Pranayama: Yogic Breath-work
“Pranayama enables you to control the flow of your breath and increase your vital energy. These breathing exercises uncover the light of pure consciousness and bring mental clarity.”
- Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, 2.49 and 2.52
Your breath is your most intimate companion. It is the essential interface between your body and your mind. Your breath both responds to and controls your emotions as well as your thoughts.
Yogic breathing exercises are called “pranayama”. The literal translation of this Sanskrit word is “control of the prana”. Prana is the vital energy, or life force, that is known in Chinese as “chi” and Japanese “ki”. It is the subtle energy that is used and manipulated in acupuncture, shiatsu, reiki, tai chi, reflexology and many Eastern martial arts.
People, often unknowingly, use the power of prana in daily life. When your child falls, you may rush over to “kiss” it where it hurts, thus transferring prana. If your friend is sick, you may gently stroke his head, thereby transmitting prana. When you bang your knee, you instinctively hold your breath and place both of your hands on the injury in an unconscious attempt to bring additional prana to the area.
With regular practice, pranayama enables you to more consciously control the non-physical subtle energy within your own being. Pranayama enables you to cleanse and strengthen your physical body while calming your mind.
Why do pranayama?
“Pranayama is the link between the mental and physical disciplines of yoga. While the action is physical, the effect is to make the mind calm, lucid and steady”.
- Swami Vishnu-devananda, Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga
Controlling your own mind is perhaps one of the most difficult things you can do in life. After observing the intimate connection between the mind and the breath, ancient yogis developed a series of breath techniques that would enable them to control their minds.
If you watch a person who is at peace, engaged in deep thought, you will notice that his/her breath is slow and even; it may sometimes even be suspended for short periods. You have also probably noticed that when your mind is affected by negative emotions, your breathing becomes fast, irregular and unsteady. These observations indicate the interdependence and interaction of breath and mind.
By its very nature your mind tends to be unsteady. It is constantly affected by the images it sees, hears and experiences through your senses. Pranayama helps you to make your mind one-pointed, so that you can feel more peaceful.
By the regular practice of yoga breathing exercises, you can:
- Improve and maintain your general good health
- Have a face that shines with vitality
- Be better able to overcome viruses and bacteria, which thrive when your body is oxygen-deprived
- Enhance your ability to deal with pressure and stress
- Increase your powers of concentration
- Experience a greater sense of calm and well-being
- Maximise your verbal delivery – whether you are a performer, public speaker, teacher or simply need to give vocal presentations at work
- Gain mastery over your emotions
- Feel less tired
- Have a voice that is sweet and melodious
- Arouse inner spiritual forces that bring you joy and peace of mind
“When breath is irregular, your mind is also unsteady. But when your breath is still, so is your mind, and you live long. Therefore, practice breath control.”
- Hatha Yoga Pradipika, 2.2
Use your breath to deal with stress
Your breath affects and is a strong indication of your overall health and well-being: mental, physical, psychological and emotional. If you are not breathing fully, you may be depriving your body of sufficient oxygen to properly metabolise the food you eat and eliminate the toxins from your body.
If you are like most people, your breath tends to be shallow. Perhaps you use no more than the top third of your lung capacity. If you keep your rib cage rigid rather than allowing it to expand with each in-breath, you probably find that you tire easily and feel more stressed. This is because by walking around with hunched shoulders you block tension, which tends to accumulate in your upper back and neck.
Watch yourself the next time you find yourself in a stressful situation; notice that your breathing becomes faster and more shallow. But, instead of reaching for a cigarette or a drink, try to take a deep breath. The increased intake of oxygen will help to clear your mind and enable you to better deal with the situation.
By breathing fully, you lay a firm foundation for a rewarding yoga practice. The more deeply you breathe the calmer and more focused your life becomes. So, it is important to make sure that you are breathing properly.
Are you utilising the full capacity of your lungs?
To begin to assess your breathing, lie flat on your back on the ground or another firm surface. You may want to place a small cushion under your head or neck. Separate your legs and let your feet relax. Shake out your shoulders to make sure that they are fully relaxed. Gently roll your head from side to side, do this 2-3 times and then return it to centre. Place your hands onto your abdomen (in the region of your naval).
Take a few long, slow, deep breaths. Feel your abdomen rise with each inhalation and fall with each exhalation. Try to draw the air into the lowest portion of your lungs, causing your abdomen to expand slightly – but don’t balloon it out.
After you have perfected the abdominal breathing, sit up. Come into a cross-legged position or sit on a straight-backed chair, with your feet flat on the floor. It is important that your back is straight, your chest erect and your shoulders relaxed.
Place one hand on your abdomen (in the region of your naval); have the other hand on your bottom ribs. These “floating” ribs need to expand outward as you inhale and draw inward as you exhale.
Before you begin, close your eyes for a moment. Visualise your lungs as long, skinny balloons. Remember how, when you try to blow up a balloon, the part near your mouth tends to expands, but the lower part remains empty and limp. Picture yourself taking a deep breath that fills the bottoms of your lungs/balloons first. Then “see” the middle lungs expand and finally the top part fills with air.
With this image in your mind, inhale and feel your lungs expand from the bottom, then the middle and finally in your upper chest. As you exhale, feel this process reverse itself. Use your hands to check that you are breathing fully and evenly.
Practise this full breath for a few days before you have mastered it. It is a good idea to make sure that you are breathing deeply and fully before attempting yoga breathing exercises.