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#B1 PRANAYAMA BREATHING: Variations & the Pranayama perfection of the 26&2

26&2 bikram yoga patanjali pranayama svātmārāma technique yoga Jan 21, 2021

One of my favourite moments as a student or teacher is the second I notice a strong group pranayama vibe. It’s right there. Like electricity, and its there in that instant that I realise that it’s going to be an absolutely awesome class.

It’s like we’re “paying it forward” in that first 20 breaths for the rest of the 90minutes. And we are doing just that. 

Heating up, gearing up, warming up and getting into the mental zone of “me-time”

There’s a lot of great information out there by some incredible teachers & writers about the function & benefits of the pranayama breathing of the 26&2. 

The intention of this post however is to shed a bit of light on the key broad pranayama techniques and by doing so, illuminate the particular perfection of how we start our 90min freedom run!

Pranayama is the fourth limb of Patanjali’s yoga system and according to his Yoga Sutras, pranayama is a preparatory practice. Preparing the mind and bringing it into “the zone”.

Back in the day, yoga was mostly passed down verbally from teacher to student and finally the Hatha Yoga Pradipika was written by Svātmārāma, and this book became on of the first texts to give detailed written description of the 8 pranayama techniques.

Based on these texts, the four clear stages of Pranayama are:

  1. Puraka (inhalation)
  2. Antara Kumbhaka (the mindful pause after inhalation)
  3. Rechaka (exhalation)
  4. Bahya Kumbhaka (the mindful pause after exhalation)

Fast forward about 500 years and while the words are different, the formula and intention is the same. Those four little words"inhale"  "hold it"  "exhale" in the teachers dialogue intentionally puts an accessible reference on steps 1-4 above!

Back to our mate Svātmārāma and his book. In it, he distinguished 8 pranayama styles:

1. Surya Bhedana (or alternative nostril breathing)

This is a relaxed, balancing breath that is used to help calm the nervous system and the intention is to stable the mind by increasing the amount of oxygen taken into the body. 

The reason the nostrils are isolated in this technique are to isolate the left and right side of the brain (the ha and the tha if you will) and by isolating and slowly breathing equal amounts through both nostrils we are able to create a balanced.

2. Ujjayi (or oceanic breath)

Ujjayi encourages full expansion of the lungs, and, by focusing your attention on your breath which is made even more prominent by the meditative sound of the breath as it passes through a constricted throat, assists in calming the mind and creating focus.

Additional and as important to the audio aspect of this breath, the controlled constriction of the throat (which creates the oceanic sound) allows for a slow steady inhalation and exhalation which helps to slowly and fully expand the lungs.

One final element of the use of the throat in this pranayama technique is that the friction caused as the air enters the body via the constricted throat heats up the air and aids in warming up the body from the inside.

3. Sitkari (or the sipping/hissing breath)

So this pranayama style is a bit different from the others as it’s intention is to cool the body and as a result is often used at the end of a class.

The Sitkari pranayama involves opening the mouth just a little bit so the teeth are exposed and placing the tongue at the back of the top teeth as we inhale through the mouth and out through the nose...try it! Feeling the coolness? It’s pretty cool huh? Pun not intended.

By inhaling via the mouth with the tongue lip combo in place, the air is moistened and enters the body in a water saturated state, leading to cooling sensation.

4. Shitali

Ok this is in the same family as the Sitkari pranayama technique because it too, aims to cool the body while calming the mind but relies VERY MUCH on the very specific genetic skill of being able to curl your tongue! 

Again we are inhaling via the mouth, but this time with your tongue curled in at the sides and exhaling via the nose. 

The cooling mechanism is the same as the Sitkari but the practitioner is dependent on the genetic trait of tongue curling.

5. Bhastrika (Bellow breathing)

This pranayama is pretty full on in my humble opinion. It’s SUPER energizing but can lead to light headedness and requires practice and variation in intensity.

The Bhastrika pranayama technique involves breathing fully & forcefully from the diaphragm. It’s got a mad kapalbhati vibe but in the Bhastrika we exhaling AND inhaling fully and with equal force/intensity.

6. Bhramari (Bee breath)

Bhramari, the humming bee breath, is a calming pranayama technique that involves closing your eyes AND ears (using the index or middle fingers to press the middle outer part of the ear ligament into the actual ear hole) and inhaling slowly through the nose and exhaling while making a deep humming sound.

Additional to the fact that you are breathing in a controlled calm manner, the vibrations from the humming sound ease the body and mind further into a nice and chill state.

7. Murcha (Fainting breath)

This technique is quite a refined art...it’s one of the more advanced pranayama techniques and involves a throat block and breath retention until you feel dizzy followed by a slow controlled exhalation.  The intention of this pranayama is to force the mind inward during the breath retention state.

In super simple terms (like a 5-year-old-drawing-the-Mona-Lisa simple) this pranayama technique requires you to tilt your head back as you inhale using the ujjayi breath, then you bring your head all the way down so that your chin is right up against your chest (throat block) and once you start feeling dizzy or lightheaded, very slowly begin the exhalation.

It’s mainly the combination of breath retention to the max combined with the pressure on the blood vessels from the forward bend at the neck that leads to the dizziness.

8. Plavini (Floating breath)

Ok so this is another pretty advanced pranayama technique and the objective of this pranayama technique is to swallow air like water and try to hold it in the stomach as long as possible to help with digestion, and create the calm feeling of floating. Much like the murcha pranayama, this technique forces the mind inwards and creates mental clarity but the intention is to float and not get to the edge of dizzy.

In this pranayama style, we take a normal inhalation via the nose and drop the chin back to the chest like we did in the Murcha breath then raise the head and exhale again through the nostrils.

 So that’s pretty much it in a nutshell. The 8 pranayama techniques. 

And as we understand the whole picture of the intentions & practice of pranayama, the logic behind the pranayama of the 26&2 become apparent.

This series was designed so that every body could experience the functional magic of yoga, and this particular style of pranayama serves us in so many ways. 

Imagine a beginner coming into class and deliberately trying to get faint within the first 10 minutes? Or imagine the fumbling of the fingers ears and/or alternate nostrils? The particular pranayama technique of the 26&2 is actually pretty easy to approach as a beginner and achieves the necessary functions of pranayama while offering more experienced practitioners the opportunity to reap the benefits of their breathing in the class ahead.

The body is warmed up using the vibrations of the constricted throat which in turn becomes a tool for handling the heat, the mind is brought into focus with the attention to the breath and the audio experience, and the lungs stretch slowly and fully for 20 breaths(!) to give us the tools that we need to breathe efficiently for the class ahead.

It is simple, it is preparatory for the context of the 26&2 class, and it is functional. 

Of the pranayama techniques outlined above, with the nuances that Bishnu Ghosh incorporated, the perfection and placement in the 26&2 becomes crystal clear.

What do you think?

Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.