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January 15, 2019

Pranayama - The Breath Of Yoga

It is often said that breath and consciousness are two sides of the same coin, so in our next two posts we are going to give a little deeper into the last two facets of Yoga we will be focusing on in the upcoming series: Pranayama and Meditation. We will start with the practice of breath control, Pranayama. We could talk for days about the benefits, purpose, and history of Pranayama practices which is infinitely older than Asana - the physical practice, but I am going to keep things relatively short, focusing on a few aspects of Pranayama that I find the most potent.

Pranayama is generally regarded as a series of breath practice or exercises that manipulate the breath in different ways to ultimately expand or increase the efficacy of the breath. The root “Prana” means to breathe forth, breath, to live, life force. Ultimately, Prana is the life force that animates all living beings and is most readily visible as breath. “Yama” is to expand, to reign, to control, to lengthen. Pranayama then is the control and expansion of the breath.

In Pranayama we take something that is generally unconscious, autonomic and make it conscious by taking control of the process. Hence this idea that breath and consciousness are two sides of the same coin. In doing so, in making the unconscious conscious, our brains must focus on each and every inhalation and exhalation. That attention to the breath, making the breath a consciously controlled effort, keeps our mind and our attention anchored in the present moment. Each inhale and exhale can only happen in the present. In a sense by taking control of the breath we are able to hijack the mind, to calm its fluctuations and keep it focused on the present moment.

Further, we are really good at ceasing to breathe when things get challenging. Whether that is in a challenging pose, or an uncomfortable situation, when things get tough our first instinct is often to hold our breath. By focusing on our breathing, by actually taking control of each and every breath we eliminate the option of ceasing the breath in awkward poses and teach ourselves to breathe through those stressful moments.

Physiologically, because our respiratory system is intimately linked to our sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous systems, taking control of the breath enables us to hack our nervous system as well. Think about it, when you are stressed or scared, when your sympathetic nervous system is firing, what is the quality of your breathing? Fast, ragged, shallow, centered in the chest? What about when you are calm and relaxed, under the influence of your parasympathetic nervous system? Slow, deep, steady? Different pranayama techniques systematically imitate the breath quality of either sympathetic or parasympathetic states, and in doing so trick the mind into activating that state. Some practices invite the slow, calming effect of our parasympathetic nervous system, while others are invigorating, energizing by imitating our sympathetic nervous system.

Additionally, as we work to expand the breath and to expand our bodies’ capacity for holding breath there are other physiological benefits. For one, by increasing the breath’s capacity, by training the body to breathe we become better breathers. That ability to breathe better, to breathe more effectively, is beneficial in tons of aspects of our lives from athletic endeavors, to simply remaining steady and being able to breathe through adversity.

At its foundation, these Pranayama practices tie back into the principle of Yoga Citta Vritti Nirodhah… That yoga is the quieting of the fluctuations of the mind, the calming of the mind, the bringing the mind into the present moment. They teach us to breath better, to expand our capacity for breath, life force so that we might remain steady in ourselves and our breath.

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