Literally translated as extension of the breath (prana – life force or energy, ayama – stretching or extending), pranayama is one of the eight limbs of yoga as identified in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and a vital component of our yoga practice.
Breathing with Purpose, on Purpose
Deprived of the accompanying element of mindful breath, yoga asanas (poses) become little more than calisthenics – useful and physically invigorating but not nearly as nourishing or transformational. Just how and why does the breath enhance and intensify our yoga practice? According to Tiffany Cruikshank, yoga instructor and founder of Yoga Medicine, the practice of pranayama offers the body three key benefits:
- Oxygenation of the blood
- Alkalinization of the blood through the release of Carbon Dioxide
- Calming the nervous system
All three benefits combine to offer us that natural high many equate with yoga class or personal practice: a felt sense of groundedness, increased emotional stability, ease, and spaciousness.
What Makes Yoga Breathing Different?
Of course there are all sorts of physical activities that oxygenate the body and improve our mood. When we go for a run or a hike, we can often literally feel our eyes widen and skin tingle as the heart and lungs work to welcome in a flood of oxygen. But there is something different that happens in our pranayama practice.
Most pranayama exercises tune us in not just to breathing more, but to how we breathe, and can quite literally alter the way we feel both physicially and emotionally. Someone with less sophisticated breath awareness might easily respond to the cue ‘breathe deeply’ by taking an exaggerated inhalation and completely forgetting about the exhale. We see this often in children. What pranayama practices invite us to do is to develop a deep connection to both the inhale and the exhale – gradually learning to prolong both and eventually retain the breath. It is the exhalation in many ways that acts as the true physiological change agent in the body. When we exhale, we clear out the junk (on a cellular level) by releasing carbonic acid and we simultaneously trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, the body’s ‘rest and digest’ cycle.
In our busy, overscheduled, and stress-laden lives, we often walk around (consciously or unconsciously) with an overactive sympathetic nervous system, the body’s ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. Because we simply don’t spend enough time in ‘rest and digest’ mode, when we breathe our way into it, the response is paramount – in our cells, our emotions, and our minds. We’re able to do that thing yoga teachers are always talking about: we let go.
Deepening Your Practice
Without the gateway of pranayama as a calming, grounding, and awakening technique, it can feel confronting if not impossible for those of us who run fast and hard to consider a seated, meditative practice. Many students want to know how they can learn to sit still and meditate when the mind tends to linger on a pending work deadline, unfinished grocery list, or weekend plans. Cultivating this capacity isn’t easy and unfortunately there is no simple answer. But the practice of pranayama is a huge piece of the puzzle. By beginning to tune your awareness inward and offering yourself a transitional exercise to signal ‘arrival’ on your mat or meditation cushion, chances are you will have far better luck coming into stillness. If the mind is restless, the practice of slowly expanding and watching the breath (perhaps attaching a quiet count to both the inhales and the exhales and gradually beginning to extend the count a little longer on the exhale) offers the busy mind something to do – a welcome task. And as the body starts to receive more oxygen, release more CO2, and engage the parasympathetic nervous system, slowly the ability to find quiet might just begin to feel more accessible.
Practice mindful breathing in Reclining Cobbler's Pose using Three Minute Egg ® ergonomic yoga props:
Kate Tripp is a yoga teacher, writer, mother, and co-founder of Luma Yoga, an award-winning yoga studio for adults and children in Santa Cruz, CA. She shares her wisdom and experience on the Three Minute Egg blog with weekly, inspirational, yoga-related blog posts. Read Kate's full bio here.