Pranayama is one of the pillars of yoga. Sometimes assimilated to breathing, it is a complete discipline that helps us from improving the body, concentration or mental processes, to being a powerful instrument to take the practitioner to higher states of consciousness. Breathing is the bridge between body and mind.
Although our motivations for approaching yoga are diverse: improvement of our state of health, reduction of stress and anxiety, mastery of body and mind, postural correction, search for inner happiness, etc. Sooner or later one discovers that yoga is not a simple physical-psychic activity but a philosophy of life. Yoga is a path of self-knowledge and inner change. Through study, practice and intuitive knowledge (beyond our ordinary mind), the great yogis gained access to higher states of consciousness which translated into what might be called the practice of yoga.
On this path we find that breathing is one of the key points of yoga. The teachers remind us of it in each class, in each posture: “attentive to your breath”. Breathing is a reflex act that we do constantly from birth to death. We all breathe, but some simply pay more attention to it than others. Bring consciousness to our breath, focus on it and make it present.
By focusing our mind towards the breath we are approaching a state of equanimity. Where our attention goes inwards, we are no longer dispersed but present, attentive and focused. With a simple breath our mental circuits change. Observe our breathing to make it conscious, so that it is no longer a reflex and automatic act, but something that goes in our favor.
We could identify pranayama by breathing, but we’d stay superficial. Pranayama is the discipline of conscious regulation of breathing, prana or vital energy.
This prana is defined as the subtle vital energy, the pure energy in its natural state. It is the life force that not only sustains the body, but also the creation at all levels. The yogis identify prana with life, vitality, consider that the cosmos is alive and full of prana.
The practices of the different types of yoga, whether physical, through chanting or recitation of mantras, meditations, visualizations, etc., seek to awaken, mobilize and improve this prana. According to the yogis, everyone is born with a certain potential or quantity of prana, but the quality and quantity of prana varies continuously. With positive thoughts, elevated feelings, the practice of yoga and others, we can generate high levels of prana. We can also obtain and increase prana through our environment: with food, water, sunlight and air, that’s why outdoor walks in nature are so beneficial.
Although breathing is closer and prana is higher, the two are intrinsically related. We can influence our level of prana in the body with the help of breathing.
Patañjali, the sage considered the synthesizer of the practice of yoga in his treatise Yoga Sutras, describes pranayama as one of the eight branches or steps to be followed by the aspirant to bliss (sadhaka) on his path of realization:
“Once this (asana) is done, one acquires mastery of pranayama by stopping the (ordinary) movement of breathing. Pranayama is the cessation of inspiration and exhalation when asana has been acquired.”. Yoga sutras de Patañjali, II 49
After asana, pranayama. When our posture becomes stable, comfortable, with the right and necessary tension, and but forget yama and niyama (the disciplines of regulation of our external and internal relations), we acquire mastery of breathing. The breath becomes conscious.
The techniques or practices of pranayama are focused on deliberately changing the normal pattern of our breathing and thereby changing our state of mind. By practicing, we reduce mental disturbances or fluctuations and minimize impurities in the body, whether physical, mental or emotional. The ultimate goal of pranayama practice, like yoga, is to center the mind.
Conscious breathing and pranayama help us return the mind to healthier levels, to recover its natural state of calm and peace. That state where our reactions are no longer immediate and hasty, but meditated responses to the situations we find ourselves in. By regulating our breathing we can agree to modify our mental state, passing from acceleration to stillness, from agitation to calmness, from stress to calmness. Little by little we can enter a state of equanimity and observation.
With a wider and calmer breath, calmer mind and serene, greater absorption of prana. As we advance in the practice of pranayama will gradually expand our lung capacity and refine the quality of breathing. However, we do not want to force this change, it will be holistic and natural. If we force, the only thing we will achieve will be to add more tension and distraction, and all provoked by the impositions of our ego. This takes us away from the practice and purpose of reducing the obstacles that affect mental clarity.
“tataḥ kṣīyate prakāśa-āvaraṇam”
“Then that which covers the light is eliminated. Regular practice of pranayama reduces obstacles that inhibit clarity of perception.” – Yoga Sutras de Patañjali II.52
The ultimate goal of pranayama is the mind. To reduce the obstacles in it so as to be able to open it and perceive, feel. To do this our breathing must become long, soft, regular and subtle. Long because it becomes fine and vice versa.
In addition to all these effects on the ordinary mind, the practice of pranayama becomes an access to our emotional body. As we have seen in yoga, breathing is more than the simple exchange of gases, thanks to breathing we obtain prana or vital energy. Moreover, with breathing we modify our mind and with it our emotions and thoughts.
A cycle of breathing with its four distinct phases can be assimilated to our life cycle. The beginning of inspiration would be the moment of birth or new life, we inspire until we reach the maximum where when we retain full lungs we will feel the state of plenitude or maximum abundance coinciding with our maximum vital splendour, from there begins a slow decline in the phase of exhalation where we slowly get rid of everything that is no longer necessary, until we reach empty lungs, where there is nothing, only emptiness or death. Birth and growth, fullness, degrowth and emptiness or death. Our life cycle within each breath. This cycle is repeated constantly, at a rate of about 12 breaths per minute.
We can relate each phase of the breath to our emotional state and help ourselves from one type of breath or another on each occasion according to our needs.
Expire (rechaka) is synonymous with emptying, cleanliness. We can think about it on a physical level as through exhalation we expel the excess, carbon dioxide. But exhalation also accompanies the emotional and mental process. Any negative emotion, any recurrent or obsessive thought can be expelled through breathing. It is a symbolic process but it has a great effect on the mind. Release, exhale, empty. In each exhalation you can get rid of something that has already done its job and no longer need, a pain, a discomfort, a thought.
Inspiring (puraka) is synonymous with filling, receiving. We fill ourselves with air, oxygen, also prana or vital energy. But we also give permission to our body to receive from life. To open ourselves and trust in that which will be given to us at all levels. If we find it difficult to inspire, it may be because we find it hard to trust others and to be helped. To inspire is to open oneself to life, to what has to come. Open up, trust.
Retention to full lungs (antara kumbhaka) is synonymous with encompassing, of fullness. In this moment of filling, of maximum capacity, there is a pause where we can experience the fullness of our existence. The whole contained in us. That is why people with anxiety can be very overwhelming to fill up even more and should avoid the retentions or enter them very slowly. In this way we will be able to enjoy the fullness, our maximum splendour.
Suspension of breathing or retention to empty lungs (bahya kumbhaka) is synonymous with stopping, from nothing. There is nothing, everything has stopped, there is nothing. Death is present, but not a physical death from fear, but a death of the old from the stagnant, in order to revive in the next inspiration. We learn to enjoy the emptiness, the nothingness, that everything that overwhelmed us or worried us is nothing in relation to the universe or to the life time of the earth.
We have seen what pranayama is and how it helps us focus our mind and change our state of mind.
Good practice yogis!
You can come and practice with us pranayama in our Hatha, Pranayama, Meditation classes. We are waiting for you.
Teacher of Hatha Yoga and Pranayama