The Power of Breath: An Introduction to Pranayama

pranayama1We began our exploration of “Living Yoga” with a look at the key principles of the Yoga tradition, followed by an overview of each of the four major branches.  In the next few articles, we’ll take a closer look at the primary techniques, this week focusing on the breathing practices of Yoga, or pranayama.   Of course, we all know oxygen plays a vital role in our energy and even our emotional state.  But the Yogis realized the impact of breath goes far deeper, ultimately serving as a powerful link between body, emotions, cognition, and spirit.  In today’s article, I’d like to share a bit about the physiology of breath, the link between respiration and stress, and why the Yogis considered pranayama such a vital tool for both wellness and personal growth…


The Physical Impact of Full Respiration

To begin, we all know oxygen is essential for life, and yet studies show the average person uses just 1/10th of his or her respiratory capacity.  As we’ll discuss, there are several reasons for this, but before we discuss them, let’s take a moment to look at the important functions respiration provides.

  1. Greater Energy – Of course, literally every muscle of our body depends on breath, including the muscles that power circulation, digestion, and elimination.  Even anaerobic (i.e., “without oxygen”) activity ultimately requires respiration to fuel it.  For this reason, better respiration means better endurance, greater strength, more power, quicker recovery & improved energy in all avenues of life….
  2. Improved Cognition – Just like our muscles, our brains also require oxygen, which means physical & cognitive health alike can be enhanced by better breathing.  Full respiration means better decision making, improved memory, and even greater creativity, providing not only better mental performance but also better quality of life.
  3. Enhanced Detoxification – In addition to supplying oxygen, our lungs are also one of the largest channels of detoxification, eliminating waste with every exhalation, so full respiration means a cleaner, more efficient system.  In addition, deep breathing has been shown to improve lymphatic flow, dramatically enhancing immune health.
  4. Reduced Acidity – Oxygen also neutralizes the acidity naturally generated by activity, in enhancing both recovery & flexibility.  We also know systemic acidity creates tightness & discomfort throughout our bodies which itself can be quite stressful, so reducing acidity ultimately reduces stress, in turn allowing us to breathe more deeply and enjoy both activity and rest more fully….
  5. Better “Visceral Health” – When we breathe deeply, there is a constant expansion and contraction of the abdomen, which mechanically supports digestion, peristalsis, and healthy circulation to the vital organs of the body.  This means full breathing not only provides more energy in and of itself, but also supports the vital organs of the body in doing their jobs more efficiently.
  6. Healthier Nervous System – This movement of the torso not only impacts the muscles and organs but also the spine and nervous system.  Deep breathing promotes elasticity of the spinal column, helping maintain nerve function and health of the soft-tissue of the spine.  It also improves flow of CSF (cerebral-spinal fluid) within the Central Nervous System, further supporting nerve communication and peak cognitive function….

The Emotional Impact of Breath

In addition to the physical benefits, we know there’s a direct link between respiration and our mental state. When in an emergency, we naturally restrict breathing. This gives our bodies rigidity for sudden movement, which of course is vital in a physical crisis.  But as our stresses become increasingly psychological and more frequent, this pattern becomes harmful rather than helpful.  When our stress is constant and breathing perpetually constricted, we dramatically reduce all the benefits referred to above as limiting the motion designed to flush adrenaline from our bodies.  As a result, stress increases, our muscles become more restricted, and the cycle tends to spiral downward….

Of course, this is significant because, as discussed last article, stress profoundly impacts not only our health but also our mindset, significantly limiting our ability to reason and reflect clearly.  When chronically stressed, we tend to make poor choices, in turn creating further stresses.  By learning to breathe fully, we can not only reduce stress but also improve our clarity and focus.  This of course allows us to make better choices, in turn reducing stress rather than increasing it, forming an “upward spiral” in contrast with the downward one mentioned above.

Why Respiration Becomes Limited & How We Can Shift It

This cycle of stress – tension – restricted breathing – back to stress is one reason most of us use only a fraction of our respiratory capacity.  Other major causes tend to be body-image, chronic tightness, and a lifestyle that tends to compromise posture.  Of course, we live in a world that puts considerable emphasis on image, especially being thin and “fit,” and as a result often learn from a young age to hold in our abdomens.  This not only is of course less than ideal for our self-acceptance but also dramatically restricts our breathing.  Ironically, this can again make us feel more stressed and more worried about what others think of us, perpetuating the cycle.

We also live in an age where we spend considerable time sitting – at work, commuting, and even relaxing at home – which in turn leads to less-than-ideal posture.  Of course, when our posture is rounded, it becomes harder to breathe fully.  On top of that, when combined with a largely sedentary lifestyle, it also increases muscular tightness, imbalances, and even chronic back problems, in turn further compromising our breathing.  Again, the good news is by becoming more aware of the factors that contribute to restriction of breath and the benefits we can receive by reversing them, we can stop this downward spiral and turn it into a positive one, creating not only better health but also more comfort and openness in our bodies, allowing for deeper respiration and all the energy and ease that comes with it….

