I can’t breathe. We’ve all been there, we don’t pay attention to our breath until we can’t breathe. Then we notice every sniffle, stuffy, ache, pain and restriction. When we are stressed our breath becomes shallow and we might find we all of a sudden take a deep breath and then we become aware of our breath.
Many yoga traditions don’t focus on the breath or they follow a verticalist path and the focus on breath doesn’t begin until years later in an individual’s practice. I was lucky, breath work or Pranayama, is an integral part of the Tantra Hatha Yoga tradition and was and still is a big part of my training and practice.
When I go to a yoga class that maybe does a quick centering and then jumps into postures, I internally groan and think, “Oh, why did I choose this? Where is the breath work?” I need to warm up from the inside first!”
Pranayama translates as:
Prana – Life Force or Energy Yama – to control or enhance
I like to say pranayama means to enhance our life force or energy. Don’t we all want to have more energy, feel more alive and move through the world with greater consciousness? I know I do.
Prana as energy is what keeps you and the world moving forward. When we practice pranayama we are enhancing our ability to control our energy.
Swami Kripalu’s teacher (The namesake for Kripalu yoga) gave him two practices to follow: sit in lotus and practice Anuloma Viloma (similar to Nadi Shodhana or alternate nostril breathing). This was his yoga practice. He did this practice for hours a day for years. His teacher told him, all yoga will follow from this practice. And sure enough, he eventually started doing more vigorous breathwork practices which led to spontaneous yoga. His body just started moving into the postures – he had no knowledge of the postures before this and actually had to send someone out to look for a yoga book with postures to determine what was happening. (If you want to read more about this, I highly recommend Pilgrim of Love The Life and Teachings of Swami Kripalu or a shorter overview about Swami Kriplau.)
Pranayama can create many different states of energy.
This may sound strange, but Pranayama is kind of like smoking
a cigarette without the terrible side effects.
Let me elaborate. When I was a Wellness Coordinator for Arlington County Government, one of my tasks was to work with the Occupational Health staff to provide Smoking Cessation programs. Before I could run a program, I had to take a training on smoking cessation. I knew a lot about behavior change from my Masters program and I knew a lot about tobacco, but I needed more information.
What I learned in the smoking cessation training, was that tobacco can be both energy producing and calming. It all depends on how you “drag” on the cigarette. It was fascinating.
Pranayama can do the same thing. It can raise your energy (like when you do Kapalabhati or the skull cleansing breath) or it can calm you down (when you do Dirgha or full yogic breathing). You can also combine pranayama to make a full practice that doesn’t include asana or postures at all.
If you were ever told as a child to take 10 deep breaths, you were using your breath to calm down. So you might be able to say you have been practicing pranayama your whole life.
Many students are not drawn to pranayama because it can be very introspective and we often don’t want to be with ourselves this way. We want our yoga practice to support our go go go life.
Pranayama is meant to bring greater clarity to both our body and mind which helps us to cultivate self knowledge and awareness. Swami Kripalu says that postures practiced with an emphasis on the breath are ten times more powerful than when no breath awareness is involved.
Next week we’ll do a Dirgha Pranayama practice together.