatic Living book:
Over the months, several have written and asked about a form of pranayama called "nadi shodana." This is alternate nostril breathing. It is one of the most basic breathing techniques, and is usually the first breathing method taught to beginning students in hatha yoga classes. These days it is also taught by mental health professionals due to its calming influence on the nervous system. Nadi shodana is done by breathing slowly out and then in with one nostril blocked by the thumb of one hand, and then slowly out and in with the other nostril blocked by the middle finger of the same hand. That is all there is to it. It is a well-known practice that brings almost immediate relaxation. Why is it not taught in the Advanced Yoga Practices lessons?
The reason nadi shodana is not used here is because spinal breathing includes the benefits of nadi shodana, plus it is a tremendously more powerful practice with effects extending far beyond those of nadi shodana. The calming effects of nadi shodana come primarily from a reduction of the breath rate by using one nostril at a time – restraint of breath. In spinal breathing, the breath is restrained on inhalation voluntarily with the lungs and on exhalation with ujjayi (partially closed epiglottis), while the attention is used in the particular way of tracing the spinal nerve discussed in this lesson. While spinal breathing does not include alternating nostril breathing, this is not a shortcoming. Otherwise nadi shodana would be included along with spinal breathing. It is possible to do both practices at the same time, but it would be complicating our practice for very little gain. That is one of the guiding principles in all of these lessons – Is there a substantial benefit derived through the addition of an element of practice? If there is not a significant benefit from an additional element of practice, we leave it out. That is how we keep the routine of practices as simple and efficient as possible. Otherwise we would be loading ourselves up with all sorts of supplementary things and risk losing focus on our main practices. There will be plenty of practices added as we go through the lessons that will have huge impacts on results. We want to save our attention, time and energy for those, so we can achieve the most with our yoga.
Still, if you are an avid nadi shodana practitioner, or are strongly attracted to it, it will do no harm to incorporate it into your routine. If you have time, you can do some alternate nostril breathing before spinal breathing. Or you can incorporate it into your spinal breathing session. Keep in mind that nadi shodana is not recommended if you are beginner in spinal breathing. There is plenty to learn in taking up spinal breathing – new habits to develop – and nadi shodana is not in the mix for the reasons mentioned. But, since it has been asked about by several people, and perhaps wondered about by others, it is covered here.
It should also be mentioned that nadi shodana is sometimes taught in combination with voluntary breath suspension. Breath suspension is an advanced practice and is discussed in detail later in the lessons. Nadi shodana with breath suspension is a different practice altogether, and can be hazardous if done without a good understanding of correct methodology and the effects. If you are a beginner and contemplating using breath suspension (holding the breath in or out) with nadi shodana or spinal breathing, it is suggested you wait until we get into it in these lessons, which is at Lesson 91 and beyond. The Sanskrit word for breath suspension is "kumbhaka."
So, for now, it is recommended you develop a good understanding of spinal breathing and get the habit solidly in place, with as few distractions as possible. The following Q&As will help with that. Later on, there will be plenty more to add. One step at a time…