Whether you are a winter lover or a wannabe hibernator, the cold air can increase the toll on our respiratory and immune systems; aggravating sinuses, and affecting the lining of the airways leaving us feeling congested and short of breath.
But why do these symptoms occur?
Well, the lungs work most efficiently with warm, moist air and so the body has a series of methods to try and keep it that way. Maybe you’ll recognise them in yourself;
The first occurs in the nose; when exposed to cold the tissues lining the nasal passages swell with increased circulation to help warm the air as it passes through. Indeed, sometimes it is the increased circulation that leaves us feeling congested rather than any mucus build up.
The second is in the mucus lining in the airways. Usually a great barrier helping mop up bacteria and other potentially dangerous particles in the air, when exposed to cold air, this mucus lining will thicken and dehydrate as it releases more moisture to the incoming air. This can cause blockages and inflammation, and leave the lungs exposed to bacteria that would usually be caught up in this layer.
Finally, the lungs themselves may then respond by releasing a variety of endogenous inflammatory mediators such as histamine resulting in wheezing and other symptoms that will be familiar to those with asthma or other respiratory conditions.
The physical benefits of a regular pranayama practice peak at this time of year; and first up is kapalabhati, or the “skull shining” breath described below by Svatmarama;
This technique enlivens and cleanses, perfect to get you started on a dark morning! It reverses the usual effort of breathing by empathising a strong, even forceful, exhale alongside a passive inhale.
The movements themself come from the abdomen (think the sort of exhale you make when trying to clear your nose) and as such heat up the abdomen and increase Tejas, or the internal and digestive fires. Classified also as a shatkarma, or preparatory cleansing exercise this practice opens the sinuses and clears excess mucus whilst stimulating the digestive and immune systems.
To get a sense of this breath imagine that a fly just flew up one nostril and you are about to attempt to blow it back out… that short sharp, abdominally mediated exhale is exactly the sort of exhale used for this technique!
Now, sit in a comfortable position, this can be any position that allows your spine to rest upright and neutral, on the floor, or on a chair.
Inhale and exhale once completely,
Inhale a second time, then begin the exhale naturally, halfway through forcefully complete the exhale, drawing the abdomen sharply in and up.
There is then no deliberate inhale, only the passive inhale that occurs as the abdomen is released and allowed to relax back down and forwards.
Repeat the short, sharp exhale followed by a passive inhale, finding a rhythm with the exhales.
Begin working towards a count of approximately 50 kapalabhati breaths at a steady pace, before pausing for a round or two of Ujayi and then repeat the whole process upto three times.
As you become more proficient build to around 150 breaths allowing the pace to increase, at peak 150 breaths like this will last for around 90 seconds to 2 minutes and should not become much faster than that.
Be cautious of:
Dizziness; over exertion in this pranayama, or practice for those with hypertension can sometimes lead to dizziness. If this is the case either relax your pace, or utilise ujayi pranayam instead.
Moving the rest of the body; attempt to keep the effort and the movement purely in the abdominal movements, leaving the chest, shoulders and face relaxed.
Spraying! Keep some tissues nearby…. this is a highly effective method for clearing mucus!
Follow your cleansing kapalabhati with a few rounds of surya bhedaner, or the “sun piercing breath”. This form of alternate nostril breathing stimulates the pingala nadi, which represents and carries the solar, masculine energies of the body. By breathing deliberately through the right nostril we stimulate the fiery energies within us.
Sit in a comfortable position,
Allow you left palm to rest open on your knee, and with your right hand form Vishnu mudra (picture above).
Use the ring and little finger of the right hand to close the left nostril, applying the pressure just below the bridge of the nose and just above the curve of the nostril.
Inhale slowly and fully through the right nostril.
Pause at the peak of the inhale and close the right nostril with the right thumb.
Release the little and ring fingers, then exhale through the left nostril.
Close the left nostril and begin the inhale again through the right nostril.
Continue for between 5 and 15 minutes in this fashion.
This practice is most effective in the morning, and should be avoided after eating or before sleeping.
To wrap up your pranayama practice take a few moments resting in a comfortable seated or reclined position, and follow your natural breath noticing the new energy awake in your system…
… Then, grab your favourite scarf and enjoy the rest of your day!