Everyone knows that the breath is the most fundamental component of a yoga practice. It is this commonality of mankind that allows everyone to practice yoga, no matter how old or young, flexible or inflexible, sick or healthy they are. Yet very few of us actually know how to work with our own breath, let alone know our breath at all.
Ancient yogi masters knew their breath so thoroughly that they could determine their state of overall health by it, prevent sicknesses and were even able to predict their time of death.
But how do we start? How long should our inhalation be, how long the exhalation? These simple steps help you to identify your own breath and let you find a starting point for your own Pranayama practice:
1. Lie down in a comfortable position and breathe freely. It is advised that someone else observes your breath for you in this first step. The other person should observe how long you need for 12 normal (unconscious) breaths. It is best if you can simply go on breathing like you normally would. This is the reason why you should let someone else do that for you, because in the moment in which you are consciously observing the breath it usually changes.
If you need two minutes (120 seconds) for 12 free breaths for example, you know that an average unconscious inhale or exhale lasts 5 seconds (you have to divide the total amount of time you needed for 12 breaths through 24, so in our example 120 seconds:24=5). Please note down your average unconscious breath count.
2. Inhale using the average inhalation count that you have just identified (in our example: 5 seconds). Exhale on two seconds, repeat for one breath, then inhale on 5 seconds and exhale on three seconds for the next two breaths, then inhale on 5 and exhale on four seconds for the next two breaths and go up in that manner. Every second breath you exhale one second longer. You do that until you reach your maximum capacity exhale. It might be that you cant exhale more than 4, or you cant exhale more than 8, or 12, etc. Everyone is different. The inhalation stays the same throughout this exercise. Then you note down your maximum capacity exhalation.
3. Then you do the same with your inhalation, meaning in the next step you try finding out your maximum capacity inhalation. You start inhaling two seconds and then exhale your average exhale (here in the example of 5 seconds). Repeat. Then inhale on three seconds and exhale on five. Do that twice. Then inhale on four seconds and inhale on five two times. Slowly increase the seconds in the inhalation until you have reached your maximum inhalation. Note down your maximum inhalation capacity.
After these three exercises you should know your current maximum inhalation as well as your current maximum exhalation.
Usually one of the two is longer, so you might be able to inhale on 8, but exhale only on 6. Or inhale on 8, and exhale on 12. As your starting ratio, you take the average of both numbers, in our examples 8+6=14:2=7. Or 8+12=20:2=10. In the first example your starting ratio would be 22.214.171.124. (seven inhale, zero hold, seven exhale, zero hold). In the second example it would be 10.0.10.0 (10 seconds inhale, zero hold, 10 seconds exhale, zero hold).
If your breath is even, like 12 seconds inhalation and 12 seconds exhalation for example, you start with a slightly lower value, like 10.0.10.0.
Most of us start with a very short breath: you might be only able to inhale or exhale on 3 or 4 for example.
So you might want to work on extending your own breath. If so it is important to start with extending your exhale before extending the inhale.
The easiest and most commonly applicable principle is that the seconds are first introduced as a hold and then they are integrated into the breathing. So lets say your average breathing capacity is 4, so your starting ratio is 126.96.36.199 and you want to double your breath. For some days you breathe 188.8.131.52., then you hold after exhalation for two seconds, so you breathe in the ratio 184.108.40.206. (inhale on four, zero hold after inhalation, exhale on four, hold the breath after exhalation for two seconds). Do that for a couple of days until it feels easy. Then you extend the exhalation and breathe 220.127.116.11 for some days. Then, again, you lengthen the breath in the hold first and go up and breathe 18.104.22.168. Do that for a couple of days and then breathe 22.214.171.124. You have doubled your exhalation in this way.
To double the inhalation you do likewise. You start holding the breath after inhalation for two seconds, so your breath ratio is 126.96.36.199. You do that for some days, then go to 188.8.131.52 for some time. Then again hold after inhale, so you use 184.108.40.206. and then finally go to 220.127.116.11.
This will take you some time and the breath should be extended slowly. When you reached an extended inhalation and exhalation you should not just be able to breathe longer, but you will notice that your breath is also smoother.
Begin your journey with the breath and let the river of life flow.