Pranayama is an aspect of yoga that focuses on breathing conscientiously. In Sanskrit, prana means “life force” and yama means “to control” and so a pranayama practice teaches you to consciously control your breathing in order to focus prana.
Breathing is an automatic response that is governed by the area of the brain known as the medula oblongata. All automatic responses, i.e. digestion, blood pressure, blinking, etc, are governed without a need for our awareness. Practicing pranayama brings breathing into awareness, moving it from an unconscious activity to a conscious activity.
Why Practice Pranayama?
Patanjali addressed breathing and pranayama in the Yoga Sutras, defining it as the control of inhaling, exhaling, and holding the breath inside and outside of the body. The reasons given for the necessity of practicing pranayama go to clearing the mind so that the mind can be directed to focus on a single goal. Watch this in action the next time you become angry or frustrated. If you take the age old adage to heart by breathing deeply and counting to ten before reacting in anger you'll experience the effect that conscious breathing has on the ability of the mind to focus.
Conscious breathing also supports asana practice and meditation. While practicing asana, pranayama focuses the mind on what your body is doing and feeling as it moves through postures, keeping you from going too far and injuring yourself. In meditation, pranayama focuses the mind away from the distractions that constantly surround us.
Where To Begin
Before attempting to control your breathing, the first thing to do is become aware of it. Lie down in Svasana (Corpse Pose) and get comfortable. Let the feet fall open and the palms face upwards, releasing any tension you may have. Inhaling and exhaling through the nose, notice how the air moves through the sinuses. Notice how your lungs move, which areas receive more air than others. Now bring your awareness to your abdomen. Let it expand as you inhale and contract as you exhale.
For some people this action is reversed where the inhale comes with a contraction and the exhale comes with an expansion. If this is the case then be patient and diligent in practicing your breathing. You must reverse the action so that your abdomen expands on the inhale and contracts on the exhale.
This exercise in becoming aware of your breath has several benefits. It works to tone the abdominal wall and it aids in lowering the heart rate leading the body into a state of relaxation.
After you've spent some time getting acquainted with your breath you can move forward in developing your pranayama practice.
As with all other aspects of yoga there are beginner level pranayama techniques that will help you to develop your lung capacity and give you a basis to build your practice from.
Samavritti Pranayama is also known as “equal breathing” and may be the easiest technique to begin with. In this technique the ratio is 1:1 for inhales to exhales. Begin in a comfortable seated position. Inhale and exhale through the nose smoothly, keeping the length of the exhale the same as the length of the inhale. Over time you will notice that your inhales will become longer in duration.
After you've become comfortable with making the exhale the same length as the inhale, hold the breath in for as long as the inhale then exhale. This is called inhale retention. When you've become comfortable with holding the breath in, begin working with holding the breath out for the same count as the exhale. Gradually you will be able to move into a ration of 1:1:1:1 of inhale, retention in, exhale, retention out.
Samavritte Pranayama without breath retention can be done while practicing asanas. If your intention is to practice breath retention as well, then do this technique while sitting comfortably.
Ujjayi Pranayama is another form of Samavritte Pranayama and it is considered to be an excellent technique to use during asana practice. To perform Ujjayi Pranayama simply repeat the steps of Samavritte Pranayama with one added step. For Ujjayi Pranayama you must create a slight constriction of the back of the throat during the inhale and exhale. This constriction creates a distinct sound as your breath, much like ocean waves moving on the shore (or the sound that the Star Wars character Darth Vader makes as he breathes in his mask!).
Breath retention may also be practiced in Ujjayi Pranayama, but use caution and only do so if you are sitting comfortably. Do not practice breath retention while you are practicing asanas.
Connecting The Breath
Pranayama is considered to be the seat, or basis, of asana practice and meditation. Strong, measured breath supports you as you move through asanas by helping you to remain focused on your body. Pranayama helps to direct your attention during meditation. What you may notice, however, is that your asana practice or meditation may be what helps to strengthen your pranayama practice. This is not a strange occurrence nor should you think that you must start with one type of practice before you can attempt the other. These practices work hand in hand and will impact your body as a whole.
There are some things to consider before taking on a pranayama practice. No matter what condition you are in, obey the urges of your body as you practice breathing. If you need to take a short breath during the cycle then do so. The intention is to support the body and the mind through the breath rather than depriving yourself of oxygen. If you suffer from any chronic respiratory conditions then consult your doctor about beginning a pranayama practice and do not begin until you are ready to do so.
May your health and happiness increase with every breath you take.