For most westerners, the word “yoga” conjures up something that looks like Cirque du Soleil auditions. In truth, you can only use the excuse that you are not flexible or strong enough to do yoga 1/8 of the time, (and that doesn’t really float since yoga postures are a way to gain flexibility safely). Let me explain the 1/8 comment. The yoga postures, contorted or comfortable, function as “Asana” which is the third of eight facets in the yogic system. The purpose of Asana is to get your body into shape to sit still in meditation with as little fidgeting and discomfort as possible. Can you believe that? The goal is not to put your hands below your toes, drench yourself with sweat or increase endurance. The body is the vehicle for the spirit. Asana is not what this blog is about though, and it doesn’t even have to be part of your yoga. It wasn’t part of mine for many years since I was introduced to yoga to alleviate anxiety.
A common phrase in the yoga community is that if you can breathe, you can do yoga. This is only partially accurate. Philosophically speaking, breathing IS yoga. In the Eight Limbs of Yoga (Ashtanga), yogic breathing practices (Pranayama in Sanskrit) are so important that they claim their very own limb #4. Pranayama is an essential part of a complete yoga practice. It involves regulating the breath to control the mind. Pranayama is also it’s own practice (no pretzel-like postures needed!). Pranayama is used to prepare for meditation; its an invitation into limb #5 Pratyahara (sensory withdrawal), the first stage of meditation.
Most yoga traditions would tell you that Pranayama is much more important than Asana when it comes to heath and happiness. If we subscribe to the philosophy that the goal of yoga is to decrease suffering, develop inner peace and feel our aliveness, it is typically Pranayama, not Asana, that awakens us to our highest potential.
The classic teaching of all wisdom traditions is that humans suffer because we forget who we are – Divine beings. We forget who we are because as humans we are hard-wired pleasure seeking survivalist. We seek enjoyment and relief from agitation and pain from things outside of ourselves – drugs (both the prescription kind and the ones that will get you in jail), alcohol, food, working too much, and in our relationships with others. The yogic path reveals that who we seek and what we need is buried inside of us under all of our human roles and repetitions of self-defeating stories.
It is just one yoga teacher’s opinion that many American yoga classes are another form of exercise. What is missing is the link of movement to a reasonable breath pace. Asana is supposed to introduce the student to regulating the breath. When the practice is too physical or choreographed like the Jimmy Fallon History of Music Video Dancing (recommended if you need to laugh after this!) the breath is strained or forgotten about all together. You may as well be hitting a punching bag or doing crossfit; nothing wrong with that – strenuous sweaty stuff can be a release valve. Additionally, a gymnast or high-endurance athlete may one up you and excel quickly at Asana practice; it is beautiful to watch the flexibility and strength of the physical body. But can that fit body sit still in meditation? That takes a fit mind! Admittedly, if what you want is a good looking exterior, any exercise may work. What about exercising the mind? Do you do something that increases awareness and brings inner peace? Sleeping does not count – unless you have mastered lucid dreaming. We are multi-layered beings with a physical body, mental body and spiritual origin. Pranayama is experienced on the physical level as the breath, but it takes us beyond into the mental and spiritual layers of ourself. Pranayama is a fitness program for all the layers of our being.
On the physical level, Pranayama positively influences the systems of the body including respiratory, immune, cardiac and nervous system. Typically, our breath is automatic and involuntary. It is continuous and we do not have to think about it, but we only use about 20% of our breathing capability. The mechanics of your default breath might include chest breathing, which is too shallow to bring in maximum oxygen and does not allow the lungs to be fully expelled. The diaphragm is the main muscle of respiration but it is is often under utilized. The chest muscles are considered accessory muscles in breathing. When we maximize the role of the diaphragm in respiration, our breathing is slower, fuller and more powerful. We increase our oxygen consumption and the ability to release carbon dioxide. We also exercise the often tight respiratory muscles.
The pattern of your breath is intimately connected to the mind. There is a breath pattern for every emotion. By learning to control the breath, we control the mind and emotions as well. Our involuntary breath responds to fatigue, stress or fear unconsciously by being incomplete or unbalanced. This auto-response ranges from the more obvious hyperventilation, shallow rapid breathing or to a simple reflexive sigh. The breath is the bridge between the brain (what your thinking) and body (what you feel). A starting point to control emotions is to simply observe the breath as it is. You could even close your eyes and do that right now for 1 minute…
Breath observation makes us more sensitive. Observation takes us into the present moment were we notice when the mind runs off to ruminate over the past or worry about the future. Our breath is a built in mindfulness teacher. But put your phone down – it doesn’t require money or meditation apps. We learn to block outer distractions and uncover what is especially present inside us. This is not for everybody and contrary to popular belief, it can be unpleasant. We may learn what troubles or agitates us; a bit like being stuck sitting with a blabbermouth stranger on a small airplane. You just want to put your headphones in and block her/him out, but the stranger is you. Instead of escaping physical or mental pain, we embrace it and lessen it with acceptance.
Once breath observation reveals what we are hiding from, we learn to safely and consciously lengthen and control the inhale (puraka) and exhale (rechaka). This practice alters the brain’s information processing. When we breath voluntarily, we actually change the region of the brain that we breathe from – unconscious breathing is controlled by the lower brain or brain stem and conscious breathing is function of the upper brain. We also balance the heart rate; the inhale slightly increases heart rate and the exhale relaxes the heart. By controlling the breath, we can listen to the chatty stranger in our mind with kindness, and redirect the story when it is not serving us. Pranayama is a free companion fair where you get to pick the person you want to sit with (you) and tell them when they are being irrational.
Energetically or spiritually (choose the term you like), Pranayama is how we begin to direct our Prana, Chi or life force (again – pick the term that works for you). On the subtle level, inhalation increases our focus, energy and vitality; the breathe out is an opportunity to purge, purify and relax more deeply. Eventually, you can learn to add a breath retention (kumbaka) which culminates in a balanced mind and provides a “peaceful pause” in energy body. The power of controlled breathing leads to a fusing of the complimentary opposites of solar/lunar and expand/contract. In this state of balance, the pleasure seeking senses and physical cravings are controlled.
Yogis believe we are all given a particular number of breaths in each karmic cycle. A lifespan is only limited by the number of breaths you breathe. Listen to the sound of breath in your own body as the argument of being alive.
PS – If you are looking for a place to get started with a Pranayama practice at home, visit the Breath Meditation Series in the free meditation library. BFY also offers free meditations the second Wednesday of each month or a private Pranayama and Meditation session with Megan can address your unique needs.