Pranayama & the Power of Yogic Breathing
Pranayama is the fourth of the eight limbs of yoga, according to the ancient sage Patanjali. In the second book of The Yoga Sutras we find the description of pranayama as “regulation of breath or the stoppage of inhalation and exhalation, which follows after securing steadiness of the posture, or seat, asana.” Our breath is the external manifestation of our vital life energy, which is our prana. When we learn how to control our breath we can then control our vital life energy. According to the ancient teachings of yoga, it is our prana that keeps us alive and animates our physiology.
Quieting the Mind
Prana moves in five directions in our body. Vital to our well-being, prana dictates our digestion, elimination, expression, circulation, and even how well we receive information by way of the five sense organs. These functions in our bodies and minds are directly affected by the quality, quantity, efficiency, and general relationship that we have with our breath. How much time do we spend paying attention to our breath these days? Unless we are exerting ourselves physically, or experiencing a stressful fight or flight moment, we’re not usually aware of our breath.
Mastering this, we can then thoughtfully manipulate the arms, legs, and mouth, which is quite frankly where I often get into trouble! This balanced circular relationship is vital, and it is our prana which allows the mind to be in motion at all.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras describe the motion happening in the mind as fluctuations or “vrittis.” Depending on the vibration of the prana, these mental activities will reveal themselves in our body and mind—and they may be good or bad.
If we have disturbed or agitated prana, we may present symptoms of anxiety, restlessness, heart palpitations, and constipation. In Ayurvedic terms, this is called vata dosha. However, if the prana is calm and flowing in all five directions, we will feel grounded, clear, creative, and inspired. The individual will have strong digestion, healthy elimination, good circulation, and clear breathing.
All of this can be directly affected by working with our breath. When we invest the time to build a relationship with the power of our breath, we will learn techniques to fit the needs of any moment. Pranayama can be used to warm up, wake up, and stimulate, or cool off, relax, and calm down.
Focusing the Breath
I like to think of my pranayama practice as mental weightlifting. It is strengthening the mind as it builds focus and concentration. Patanjali explains that the modifications of the breath are either external, internal, or suspended. Pranayama exercises are observed by where the breath is located in the body, duration of time, and number of repetitions.
When he speaks of location, Patanjali is referring to where we place our focus. This is where the mental strengthening comes in. It is very easy and almost natural to allow the mind to wander. Developed concentration allows one to focus awareness, for example at the base of the spine or the third eye. As we dive deeper into pranayama, our single pointed abilities will expand.
In terms of breathing practices, the element of time refers to the length of inhalation, exhalation, or retention. The number or count is how many rounds we do. As we build our practice, these factors will grow accordingly, allowing us to lengthen the in and out breath, hold the retentions longer, and sit in practice with ease.
According to Patanjali, the next step of pranayama should come naturally and effortlessly. Once you’re feeling comfortable with your pranayama practice, you’ll naturally start to incorporate a momentary suspension of breath, usually occurring during deep meditation. Remember, the breath reflects what is going on in our mind and body, therefore in states of meditation the breath will pause to reflect the stillness of your experience.
Now, this is where it gets good—the cherry on top. When we make the effort to cultivate discipline into our practice, Patanjali says that the veil of heaviness and darkness over our inner light and clarity is destroyed. The mind then becomes fit for concentration, which perfectly leads us to the next limb, pratyahara (consciously withdrawing from the senses). Until then, breathe on and breathe calm.
*** Please always learn pranayama techniques from a seasoned yoga instructor.