Pranayama & the Power of Breath 

Given the very tangible physical and emotional benefits to respiration, it’s no wonder the Yogis developed a series of practices designed to support and amplify them.  Again, known collectively as pranayama, the Yogic breathing practices could be said to have two distinct but connected components.  On the one hand, there are specific exercises designed to restore and build the physical elements of respiration, including full range of respiratory motion, detoxification, cognitive function, and stress management.  But beyond cultivation of the physical, the Yogis observed that studying and consciously guiding the breath can have even more powerful benefits in terms of awareness of mental patterns and even our outlook on life.  Let’s now talk a little about each of these….

The Foundation of Pranayama

To begin with the term pranayama itself, the word prana actually means much more than “breath.”  It also means “vital energy,” much like the Chinese concept of chi.  It also means “nerve force” – both afferent and efferent – meaning prana is related to both movement and also awareness of what is going on in our bodies.  Finally, prana also means “spirit,” again emphasizing the Yogi’s sense of the link between breath and our spiritual growth.

The word yama is equally important and multifaceted.  It literally means “control” or “guidance,” and so many in the West think pranayama is about learning to control or “govern” the energy of the body.  But interestingly, if you’re familiar with Sanskrit word composition, you know the word pranayama is actually made up of prana and a-yama, and in Sanskrit “a-” is a negator – in other words, pranayama is actually the non-restraint or liberation of vital energy, that is learning to allow breath and energy to flow freely and without obstruction.  Seen this way, it becomes clear the breathing practices of yoga are less about “mastering” the breath and more about opening the body and the channels through which feelings and thoughts flow to return the our natural state of power and ease.

The Physical Practices

Given this principle, it is probably unsurprising the physical practices of pranayama are relatively simple, again basically serving to restore and strengthen the primary benefits of respiration.  Some are designed to reestablish full range of inhalation and exhalation, while others enhance detoxification, increase mental clarity, promote relaxation, and even cool the body.  While some of these can be integrated into practice of asana, they are generally performed separately so they can be given full attention.  There are many excellent books explaining the basics of these practices, but it tends to be easier to learn directly from a teacher so you can get personal guidance as well as answers to any questions that may arise.

Breath as a Mirror of the Mind

Beyond these physically oriented practices, because breath links our bodies, feelings, and thoughts, the Yogis realized we can use it to become more aware of our unconscious thought patterns, particularly negative ones which tend to make our breath more restricted or uneven.  To get a sense of how this can work, try the following.  The next time you notice yourself restricting your breath, take a moment to look at how you are thinking about your current situation and then ask yourself whether there might be a more positive or constructive way of viewing it.  You will probably find you are thinking of the situation in a critical, attached, or fearful way.  And you may also notice that, when you shift your thoughts, you’ll also experience an immediate shift in breathing.  By regularly applying this technique, we can give ourselves a powerful tool for seeing non-productive thoughts and shifting them in a more healthful direction.

Altering Breath to Align Thoughts & Feelings 

Related to this, the Yogis also realized, by consciously shifting the breath, we can actually shift how we feel and even how we think, giving us yet another powerful tool for improving our thought patterns.  Again, to get a sense of how this can be used, take a moment to try the following simple but very powerful exercise:

  • Begin by visualizing a situation or relationship in your life you find challenging.
  • Now, as you continue to reflect on it, slowly deepen your breath, gradually making it full, calm, and smooth.
  • As you do this, notice how your feelings and thoughts about the situation begin to shift.  You may find yourself realizing assumptions you are making or seeing a possible outcome might not be as bad as you’re assuming.  You might even find yourself realizing the situation isn’t as significant as you had thought,  perhaps even laughing at how tense you’ve allowed yourself to become….

Obviously, like many techniques, this can become more powerful over time.  At the start, you may need to practice when removed from the challenge and in a place where you can center, but with time you will find you can do it even in the midst of tension.  Again, applied regularly, this can be a powerful technique for catching non-helpful thought patterns and shifting them in a healthier and far more productive direction.  Ultimately, just as our asana practice helps us be more aware of posture throughout the day, so a dedicated pranayama practice can build awareness we can use at work, at home, and even at play.

Where Next? 

By this point, you hopefully have a sense how powerful pranayama can be – both for health & for personal growth – and are ready to learn more.  Again, the easiest way tends to be a workshop or private session with an experienced instructor where you can receive hands-on guidance and answers to your questions.  But there are definitely some excellent books, such as The Science of Breath, by Swami Rama, and audio programs such as Dr. Andrew Weil’s “Breath: The Master Key to Self-Healing.”  Whatever approach you take, definitely take time to explore this powerful tool –  again, even a brief daily practice can give you greater vitality, better health, and ultimately valuable inner growth.  In our next article, we’ll continue our exploration of the major tools with a look at Yogic diet –  until then, once again wishing you the best in your own personal relationship to “Living Yoga….”

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