After years of meditating, I still have a lot of trouble just sitting down to meditate. I need something to focus my mind before I sit still. So I always begin with a pre-meditation breathing sequence that settles my mind so I can practice seated meditation with ease.
One of the most powerful things about the breath is that there is a duality in its nature; it simultaneously grounds us and lifts us. Our inhales lift and expand us, and our exhales ground and stabilize. It is both the current of movement and the always-present anchor that roots us in the present moment.
In Sanskrit, we call our breathing practice, Pranayama, which comes from two words: Prana and Yama. Prana means life force, which is an extension of the breath, and Yama is a restrain or discipline. So the word Pranayama includes the opposing forces of expansion and constriction—inhaling to expand, exhaling to ground and stabilize. For me, this has been an incredibly powerful way to start my meditations, and my days—with focused awareness, expanding and grounding with every breath.
The sequence I practice every morning is two parts and the whole thing looks complicated when you first read about it, but it only takes about 8 to 10 minutes once you’re comfortable with the sequence. I’ll walk you through it, and give you a brief explanation of the different techniques along the way.
Part 1: Energize
This first part is all about energizing and detoxifying the mind and body—great to help you wake up first thing in the morning! Part 1 acts as a cycle; try the entire cycle three times.
Step 1: Deep Cleansing Breaths
- Take two deep cleansing breaths. That’s all for this step.
Step 2: Kapalabhati Breathing
Kapalabhati breathing is energizing and detoxifying, and it works well to wake you up first thing in the morning. Many people who teach this type of breath move fast; I tend to teach it at a slightly slower pace. If you are prone to anxiety, you should be especially mindful of your pace and slow it down a lot, or skip this step entirely if you notice anxiety rise during Kapalabhati.
- Inhale to expand the belly three quarters of the way full
- Exhale in a forceful way as you bring your navel toward the spine. The emphasis is on the exhale in Kapalabhati
- Allow the inhale to fill the belly effortlessly
- Exhale forcefully; Navel to spine
- Start with 20 Kapalabhati per cycle; you can increase gradually as you’d like. I move through 60 in each cycle
Step 3: Agni Sara
Agni Sara is great for stimulating your digestion before you eat anything for the day. It’s also sometimes referred to as the washing machine, since your belly looks like a washing machine as you move through the practice.
- Inhale through your nose, exhale through mouth and fold at the hips. Hold your breath at empty.
- Sit upright, and with your lungs still empty, draw your lower belly toward the spine, then your upper belly toward the spine. Then let your lower belly expand and then your upper belly expand. Repeat the “belly waves” until you need to take a breath. The motion should feel and look like a washing machine.
- When you can’t hold your exhale any longer, relax the breath.
Step 4: Maha Bandha
Also known as “The Great Lock,” is said to rejuvenate the cells in the entire body. When you hold your breath and engage your bandhas, you stop blood flow. When you release the bandhas and take a new breath, fresh blood begins to flow, washing away dead cells. This process improves circulation, restores balance, and promotes a peaceful sense of being and internal focus—perfect to get you ready for meditation.
- Inhale through your nose, exhale through mouth and fold, releasing all air from lungs. Hold your breath at empty.
- Sit upright and engage your three main bandhas: Mula Bandha (contraction/lift of pelvic floor), Uddiyana Bandha (contracting abdominal toward spine), Jalandhara Bandha (slight tuck of chin)
- Hold your breath empty as long as you’re able while engaging these three main bandhas. This may be just a few seconds when you begin this practice, and could increase to a full minute.
- Follow with one inhale and exhale through nose
Repeat the entire cycle three times.
Part 2: Center
Part two is all about grounding, calming, and balancing the mind and body. I’ll outline all of the guidelines for this part in one piece; it includes a variation of alternate nostril breathing and Kumbhaka, or breath retention. Learn more about the balancing nature of alternate nostril breathing here.
Traditional alternate nostril breathing alternates nostrils with each breath; in this variation, you’ll focus on one side at a time and add what’s called the “echo” exhale and breath retention. B.K.S. Iyengar described the echo exhale better than I ever could. I’ll quote his description from page 97 of his book “Light on Life”:
“There is something called “echo” exhalation. Exhale slowly and fully. Pause. Then exhale again. There is always a slight residue left in the lungs. In that residue is to be found the sludge of toxic memory and ego. In that brief further exhalation, let them go—and experience an even deeper state of relief from burden, of peace and emptiness.”
- Relax your left palm comfortably into your lap and bring your right hand just in front of your face.
- With your right hand, bring your pointer finger and middle finger to rest between your eyebrows, lightly using them as an anchor. The fingers you’ll be actively using are the thumb and ring finger.
- Close your eyes and take a deep breath in and out through your nose.
- Close your left nostril with your ring finger. Inhale through the right nostril slowly and steadily.
- Close the right nostril with your thumb so both nostrils are held closed; retain your breath at the top of the inhale for a brief pause.
- Open your left nostril and release the breath slowly through the left side; echo your exhale, releasing any air left over with a forceful exhale.
- Repeat twice more on the same side
- Switch sides, three rounds holding the right nostril with your thumb and inhaling through the left nostril, releasing through the right side. Don’t forget to echo your exhale.
- Release your hands to rest comfortable in your lap and perform three more rounds, in through both nostrils, holding your breath at the top for as long as you’re able, then slowly (with control) releasing through both nostrils, echoing the exhale at the bottom. Repeat three times.
Follow this sequence with a 5 to 20-minute meditation.
Enjoy the balanced state that follows.