Pranayama and the Power of the Breath
What is your breath like in this very moment? Is it slow, fast, shallow, or deep? What happens when you bring your awareness to it–does it change? Now, think. What is your breath like when you feel relaxed? What is it like when you’re stressed? Can you notice a correlation between your breath and how you feel right now?
Many of us move through life without conscious awareness of our breath. We tend to severely underestimate its power. We know that we breathe, but we don’t have an intimate and harmonious relationship with the breath itself. In times of discomfort or stress, we often reach for a variety of remedies including food, our phones, validation in others, medication, and many other modern-day solutions to our modern-day problems. But the one thing we seldom focus on is our greatest ally through life: our breath.
The breath often reflects what’s going on in the mind and the body. Without awareness, it quickly becomes controlled by the mind. But by continually bringing our awareness to the breath, it eventually grows stronger than the mind and becomes its guiding light. If you want to change your mind overtime, then funnel your attention to your breath.
Prana & Pranayama 101
Prana is the universal life force in every single thing that’s alive, and our very survival is dependent on it. It exists in every instant in every cell of every living organism.
Imagine prana as the water that flows through a river. If you took different cups and scooped water from the river, the size and shape of each cup would differ but the liquid it contained would remain the same. Various living organisms are like cups, and prana is the river that flows through each of us.
The breath is a physical representation of prana, but it’s also the energy of consciousness. In fact, prana is considered so powerful in yogic philosophy that it has the potential to enlighten. Many of our experiences are impacted by the flow of prana, including digestion, elimination, personal expression, circulation, and our ability to receive information.
Disturbed or agitated prana may manifest in the body as anxiety, restlessness, heart palpitations, and constipation, among other things. On the other hand, a calm and free-flowing prana leads to groundedness, clarity, creativity, inspiration, strong digestion, and healthy elimination.
Imagine a river that contains a lot of debris and blocks its flow. The debris is like the experiences in our lives (physical, emotional, and daily stressors and tensions) that create physical and energetic blockages in our bodies and hinder the flow of prana. That’s where Pranayama comes in.
Pranayama helps to loosen and release blockages in the river so prana can flow smoothly, which leads to our natural state of health and vitality. Pranayama is one of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga and refers to the control of prana through the breath. It includes the breathing techniques that come from the ancient sages of India and is central to many of the varieties of yoga.
Sources of Prana
Imagine a day when you spent time outside, exercised, and ate fresh and invigorating foods. How did your body feel after those experiences? Now, how does that compare to a time when you spent all day inside, ate highly processed foods, and scrolled aimlessly on your phone?
A person who spends most of their time indoors under fluorescent lights, eats processed foods, drinks high amounts of caffeine or alcohol, and is primarily in contact with concrete surfaces will have less prana than someone who spends most of their time outside, walks barefoot on the earth, eats nourishing and whole foods, and hydrates with water. That’s because prana is the essence of everything pure and natural. The further we stray from nature in our food and lifestyle habits, the less prana we cultivate in our lives.
An easy way to identify sources of prana is to understand that anything that is processed has low prana, and anything in its natural state will have more. Food is a great example of this. A processed, frozen Hot Pocket is going to contain far less prana than a warm, recently cooked meal with fresh vegetables and grains.
Here are some ways to access prana:
- Connect to the earth by walking barefoot directly on soil (not concrete, wood, tile, etc)
- Drink mostly pure natural water; prana decreases the more processed the water is, like in soda and coffee
- Sit, lay, or relax in the sun
- Cultivate positive thoughts and surround yourself with others who do the same
- Practice proper breathing techniques and breathe clean, unpolluted air
Benefits of Pranayama
The benefits of pranayama and even simply observing the breath can be felt immediately. They extend far and wide and are experienced on both the physical and emotional levels.
Physical and emotional benefits of Pranayama:
- increased lung capacity
- slowed heart rate
- healthy blood pressure
- healthy digestion
- proper circulation of blood
- decreased cardiopulmonary stress
- decreased metabolic activity
- decreased muscle tension
- helps to harness emotions
- creates space between fears and worries
- helps let go of negative thoughts
- reduces the fight or flight response
- promotes clarity of mind
- produces a sense of calm
In large part, the power of the breath is due to its effect on the parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes the fight or flight response our bodies often experience in high-stress situations. On the other hand, the sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for fight or flight.
