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On the Mat: Reinvigorating a Home Practice

Summer 2010

by Larissa Hall Carlson

Need a refresher course in establishing-or reestablishing-a pranayama routine at home? Or perhaps you’d like to share a few pointers with your students to help them build their own home practice? Yoga teacher and Ayurvedic Yoga Specialist Larissa Hall Carlson offers wise words and practical approaches for planning a regular routine and inspiring your students to take this self-nurturing, transformative practice into their daily lives.

The purpose is self-investigation. Sense withdrawal, stillness, self-study. Rejuvenating, rebalancing, revitalizing self-care. These are the gifts of a harmonizing home pranayama practice. The inner journey calls out to you; return to the cushion and deepen the breath. Positive change and connection to Self begin with small, practicable steps. Just a few minutes of concentrated breathing each day can provide abundant gifts.

Begin by creating safe and sacred space for your pranayama practice. Choose a private place free from interruption and distraction, with good air circulation. If possible, find a spot void of electronics. In good weather, consider an outdoor location (this is my favorite and most frequent choice for my personal pranayama practice). Make it welcoming. Beautify your space with bits of inspiration (e.g., fresh flowers, mala beads, statues, photos of loved ones or teachers, sentimental objects, favorite quotes). Have fresh water, tissues, and a journal handy.

Choose a time to practice daily. Pranayama is best done in the early morning and on an empty stomach, but gentle techniques-like dirgha, ujjayi, and nadi shodhana-can be practiced just about any time of day. Consistency of practice is more important than duration of practice, so choose the most viable time to delve into the enlivening rhythm of your home practice.

Prepare a steady, comfortable seat. Sitting on a cushion or folded blanket is ideal to support level hips, an erect spine, and a relaxed belly. Sukasana, Padmasana, or Swastikasana are common seats for pranayama, but if the knees are tender or the hips are tight, sitting on a block or straddling a bolster in supported Virasana is a wonderful option. Even sitting on the edge of a chair with feet grounded and knees over ankles can provide comfort for tender spots or long sessions.

Begin with a body scan to check how you’re feeling—physically, energetically, mentally, and spiritually—and consciously relax the major tension holders in the body (i.e. relax the forehead, eyes, jaw, shoulders, belly, palms of the hands, and soles of the feet). Take a few deep abdominal breaths to ground your attention in the present moment and transition from the activities of the day into a time of simplicity, serenity, and mindful awareness.

Set an intention for each invigorating journey into the wonders of the breath. Reading an inspiring quote or choosing an internal focal point for transformation can provide safety and profound healing in every session.

It’s often best to pick your favorite breathing techniques and do them daily. But for a frequent pranayama sequence, explore the following:

  • Dirgha (Three-Part Breath): 3 to 5 minutes. Fill the belly, ribcage, and collarbones with a smooth, wave-like breath to oxygenate the bloodstream, remove stagnation, pranify the nadis, and anchor the attention in the present. When a comfortable rhythm is established, layer on Ujjayi (Ccean-Sounding Breath). Create the meditative ocean sound in the throat to further calm and quiet the fluctuations of the mind. Keep the breath fluid and rhythmic; avoid straining or forcing the breath.
  • Pause and feel the harmonizing effects of Dirgha and Ujjayi. Scan for new sensations.
  • Kapalabhati (Skull-Polishing Breath): 30 seconds to 1 minute. Through the nose, engage a steady stream of strong exhales and passive inhales, initiated by the pumping of the belly during the exhalations. Do not force the breath-focus on the strength of the belly pumping without shocking the heart or building pressure in the head. Keep the breath even and rhythmic to oxygenate the bloodstream, strengthen the respiratory system, pranify the nadis, and clear the citta vrittis. (Contraindications: do not practice Kapalabhati if you have uncontrolled high blood pressure, glaucoma, hernia, or abdominal discomfort; have had surgery recently; are pregnant; or are on the first few days of menses.)
  • Pause and feel the profound and energizing effects of Kapalabhati. Scan for sensations of aliveness (vibration, heat, tingling, lightness, expansion, softness, enhanced awareness).
  • Nadi Shodhana (Alternate-Nostril Breath/Channel-Purifying Breath): 3 to 15 minutes. Using the right hand in Vishnu mudra, close off the right nostril gently with the thumb and inhale through the left nostril. Switch, exhaling through the right nostril. Inhale through the right nostril, switch, and exhale through the left nostril. Continue rounds in this sequence. Keep the breath smooth, long, meditative and gentle to balance the hemispheres of the brain, soothe the nervous system, and quiet the mind.
  • Pause and feel the physical, energetic, mental, and spiritual effects of Nadi Shodhana.
  • Take several minutes of silent meditation to bask in the raised prana and integrate the fruits of your practice.

As your home pranayama practice develops, it can be helpful to reach out for inspiration from experienced teachers and peers. For temporary support in getting your home practice started, try a guided Kripalu Pranayama CD, like my Meditative Yoga Flow or the intermediate- or beginner-level CD Pranayama: The Kripalu Approach to Yogic Breathing, available online through the Kripalu Shop.

The goal is increased self-awareness and glowing health. Just a few minutes of conscious breathing each day can provide increased vitality, improved immune function, open-heartedness, and lustrous radiance. Enjoy the ever-changing marvels of the breath and stay present for the gifts it brings to your life off the mat. Keep the prana flowing!

Larissa Hall Carlson, a 500-hour Kripalu Yoga teacher, Ayurvedic Lifestyle Consultant, Ayurvedic Yoga Specialist, and Reiki practitioner, is Program Leader for the Institute for Extraordinary Living’s (IEL) Yoga for Weight Loss program. Formerly the Manager of Yoga Education for IEL’s Music and Consciousness program, Larissa has taught yoga, meditation, pranayama, and yogic philosophy for the Tanglewood Music Center, Berkshire Opera Company, Juilliard School, and Boston Conservatory. She is the creator of the KYTA resource CD Meditative Yoga Flow: A Kripalu Sadhana.

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On the Mat: Reinvigorating a Home Practice

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