Pranayama or breath control is the fourth limb of yoga (Yama, Niyamas and Asanas make up the first 3). Pranayama is where we start to shift our attention from the gross (such as our behaviours and physical poses) to the subtle (the inner body). It marks the turning point from the physical to the mental and spiritual aspects of yoga.
Prana means life force energy, it is the ‘aliveness’ within ourselves, what animates us. Yama means control. In the yogic tradition, the breath is viewed as the carriage of prana into our body, it is not simply oxygen but the source of vital energy. Breathing is an automatic physical function that requires little to no thought, yet the ancient yogis recognised that harnessing or controlling the breath can lead to greater vitality and peace of mind.
When we start practicing pranayama in yoga it’s usually with awareness of breath. Feeling the breath, focusing on the breath. We tend to let our concentration slip and this is when your teacher will remind you to come back to the breath. Physically, breathing deeply brings fresh oxygen into your body, calms the nervous system and helps us to relax. Mentally, deep breathing calms the mind. Spiritually, our breath is our anchor into the present moment, helping us to connect with ourselves.
So how does this impact our yoga class? Chances are you like to clear your head after your yoga practice and it is you focusing on your breath that has the effect of running a broom through your mind. Focusing on and moving with our breath in our yoga practice helps us to develop concentration and focus. It is mind training in preparation for meditation. You will notice with a regular practice that you are able to sustain this focus on your breath to the exclusion of all other thought. For a brief moment you will have stopped thinking. The mind will have stopped moving and will be fixed on one thing. Your mind, your body and your breath will be united. This is the essence of yoga, stilling the movements of the mind.
It is breath control or pranayama that lays the foundation for meditation and a clear head. But it’s not all about watching your breath. There are many breathing techniques that have specific benefit. You may know your Ujayi or audible breath that we use in our Vinyasa practice for focus and to regulate the breath in a strong practice. You may know Nadi Shoduna or alternative nostril breathing that we use in our Yin and Meditation classes to balance the nervous system and calm the mind. You may know Brahmari breath or humming bee breath which we use specifically to clear the mind. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to pranayama. Feel free to chat with your teacher if you want to know more and we will be having a pranayama class in our Friday workshop sessions.