In a consistently stressful culture, our sympathetic nervous systems are especially taxed. Therefore, our parasympathetic systems are in need of extra support on a day-to-day basis. Though both these systems are largely driven by unconscious factors, there is one powerful factor that we have the ability to consciously direct: the breath. It’s our immediate and direct line of communication with an otherwise automated system.
The Natural Breath
Pranayama begins with observation of the natural breath. Sometimes attempts to control the breath through pranayama or incorrect practices of certain techniques can actually make it more difficult for us to relax into the power of prana. This can be thought of as “unwise pranayama.”
Wise pranayama begins with the awareness that you are breathing in, and then breathing out. You don’t have to incorporate breathing techniques in order to deepen your relationship with your breath. It can happen simply by being aware and mindful of it.
Before practicing pranayama, it’s important to simply breathe correctly. Many of us have learned to breathe into our chests, which leads to shallow breathing and feelings of anxiety. The proper way to breathe is to move the breath into the stomach. Observing the breath helps us identify our current breathing patterns and then retrain yourself by consciously breathing deeply into the stomach. Overtime, this will become automated and you will naturally feel a greater sense of relaxation as you move through your day.
Popular Pranayama Techniques
It’s important to consult the guidance of a yoga teacher or someone else trained in proper breathing techniques before trying them on your own. But if you have practiced pranayama before or are curious to learn more, below are a few popular techniques. For detailed instructions, click the link of each technique’s name.
Ujjai – This technique can be thought of as “sound breath” because its slight constriction in the throat causes a sound that can be heard by you and maybe those sitting close to you. When done correctly, this technique creates a sensation that the breath is moving through the nose rather than the nostrils. Ujjai promotes relaxation and is especially helpful for anyone who suffers from insomnia or for those with high blood pressure.
Nadi Shodhana – Nadi Shodhana is done by using the thumb and ring fingers of the right hand to alternate the opening and closing of each nostril. This is a great technique to do in preparation for more advanced pranayama techniques. By balancing the air flow between the two nostrils, this technique regulates the flow of prana and the body and causes a deep state of ease and calm.
Bee Breath – Also called Bhramari, “bee breath” gets its name from the humming sound that sounds similar to a bee. The sound is soothing for a mind that is particularly frantic and stressed. It’s a great technique to use to settle the mind or in preparation for other practices like meditation or yoga.
Yogic Breathing – Yogic Breathing incorporates a combination of abdominal breathing, middle breathing, and upper breathing. By deepening and expanding the breath into these different areas of the body, you will most likely experience greater power, vitality, and calmness.
Kumbhaka – Also called breath retention, Kumbhaka is one of the traditional breathing exercises of Hatha yoga. The intention of this breathing technique is to create pause, inaction, and rest. There are many ways to practice this technique, but its basic instruction requires relaxing your whole body, inhaling, exhaling, and then pausing before repeating.
“Our breath is constantly rising and falling, ebbing and flowing, entering and leaving our bodies. Full body breathing is an extraordinary symphony of both powerful and subtle movements that massage our internal organs, oscillate our joints, and alternately tone and release all the muscles in the body. It is a full participation in life.”
– Donna Farhi
As you read through this article, did you become more aware of your breath or notice a difference in its pattern? If so, imagine the impact that awareness can have when you practice it intentionally and consistently. With practice, you can cultivate a relationship with your breath and learn to work in cooperation with it for a healthy and joyful life.
The breath is the one thing that begins and ends our earthly experience with us. It is our number one sidekick. By moving through life without conscious awareness of it, we quickly forget the power that it has in every aspect of our lives. Our very survival depends on the breath, and yet we often neglect our harmonious and intimate relationship with it. Overtime, pranayama brings harmony between the mind, body, and spirit. It helps us remove barriers in the river of prana so that we can live with vitality and ease.