Friday, March 7, 2014

A Breath of Fresh Air: What's the Big Deal with Pranayama?

It's Pranayama Month at Jaya Yoga Center! Pranayama, or breath control, which is one translation of the Sanskrit, is the fourth limb of Pantajali's Yoga Sutras. If you've spent a fair amount of time in yoga classes, you probably aren't surprised to learn (if you didn't already know) that breath work is it's own crucial aspect of the practice, what with teachers like me yammering on about it all the time.

But why? Why is your breath so vital to the yoga practice? As with all things yoga, there's a lot of reasons.

The one I find the most compelling is that the breath connects the conscious to the unconscious...quite literally. You can consciously control your breath, and if you don't, your breathing will happen involuntarily. This makes breathing a fascinating and endless channel for learning about, and influencing the body, which in turn influences the mind. Simply put: when you are calm and happy, your breaths are long, and slow. When you are anxious, fearful, or angry, your breathing rate grows faster, and shallower. If you notice you feel anxious emotionally, you can control your breath, slowing your breathing pattern to match the calm, happy mindset you prefer, and in only a few minutes, the anxiety will dissipate.

Controling the breath also allows you to move through your yoga postures with a minimum of effort, and a maximum of safety. Exerting on the exhale allows you to use more of your stabilizing core muscles, and by using ujjayi breath, that oceanic sound you hear in just about every yoga class, you're actually creating a pressurized column of air in your body, which cushions and supports your spine as you move. Pretty rad, right?

On a simpler level, controlling your breath requires paying attention to it: hearing, feeling it, knowing where it's going in your body, and how long the inhales and the exhales are. That's tough for anyone to do at first, and in a yoga class, we throw an extra challenge at you by asking you to move into and out of shapes that are very complicated, and require some thought in and of themselves. If you're actually doing everything your yoga instructor is asking of you, there won't be any room for thoughts of how your ass looks in these sweat pants, or if your boss gave you the bad eye when you left that day, or how messy your apartment is right now. All of your attention will be on the present moment, and when you get right down to it, that's all there is to enlightenment: being solely in the present moment, even if just for a little while.

Sometimes that little fact is a revelation to people: that yoga is supposed to be hard. Of course it's hard in the beginning, when you don't know your asana from your elbow, and pivoting your heel down for the Warrior series seems like a brain teaser, but it's supposed to stay hard! And you don't have to move up to a more advanced class for it to do that: you can just go deeper. There are always subtler details of the pose to explore, and trust me, I don't think there's a yoga student alive who is successfully focusing on and consciously controlling his or her breath for every second of a yoga class. You can let that be your challenge for your next yoga class, whether you know what ujjayi breath is, or not.

Individual pranayama practices also have their own benefits: alternate nostril breathing helps to balance the influence of right and left brain, while encouraging that pesky slightly-closed nostril to open up and do its share of the work.
Breath of the shining skull, or kapalbhati, builds heat in the body, wakes up the lower belly muscles, and helps to cleanse the respiratory system.
Bee's breath is excellent for creating a space of inner calm that banishes anxiety.
Lion's breath helps the body to release excess heat, while waking up your inner badass, and ready to tackle that next challenge pose.
Pranayama is a crucial part of your asana practice, and it's also a life-changing practice in its own right. It's so empowering to just sit down, and breathe, on purpose: to acknowledge that being aware of the functions that keep you alive is worth while will put you in an optimal mindset for health and healing. It can also be an excellent gateway into a meditation practice. Sitting and following the natural flow of the breath can feel very intimidating, but it's a little more manageable to have something to do: in this case manipulating the breath in very specific ways. Ultimately, though, you're setting yourself up for meditation as the next baby step, by narrowing your awareness down to just your breath.

Why not give it a try? The next time a yoga teacher goes through a pranayama exercise with you, pay close attention, and ask questions and take notes after class if necessary, so you're ready to take a crack at it all on your own later on. Be sure to let me know how it goes in the comments!

Live Omily,
~Emily

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