It’s hard for me to believe that October is here. Nonetheless, I’m excited about having pranayama be the theme of the month at Breathe! Pranayamas are breathing practices. The breath practices of yoga are so unique and fundamentally awesome!! Let’s take a deeper look.
Pranayama is the fourth limb of Patanajali’s eight limb path of yoga. This placement in the middle of the ladder signifies it’s importance as an integral step on the path toward our enlightenment. A yogi’s ability to sit and stay focused on the breath clears the obstacles for the succeeding limbs: withdrawal of the senses, concentration, & meditation. The Sanskrit word pranayama is comprised of two words: prana and yama. Prana is the life force energy. Yama means restraint or control. One way of looking at pranayama is that it is the practice of controlling our life force energy. Any well-rounded view teaches us further… In Sanskrit when two words come together they are merged, and a fusion of sound occurs, producing elegant transitions similar to how dawn and dusk blend the shifting of day and night. Therefore, ayama is the opposite of restraint, it means expansion and thus pranayama is the expansion of the life force energy. I believe both are correct, pranayama is both the control of and expansion of our vital life force.
The most basic of yoga’s breathing practices can be practiced by anyone, and the benefits include releasing stress, relaxing tension, combatting fatigue, alleviating headaches, and promoting focus and concentration. Additionally, slow conscious breathing alleviates strain on our cardiovascular muscle, aka the heart, and can remedy high blood pressure. Perhaps, most importantly though is how deep yogic breathing calms and soothes the nervous system, shifting our mental and physical state from fight or flight, to rest and digest.
The practice of physical postures may be what is most widely associated with the practice of yoga, and although there are exceptions, the majority of yoga classes worldwide do emphasize the practice of asana; however, our breath has a much more immediate, and believe it or not, profoundly more significant impact on our physiology than the physical postures. The connection we establish with our breath at the start of practice and maintain in our practice of asana is what truly sets yoga apart from other forms of physical exercise. I believe that yoga’s rise in popularity has helped advance these other forms of exercise, and those of who do enjoy other activities can enhance them from what is learned from yogic breathing. For example in lifting weights the use of proper breathing helps build muscle tone, likewise the benefit of building strength in a yoga posture is enhanced by our breath. Experienced runners know the importance of their breath for their endurance and performance, our conscious breathing in yoga practice helps us build stamina, too. Pranayama’s are excellent practices to help us reestablish proper breathing techniques in our daily life. A slow, rhythmic flow of breath can feel natural to us, because our breath is part of our autonomic nervous system. However many of us have allowed life stress to alter our harmonious, balanced breath pattern to one that is shallow and erratic. We may find pranayamas challenging for many reasons, this is why we need them to help us return to equinimity.
We invite you to join us in bringing more awareness to the practice of pranayama this month (and beyond). Here are a few ways to get started:
- Start your day with a basic pranayama, such as sama vritti – balanced breathing. Count your in breath up to 3 and match that pace and duration with your exhale. Repeat for 2 minutes.
- Establish and maintain a consistent and steady breath flow while practicing asana. Return your awareness to your breath with each pose that you practice.
- Observe your mind while practicing breathwork and postures. The quality of our mind reflects the quality of our breath. If our mind is distracted and wandering, then most likely our breath is distant and varying. Invite your attention back to your breath at the start of each new breath cycle.
- Relax and enjoy the pranayamas offered in class. Whether or not the breathwork tends to be your preferred part of practice, savor the opportunity to experience your breath in a clear and conscious way.
- Pranayama practice is a gateway to meditation. Try sitting and focusing on your breath in the middle and at the end of your day. Even a minute of mindfulness of your breath will create a significant impact on your physical and mental state, helping you release tension and stress.
I love practicing and teaching pranayama! Our breath can teach us so much about ourselves and how we are moving through our life. Take your time and be patient with yourself as you learn to deepen your pranayama practice. I hope the emphasis on breathing this month offers you many benefits, mind, body, and spirt.