Krishnamacharya (often referred to as the father of modern yoga) said “Master the breath, let the self be in bliss, and contemplate on the sublime within you”. Further, Dr Andrew Weil said “If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly”. These great teachers are just two who emphasize the importance of pranayama, or the 4th limb of Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga.
The sanskrit word “prana” means life force energy, or the very essence of the energy that animates us and the universe around us. “Prana” is also used to refer to the breath, through which we are believed to breathe that life force energy into and around our bodies. And so “pranayama” can be translated as breath control, or a way to master our breath, and thereby to master and optimize our life force energy. Pranayama is a key aspect of yoga, and the way by which many of the benefits of yoga are realized in the body and the mind.
We all know that the quality of our breath relates directly to the goings on inside of us. When we are anxious, stressed, or in pain, it is common for our breath to quicken and become shallow and irregular. On the other hand, when we are relaxed and at ease, the breath is slow, deep, and rhythmic. And importantly, this is a two way street, and can turn into a cycle. When we purposely slow and deepen our breath, our nervous system sends a signal to our brains that everything is ok, activating the relaxation response, and triggering a relaxing cascade of events in the body and in the mind, bringing us back from any stressor that might be occurring. Therefore you can see the massive benefits of learning to be able to control your breath.
Pranayama is an integral part of having an effective yoga asana practice, in that we must be able to maintain that calm, deep, diaphragmatic breath while we practice asana to translate all of the benefits into our bodies. We must maintain calm breath to balance, to hold postures for the prescribed time, to bring plenty of oxygen to our muscles and our brains, and to activate that relaxation response in the midst of effort, thereby training our bodies and minds in resilience and equanimity.
Pranayama is also a key aspect of meditation. We often use the breath as a tool to help us dive into meditation, to help maintain our focus and concentration, and to relax our bodies while we meditate. The breath can also help us be more effective in our practice of the yamas and niyamas, as taking a deep breath in the face of any stressor can give our minds the pause they need to stop habitual reactive patterns and instead engage with something healthier like non-attachment or contentment.
There are many different types of pranayama, from simple equal breathing (matching length of inhale and exhale, with focus on slow calm breath) to complex practices using alternate nostrils or forceful inhalations, or exhalations, or both, utilizing abdominal wall musculature. However, they are all easy to learn if you are interested and just take a little time. These practices increase lung capacity, improve gas exchange, strengthen your diaphragm and abdominal muscles, promote lymphatic fluid return, tone that parasympathetic nervous system, build focus and concentration, and so much more. If you want to learn more detail, check out my educational video on the topic.
I have used pranayama too many times to count in my dealings with breast cancer over the past 4 years. For example, when I am in panic mode awaiting scan results, I come back to my breath and practice any of the relaxing pranayamas, and the fear and anxiety melt away naturally. When I was in pain from mucositis related to chemotherapy, I used pranayama to minimize the sensation of pain. When I can’t sleep for whatever reason, I use pranayama to relax my body and mind. If I’m a little sluggish and need more energy before practice, I use an energizing pranayama and perk right up. When I am frustrated with insurance hassles, I come back to my breath and remember not to let these little things get me down. When I am working hard on my yoga mat, trying to continue to improve my post-mastectomy chest wall tightness, I breathe slowly and calmly to help me patiently stay in the positions. You can imagine endless scenarios in which having better mastery over your breath could come in handy and help you live a happier, more joyful, more stress-free life.
So I encourage you to pay some attention to your breath, recognize the true power it holds, and learn to make it work for you.