Why are breathing exercises so important? Surely that’s obvious? Well, I’m meaning breathing in the context of yoga, and more specifically I’m thinking of what we hear referred to as ‘Pranayama’.
Pranayama is the control of our breath as we do yoga, and in particular, linking the breath to movement so that as we do one pose we inhale and as we move to the next we exhale. Pranayama also refers to different breathing techniques that you’ll do during some yoga classes. Pranayama’ literally means "lengthening of the prana or breath". It is comprised of two separate Sanskrit words, ‘Prāna’ which means ‘life force’, or ‘vital energy’ and in this case we talk particularly about the breath and ‘Ayama’ which means to lengthen or extend.
So why is this important? Well, aside from keeping us alive, if we are able to control our breath then we find that our consciousness or our awareness also automatically stabilises, which brings a sense of calm. Pranayama is therefore the link between the mental and physical disciplines, While the action is physical, the effect is to make the mind calm, lucid and steady.
The breathing techniques of pranayama were developed in India about 6,000 years ago as a means of increasing people’s life span. I’m really not about to encourage you to practice pranayama in order to prolong life however I can vouch for the fact that if we regularly practice pranayama we will feel the benefits both within our body and in our mind.
Pranayama is about ‘Being aware of breath’ and is a subtle but essential part of the techniques. Being ‘breath aware’ means consciously feeling every breath, both as we inhale and as we exhale, one after the other, over and over again. As we practice pranayama we find that the exercises clear both physical and emotional obstacles and so we become more aware of our life energy – our prana.
Daily stressors, tensions and physical habits can create physical and energetic obstacles in our bodies. Without even noticing it our breathing can become gradually more shallow or stilted. If you stop for a moment and just notice how you are breathing, it is probably only in the top half of the lungs. We can develop unconscious breathing patterns that restrict the flow of breath and prana. So, as we practice pranayama (breathing exercises) the breath becomes freer and so we feel more alive, more energised and more relaxed. Over time the body will start to heal itself as the life energies in our systems are balanced.
At the same time, regularly practicing pranayama allows us to fully use and strengthen the whole range of our respiratory organs as we explore the lower, middle and upper parts of the breath and regulate the inhalation, retention and exhalation of the breath.
Our breathing patterns are also very closely linked to our emotional states. We will breathe in a different way when we are angry, when we are excited, tired or when we are nervous. However, if we start to consciously change our breathing patterns we will find that we can calm ourselves when we feel anxious or energise ourselves when we feel drained. Just taking a few minutes out of a day to consciously become more aware of our breath can help us to start to alter our emotional states.
There are a number of different pranayama techniques which all have different effects, much like different asanas/yoga poses do. Most kinds of pranayama are practiced sitting down with an upright spine for example in Cross-legged Pose, Hero’s Pose (on props if needed) or Lotus Pose. The idea is for the breath to be smooth and even and not strained even after breath retention.
Some such as Kapalabhati Pranayama (Skull Shining Breath) are energizing and detoxing with a fast rhythm and strong abdominal contractions to expel the breath.
Others are balancing or relaxing like Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing) or Sama Vritti (Equal Breathing) where inhalations and exhalations are equal length.
So, in summary, there are many benefits not just to breathing to live, but to consciously exploring and managing our breath so that we are able to feel the full benefit of the lives that we live in a more alive, alert and balanced way!