Pranayama is one of the pillars of yoga. Sometimes understood as yogic breathing, it is a complete discipline that helps us improve the body, concentration and mental processes, as well as 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: improving our state of health, reducing stress and anxiety, deepening the understanding of body and mind, correcting posture, searching 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: “pay attention 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. By bringing consciousness to the breath, focusing on it and being present with it.
By focusing our mind on the breath we enter a state of calm. When our attention goes inwards, we shift from thinking in many directions at once, to being present, attentive and focused. With a simple breath our mental circuits change. To observe our breathing makes it conscious, so that it is no longer an automatic reflex, but something that we can actively use to our benefit.
We could identify pranayama as breathing, but that would be too simple. Pranayama is the discipline of conscious regulation of breathing, prana or vital energy.
This prana is defined as the subtle vital energy, pure energy in its natural state. It is the life force that not only sustains the body, but also creation at all levels. The yogis identify prana with life, vitality, recognizing that the cosmos is alive and full of prana.
The practices of different types of yoga, whether physical, through chanting or reciting mantras, meditations or visualizations, aim to awaken, mobilize and cultivate this prana. According to the yogis, everyone is born with a certain potential or amount of prana, but the quality and quantity of prana varies continuously. We can generate high levels of prana with positive thoughts, elevated emotions, practicing yoga and other similar activities. We can also obtain and increase prana through our environment: with food, water, sunlight and air, that’s why spending time outdoors in nature is so beneficial.
Although breathing is at the level of the body, and prana is more elevated, the two are intrinsically related. We can influence our level of prana in the body with the help of breathing.
The master Patañjali, considered the first to consolidate the ancient knowledge of the practice of yoga in his work Yoga Sutras, describes pranayama as one of the eight branches or steps for a student to follow on their path to the ultimate realization of bliss (sadhaka):
“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 amount of tension, without forgetting 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 focus the mind.
Conscious breathing and pranayama help us return the mind to healthier levels, to its natural state of calm and peace. That state where our reactions are no longer immediate and abrupt, but meditated responses to the situations we find ourselves in. By regulating our breathing we can choose to modify our mental state, shifting from chaos to stillness, from agitation to calm, from stress to tranquility. Little by little we can enter a state of serenity and observation.
With a deeper and calmer breath, a more serene mind, there is greater absorption of prana. As we advance in the practice of pranayama, we gradually expand our lung capacity and improve the quality of our breathing. However, we do not want to force this change, it will be natural and integrated. If we use force, the only thing we will achieve is adding more tension and distraction, provoked by 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 stillness of the mind. To reduce the obstacles in it so we can be more open and perceive, feel. To do this our breathing must become long, gentle, regular and subtle. Long because it becomes steady and vice versa.
In addition to all these effects on the ordinary mind, the practice of pranayama gives us 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 compared to the cycle of life. The beginning of inhalation would be the moment of birth or new life, we inhale until the maximum when we retain the air fully in our lungs we will feel the state of abundance coinciding with our maximum life vitality, 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, the peak, decline 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 also relate each phase of the breath to our emotional state, allowing us to help ourselves by placing a different emphasis on each breath stage according to our needs.
Exhaling (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 you no longer need, a pain, a discomfort, or a thought.
Inhaling (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 is given to us at all levels. If we find it difficult to inhale, it may be because we find it hard to trust others and to be helped. To inhale is to open oneself to life, to whatever comes. Open up, trust.
Retention, to hold the lungs full of air (antara kumbhaka) is synonymous with containing, 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 that is contained in us. That is why people with anxiety can find it 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 richness.
Suspension of breathing with empty lungs (bahya kumbhaka) is synonymous with stopping, from nothing. There is nothing, everything has stopped. 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 inhalation. 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 lifetime of the earth.
We have seen what pranayama is and how it helps us focus our mind and change our state of mind.
Enjoy your practice yogis!
You can practice pranayama in our Hatha, Pranayama, and Meditation classes. We look forward to seeing you.
Teacher of Hatha Yoga and Pranayama