Pranayama is the fourth “limb” of the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga set out in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The definitions and interpretations of the term are numerous and even, at times, conflicting. Some schools and scholars of yoga understand the word pranayama to be a composite of the two Sanskrit words, prana and yama, which translates to “breath control” or “control of the life force”. And others suggest the almost opposite – a combination of prana and ayama, which can be translated as “breath liberation” or “expanding the life force using the breath”.
As a somatic spiritual practice, yogis in ancient India began refining techniques that focused specifically on the breath and controlling it, including kapalabhati (“skull cleansing”), nadi shodhana (alternate nostril), bhastrika (bellows) and kumbhaka (breath retention). More contemporary Hatha yoga practices involve exploring asanas (physical yoga postures) with and through the steadiness and ease of the breath, and connecting movement of the body with the flow of the breath, to enhance the body-mind relationship. Ultimately, cultivating and refining this connection to the breath allows the student to move energy more easily and thoroughly around and through the body.
Notwithstanding the essential role of pranayama in yoga, the act of breathing is essential to existence. Yet many of us, in the hustle and bustle and stresses of our daily lives, have become unaware and at times almost unconscious about how we breathe. At many points during the day, in fact, we might even stop breathing completely, without noticing it.
And yet, breathing deeply and fully and naturally is something mammals do instinctively when they are born. Watch a newborn baby or animal breathing and you’ll notice its belly and chest rising gently and fully on an inhale, and easing and releasing on an exhale. Most animals tend to maintain this diaphragmatic breathing pattern throughout their lives. Whereas many humans, in reaction to environmental stressors and cultural expectations (for example, having a flat stomach), unconsciously allow their breath to become shallower and held in the upper thoracic, instead of smooth and cyclical.
Shallow breathing and lack of breath have significant effects on the efficient workings of all biological systems of the body that carry out specific functions necessary for living. Most modern scientific and medical research now supports the philosophy of ancient traditions (including those in Asia, Greece, Egypt and Babylon) that breathing is a cornerstone for creating the optimum conditions for health and well-being.
When you breathe in a shallow way, the body remains in a cycle of stress – stress and anxiety causing shallow breathing, and shallow breathing causing stress and anxiety. This sets off the sympathetic nervous system, the part of the autonomic nervous system that primes you for activity and response. Prolonged, chronic stress can result in adrenal fatigue, increased heart rate, reduced immunity, and aggravates respiratory problems and cardiovascular issues.
Breathing consciously and fully, conversely, improves the functioning of the respiratory and circulatory systems and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn enhances digestion and elimination. Ultimately, this means lower blood pressure, reduced heart rate, relaxed muscles, decreased stress, and increased energy levels.
In addition to the positive biological impact, (re)learning to breathe fully with awareness provides you with the opportunity to come home to yourself. It allows you to relax more deeply into the temple of your body, to loosen your grip on unnecessary tension and weariness, and to create some discerning space for all the stimuli naturally picked up by the organs of observation. In a deeply relaxed and aware state, it is then easier to follow the path to greater concentration, equanimity and serenity.
The practice of pranayama invites you to draw your attention inward, letting go of the noise of the external world, so that you can become aware of the subtle signs within your body – sensations of the physical body, thoughts, feelings and emotions. Signs that can be useful in knowing your general state of being, which may in fact be different to what you had perceived it to be.
Becoming aware of these signs then gives you the choice of investigating any particular element a little closer. And oftentimes the mere acknowledgement of sensation, thought, feeling or emotion can bring up a world of wisdom of where its origin or roots lie. You can also choose, once having acknowledged it, to let go of that thought, feeling or emotion. It is in the letting go that you find you may have removed a temporary shadow clouding your vision of – your connection to – the vast space of infinite consciousness that is your True Nature.
Written by: Leigh Bosch | June 2021