Breath is the life force, the prana, the enlivening heart of yoga. Pranayama, the practice of breathing, is not a yoga afterthought, tacked on after class to transition you to corpse pose. It is the center of awareness, the portal through which you can tumble into the endless stillness of meditation. Yoga breathing is as essential to your spirit as oxygen is to your brain.
What Is Pranayama?
Pranayama is the method of extending the life force through conscious control of the breath. You can regulate your breath by using ancient techniques to improve focus, calm yourself, re-energize, connect with your own body, and bring yourself back into the present. When you consciously control your breathing, you move that function from the unconscious automatic brain to the conscious cerebral cortex. This is a simple workaround for leaving all the complex emotional, stressed, and random thoughts and reactions behind. Yoga breathing helps you to achieve the clear, calm, "empty" mind of meditation.
How It Works
There are many yoga breathing asanas, most reserved for advanced students. Even though breathing is natural, controlled breathing takes skill and can be exhausting if you're not prepared. Basic pranayama exercises may be done after class, before starting asana practice, or throughout the entire practice.
The victorious breath is the first prana asana you learn. It slows your breath and your mind down and increases your focus.
Alternate nostril breathing, nadi shodhana, relieves stress and balances the left and right hemispheres of your brain. Many yoga teachers use it at the start of a yoga class or session to purify energy centers and facilitate energy flow. Ten rounds of nadi shodhana will calm you down anytime.
Skull shining breath is an explosive exhale that cleanses the lungs, pumps fresh oxygen into the blood, and prepares you for meditation. It is one of the six cleansing kriyas (practices) of hatha yoga used to purify and detoxify the body. Once you've mastered the technique, you can use it to help you focus before meditating.
Bellows breath is an energizer you can use if you're feeling sluggish. When you perform bhastrika, it increases life force, or prana. It can make you lightheaded if you're not use to it, so check in with yourself after about ten rounds or so. Use this series of rapid breath explosions to wake you right up when you're sliding into that mid-afternoon slump or nodding off in meditation.
The Importance of Breathing
During yoga and other exercise, the way you breathe is vital to results. Most people take shallow, rapid chest breaths, about 15 to 20 per minute. They don't absorb enough oxygen and carbon dioxide to maintain energy and pH levels, nor do they expel their breath in such a way that toxins are purged from the body. They body eliminates more than 50 percent of waste through breath. Not breathing correctly keeps toxins locked inside.
Pranayama breathing improves this exchange, boosts cell metabolism and immune function, and regulates the autonomic nervous system. The effects are psychological and physical. Oxygen is essential to nourish cells. Lactic acid develops in the muscles when there isn't enough oxygen reaching them. You'll know when this happens because you become tired more quickly and feel a burning sensation that's different from the general fatigue of a good workout.
When you exercise, make sure your inhalations and exhalations are even and controlled. Breathing too quickly causes hyperventilation. You'll require more oxygen as exercise levels increase, but the number of breaths you take per minute will respond to this need automatically. This goes for your power yoga or ashtanga class, too.
It's Only Natural
When integrated with yoga, breathing guides your body's natural rhythm in performing the asanas. Yoga therapist Leslie Kaminoff, founder of The Breathing Project, explains it this way: "Everyone's length and quality of breath is different, so the movement and pace should be reflective of that. Follow your breath and take your time." As you do that, try a little experiment. As you reach peak inhale, pause, and retain the breath for a beat or two. Do this lightly, without tensing your body, then release the exhale evenly, not in a burst. At the moment when you have fully emptied your lungs, pause again and retain the emptiness. Do this three times and then resume normal breathing. You will have boosted your intense focus on the breath, calmed your mind and increased your energy -- all from using the breath to direct and enhance your life force, your prana. It's a mini-meditation, the real heart of yoga.