Pranayama, translated as ‘breath control’ is the fourth limb in Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga framework and refers to breathing exercises which can be practised alongside asanas or on their own. These exercises generate and distribute prana (vital energy/ life force) around the body to every cell and chakra, increasing our energy levels and reducing stress. Practising pranayama is a brilliant way of reconnecting with ourselves, which in return strengthens our connection with the surrounding universe, reminding us that we are all connected as part of one large living breathing organism. When we realise this, we become more humble, compassionate and loving beings. There are the many ways we can benefit from pranayama, but below are the main reasons why I enjoy the practise and feel we should all incorporate it into our lives.
1) Pranayama joins the conscious with the unconscious mind When we practise pranayama, we focus on the breath. Breathing is happening now, in the present. Not yesterday or tomorrow or in ten minutes time. We don’t usually think about breathing either, so by focusing our attention on our breath we are able to turn down the noise of the ego, joining the conscious with the unconscious mind and enabling us to listen within.
2) It slows us down In 'Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha' by Satyananda Saraswati, one of my key texts during my training at Nepal Yoga Home, it gives an example of how larger, slower animals, like tortoises and elephants, have a much longer life span than that of a rabbit, for example, who paces around and has a rapid heartbeat.
Practising pranayama helps us find time to breath, slow down and stabilise ourselves, in a life that can be quick manic and fast-paced. Our reactions to everyday situations are also influenced by this, enabling us to become responsive rather than reactive beings. 3) Helps us utilise more of our lungs Humans usually only use a fraction of the capacity of our lungs in day to day life, when performing day to day tasks. When we practise pranayama, just like when we do exercise, we utilise a lot more of our lung capacity, which in return increases our energy, improves our immune system and digestive system and helps with our posture. 4) Distributes prana/vital energy around our bodies Ever noticed how alive and awake you feel after exercising? And how heavy and drained you feel when you lie around and eat junk food? Or how one person might give you a ‘good vibe’ whilst someone else makes you feel drained and low after being in contact with them? One of the reasons this is, is because of the levels of prana in our bodies. When we practise pranayama, prana travels through our nadis (tiny energy channels) to all the cells in our bodies and our chakra system, boosting our mood, creating relaxation, inner harmony and enabling us to vibrate at a higher frequency.
5) Assists us into meditation Observing the breath achieves stability of consciousness, which encourages Dharana, concentration, the sixth limb of Patanjali’s eight limb system. Pranayama is one of the main techniques used to assist with slipping into meditation, especially techniques like alternate nostril breathing and kumbhaka (breath retention), which help us to withdraw (pratyahara) from our senses and the external world so that we can come to a quiet place. Even more so, once you are in that meditative state and find your ego keeps creeping back in to make noise and you need to rein it back in, pranayama works with the other limbs to help you return to that quiet place. 6) It is a form of Bhakti (devotional) yoga In Light on Life, by B.K.S Iyengar, he talks about how he sees pranayama as a form of practising Bhakti yoga (devotional yoga). As we inhale, we become our ‘full I’ and as we exhale and practise bahya kumbhaka (breath retention on an exhale) we empty ourselves, surrendering and offering ourselves to the higher power that is the universe.