Pranayama

The most important thing in your life in order to change your prosperity and your purpose is the breath of life. Start where God is, start where life is. Life is in the breath of life. 

Yogi Bhajan, 5/8/95

Pranayama is one of the Eight Limbs of Yoga referenced by The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and it was considered an integral step on the path to enlightenment. It consists in the conscious awareness of breath, that is the life force that both energises and relaxes the body.

Yoga and breath control have always been linked to each other since the beginning. Breath, life, and energy are strictly connected in the Hinduist tradition, and in yoga they are summarised with the term prana.

From the Western world’s perspective breath is the continuous inhalation of oxygen and the exhalation of carbon dioxide.
From the yogic perspective, breathing is not only the way to receive oxygen, but also it allows the absorption of the energy from nature which brings life and vitality. This relationship explains the reason why the ancient Sanskrit language used only one word for breath, life, and energy.

Our vitality, mental focus, and our consciousness’ levels are enhanced by gaining awareness of our breath. It acts as a bridge to our nervous system, and through pranayama practices a deep connection to the mind and psyche is fostered.
As a consequence, our breathing results altered depending on our mood, and, vice versa, our mental and psychological state can be influenced by our breath.

Conscious breathing is an awesome source of energy. It basically works this way: we breathe better, so we feel better.

The benefits of Pranayama

How many times do you breath during one day?

Between 20000 and 30000 per day for the whole duration of your life.

The truth is that we are not really aware of it, as breathing is an automatic function of our body. However, the fact that it comes naturally does not mean that it is done in the proper way!

The majority of the people do not breathe in the optimal way and their lungs are not used at their full capacity.
This bad habit can increase stress and anxiety, and affect the individual’s vitality.
Moreover, breathing fast limits the amount of oxygen that the blood receives, and in this way toxins are not expelled, but they are actually accumulated in our organisms.

So, which are the benefits of proper breathing?

Following you find a list of the main ones:

  • stress reduction;
  • an increase in the amount of oxygen in our blood, which nourishes the cells of our bodies. This will bring you a longer lasting health;
  • the improvement of our brain functions, as brain cells work better when they are well oxygenated;
  • in the same way of the brain, all the other organs will work better;
  • increased vitality;
  • a calmer mind. (Think about it. What do you do when you are stressed and experience difficulty in breathing? You take a big, deep breath! This is just a little proof of how breathing really has an impact on the mind);
  • stronger muscles. In order to be strong, our muscles need to receive the nourishment which they get from the blood. Consequently, blood containing and transporting more oxygen will improve the functioning of the muscles. (No, don’t think lazy! You still need to practise the asanas to be toned and fit!);
  • healthier and more elastic lungs.

The essence of yogic breathing: the S.E.L.F

To better understand the way to perform the proper yogic breathing, the following acronym can be really useful.

S.E.L.F

  • Soft and slow
  • Easy and even
  • Long and lingering
  • Full and free

Easier said than done. Especially in a challenging position. I know. (Tell me I am not the only one to instinctively hold my breath in tough times).

Although holding our breath and using stress induced breathing (short and shallow) while holding certain postures comes quite natural, our yoga teachers keep saying it: it is VERY WRONG. This creates stress and tension in the body.

In yoga, we want to create calm and relaxation in the body, a balance between breath and mind through the conscious use of breath.
Only by keeping breathing steadily we will access the many benefits that yoga provides to our body and mind.
If during an asana you cannot breathe deeply, focus on it and try to calm your breathing. Otherwise, if that asana is too advanced, do not worry! Leave the pose and keep going with your practice. Yoga is about acceptance and patience.

Now that we understand the importance of prana, how can we link it to the several asanas?

This is a fundamental aspect, as the way we breathe in each momentum of an asana can contribute to consistently improve our practice and so to enhance its benefits on us.

The two main principles to keep in mind are:

  • during inhalation the body opens and expands, whereas during exhalation it contracts and closes;
  • let the breath guide your movements and not the other way around

There are several ways to breathe in asanas depending on the different traditions and teaching styles.
The most important aspect is to find a breath that supports the goal that you want to achieve for a specific pose and yoga practice.

  • You can use Dirga pranayama in the majority of the postures. Concentrate on actively breathing into the chest in backbends and chest opening poses (pigeon, warrior I, fish, bridge). When performing forward folding postures and belly down postures you can focus on just breathing into the belly (child, forward fold, cobra, boat).
  • Ujjiaj pranayama is very useful when you hold strength building postures to increase endurance and focus (downward dog, standing squat, warrior III, warrior I, sun salutations).
  • Kapalabhati pranayama can be chosen to intensify holding a pose and to strongly activate the prana in the body. This breathing technique can also increase our focus during a challenging pose to allow us to stay present in the asana.

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