Pranayama: Breath Control

The breath is the link between the body and mind. Without breath control, we have no body control, no mind control. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika states that “when the breath wanders the mind is unsteady.  But when the breath is calmed, the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life.”  Pranayama is harnessing the power of the breath, so as to rejuvenate the body and access a higher state of consciousness.  Pranayama can be simply taking a few deliberate, deep breaths before bed or can evolve into a complicated practice of body locks and long holds. Whichever the case, taking a few moments each day to acknowledge, expand and deepen the breath can release the mind, relax the body and make known the unknown.

“When you own your own breath, nobody can steal your peace.”

What Is Pranayama?

Just as you can be  tight in the gluteus muscles and hamstrings, you can also be tight in your breathing.  Your patterns of posture, muscular tension and emotional holding all affect your breath. If your body is tight, chances are your breathing is tight.  (Imagine putting on a body suit that is two sizes too small…) Pranayama and asana help release tension and provide space.  Space not only for your body and lungs, but your heart and mind as well.

“Prana” can be defined as life force.  “Ayama” means to stretch or extend.  In practicing breath control, we are extending our lives and happiness through the stretching of our body and mind.  It is a simple, deep practice that anyone can do.

In order to gain the full benefits of pranayama it is important that you understand the basic workings of the respiratory system.  Below, you will find resources that will help you gain awareness over your breath.  I truly believe that if you absorb the information below and begin any sort of breathing practice you will see improvement in your respiration and dealings with the everyday stresses of life.  Through a very simple practice I’ve been able to take control over my chronic asthma and improve my quality of mind.  I didn’t need drugs or the advice of a medical professional, I just needed to breathe.

Click here to read about Colin’s own personal experience with Pranayama and asthma.

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Note:  Pranayama is much more than control of oxygen flow.  For yogis, it is control of prana, or life force.  Prana can be thought of as riding along the breath, and consisting of our vital energy. Understanding and feeling prana is at first subtle and later tremendously powerful and palpable.  I will not go into detail on this site regarding prana, and will instead focus primarily on the gross aspects of breathing. (As breath is the vehicle for prana, establishing quality of breath is the first step towards cultivating quality of prana.)  If you wish to explore the experience of pranayama in more depth, read B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Pranayama.

Why Practice Pranayama?

imagesThroughout our lives, we establish patterns.  These habits can either close us off and render us stagnated or they can inspire creativity, health and well-being.  At the center of our patterns, good and bad, is the breath. Every thought, emotion,or physical posture affects the breath.  And likewise, the breath can affect every quality of the mind and body.

When the average person is tired, upset or faced with a problem they hunch the shoulders, collapse the chest and tilt the head forward.  This, in turn, reduces the space in our chest cavity and makes it impossible to get a full, complete breath of relaxing, inspiring breath.  Because our breath is shortened, this triggers a response from the sympathetic nervous system. Our mindset shifts towards “fight of flight” as our heart rate increases and our breath becomes faster and more localized in the chest.  Thus, we become stuck in the pattern of stress, sadness, or anxiety.  It is a vicious cycle.  However, if we can control one point on this cycle we can turn the unremitting circle of monotomy into a progressive line towards better health.   The most accessible, influential point we can control is the breath.  When we slow the breath, we access the parasympathetic nervous system and activate the relaxation response.  This improves focus, improves digestion and slows the heart rate. We become healthier and happier.  With a pranayama practice, you set the course for a cycle that embraces awareness and health, not one that avoids it.

We all have cycles or patterns that we follow unwittingly. When we’re sad we slouch, when we’re stressed we tense up our neck and shoulders and shorten our breath… As we tread these paths time and time again, they becomes more well-worn and rutted; familiar as coping mechanisms. Pranayama helps us climb out of our unhealthy ruts.  And it’s easy!  It’s breathing man, you do it everyday!  The next time you find yourself stressed or angry, take 10 deep breaths.  When you’re sad, sit upright, breath into your chest and “keep your chin up.”  Appreciate the control, understanding and freedom you have in your body and mind and breeeeatthhheee…