“Breath is central to yoga, because Breath is central to life” T. Krishnamacharya.
“Breathing is one of the most important and fundamental processes of our human system: a reflection of what is happening within us, and a way for us to influence our mind and feelings” TKV Desikachar
“Pranayama is regarded as the greatest of all cleansing methods” AG Mohan
Pranayama is a sanskrit word which can be commonly broken down into two words.
Prana meaning life force and/or the breath and yama meaning control and/or extend and draw out.
So the most common translation is breath control, but another translation that I particularly like is extension of life force.
Pranayama is the fourth limb of Patanjali’s Eight Limbed Path or the path of yoga. It’s mentioned after asana which suggests that asana prepares the way for pranayama, and so is usually practiced after asana (postures), but different linages take a different approach.
In yoga there are many different pranayama techniques, but generally if your new to yoga you would want to start of with very simple practices to familiarise yourself with your breath and bring it to be smooth and slow.
While it’s very hard to say how we should all breath as it all depends ( remembering the uniqueness of the individual – my lineage of yoga) we can all benefit when our breath is long, smooth and subtle, and with our ratio being relativly equal.
Now lets just stop and have a look at why you would focus and explore the breath,
here are just a few reasons why:
- The breath is a bridge between the conscious and the unconscious and serves to integrate body, mind, and spirit. Because of this it can also bring to light some of our unconscious patterns.
- The breath is a perfect anchor to bring your mind to the present moment. Just try it, focus on feeling the breath in your body and think at the same time. You can’t do the two at the same time, the moment you are really feeling the breath is the moment you have come back to the present moment.
- And that is why the breath is the gateway to enter into meditation. It’s one of the best tools to quieten the mind, to let go of thoughts, because there is a physical felt sensation to the breath, giving the mind something a bit more tangable to hold onto. Not as strong and physical like asana (the postures) we are moving down the eight limbs of yoga – from gross to subtle but still it’s more physical then repeating a mantra mentally for example. It gives the mind something physically to focus on, which helps to still the mind
- It’s an indicator of what state we are in. Shallow quick, rough, breathing tends to happen when we’re stressed out while long, smooth, equal ratio-full breathing happens more when we are calm. When the mind is clear and balanced, the breath is even and rhythmic. When the mind is nervous and tense, the breath is strained and erratic.
- So if the breath can show us what state we are in, we can use the breath to help us reach the state that we want to be in. And that is the beauty of pranayama.
Lets look at the features and components of the breath.
The inhale, creates an expansion, body goes up, straightens the spine and brings increased alertness. So it is the part of the breath which is connected to bringing more aliveness, energy, alertness opening and can activate the Sympathetic nervous system – the fight or flight system.
The exhale creates contraction, body goes down, relaxes the body. It is the part of the breath that is cooling, relaxing, inward reflection, grounding, activating the Parasympathetic nervous system – your rest and digest system.
When we understand these two parts of the breath, we can regulate and shape our breath depending on what we need. If we need more energy more aliveness we are feeling lethargic ( not because we are tired and just need to sleep) then we can work on pranayama techniques that work on expanding/extending our inhale. Whereas if we we feeling too switched on, stressed and need to calm ourselves then we would work on extending/expanding our exhale to help switch into the rest and digest system.
So what’s happened is if we go back to our prehistoric times when we were living in caves, and maybe once in a while being chased by a saber toothed tiger then we would need our stress response to kick in – our fight or flight system to run away and not be eaten and survive. But as we have progressed into this new age ( fast forward a few hundred years) we are still triggering our stress response (because we have been the survivors of the ancestors always on the edge and lookout) but no longer because of a tiger chasing us, but because of a deadline thats lurking, or when we are running late to an appointment or dealing with a difficult person or situation, but not a near death experience.
And this is causing us to be in the stress response which is over working our system and so knowing how to deliberately switch out of that and into the rest and digest can be very critical to your good health.
And the breath can do that.
We can also use pranayama in postures, and this can be extremely helpful when we feel physically restricted to expand the breath. Using simple asanas (postures) with movements of opening on the inhale and closing on the exhale.
Generally speaking the co-ordination of breath and movement is the very first step of pranayama.
And if you ever get lost in what breath you should be doing on which movement, apply the above principal.
Is the movement opening, expanding, back arching then it will be done as you inhale to assist the breath.
Is the movement contracting, twisting, bending folding in, then it will be done as you exhale to assist the breath.
To begin to dive into working with pranayama, first explore your unique breath. Here is a guided meditation to do just that!