Breathing is so simple and so obvious we often take it for granted; ignoring the power it has to affect body, mind and spirit. With each inhale we bring oxygen into the body and spark the transformation of nutrients into fuel. Each exhale purges the body of carbon dioxide, a toxic waste. Breathing also affects our state of mind. It can make us excited or calm, tense or relaxed. It can make our thinking confused or clear. What’s more, in the yogic tradition, air is the primary source of prana or life force, a psycho-physio-spiritual force that permeates the universe (unknown author).
We can be without food for a while, even without water for a bit, many of us live without money or love, but nobody can be without air for longer than a few minutes. The vedas state that if you breathe short, shallow or hasty you have less than optimum health and maybe likely a shorter life. If you breathe slow and deep your body receives oxygen well and everywhere, and on top of that you might live longer and definitely with more vitality and greater consciousness.
Prana is the life-force energy similar to qui, or mana and yama is the discipline or cultivation of the energy that keeps us alive. For a few years I have asked my self, why so many people who practice asanas, the physical part of the eight limbs of yoga don’t practice pranayama? I do not pretend to know the answer but here are some ideas. Many yoga teachers don’t practice it themselves, even though it is part of the yoga teacher certification. As a result, few yoga classes include pranayama.
When we practice pranayama we are uniquely faced with our fears, habits and aversions. We don’t flail our limbs around or make our butts harder, we don’t observe other beautiful beings move gracefully through the yoga studio, no, we make funny noises, we count on our fingers for how long we breathe in and out and hold our breaths, we pull up our perineum and move our stomachs in funky ways. None of it sounds or looks very attractive on first thought.
Different levels of meditation alone take up three of the eight limbs of yoga and I consider meditation the ultimate of all practices, so why do I call pranayama the bomb? You can sit in meditation for years repeat your mantra, move energy around and let your mind wander, you can still remain pretty much where and who you are. I know, since I have meditated for more that 30 years and can truly say that sometimes for a stretch of 5 or 10 years, I have made no or little progress.
Pranayama is the bomb, because if you sincerely practice it regularly, you will change profoundly. Pranayama demands a high level of focus when you hold the breath in or out. You count the length of your breathing and you focus on the bhandas or locks to create purification and protect the physical body. None of this allows you much space for your mind to wander. So, one of the results of regular pranayama practice is that your ability to focus increases, which alone is a huge benefit, especially in a world that erroneously believes that multitasking is a virtue. Texting while driving, eating and doing your makeup can easily lead to yours or others death. The other day I crossed a road together with a friend of mine on a designated pedestrian crosswalk, when a BMW SUV blazed by us and we could clearly see that the woman driving it was reading a magazine propped up on her steering wheel. “You were not sitting in a self-driving car darling.” Multitasking ultimately weakens the mind, while the most powerful tool we possess is the ability to fully focus on one thing for a certain period of time. This is what happens in higher levels of athletics, arts, music and meditation. It is this increase in my ability to focus, that I first noticed in my pranayama practice.
For five years now, I sit down on my cushion every morning to practice different breathing techniques for 30 min. Usually my practice is 30 min pranayama, 30-40 min meditation and 30 min asanas. On days I have more time my asana practice can be longer but on days where I have to leave my house early, I cut down on my asanas, but rarely on pranayama. I can truly say that I do love practicing yoga more every day, that my body changes every day and when I do pranayama I experience that I can change with every breath and what pops into my head is: “Sh… pranayama is the bomb.”
It is advised to learn Pranayama from a qualified teacher. Learning from a book is not adequate and could produce negative effects.
With appreciation to the unknown author, I include the text below:
The Benefits of Pranayama and Deep Breathing
In Ayurveda the vital life force that animates all beings is known as prana. Without prana we would not be able to enjoy and experience pleasure because it is this life force that gives us the ability to perceive. All perception through the five senses is governed by prana. Being such an important element of life, yoga has developed a science for controlling and expanding this vital life force called pranayama. According to Ayurveda, one can not be considered truly healthy without having mastered this art.
Prana, as the energy that gives us life, is very closely associated with the breath. More than anything else, human life is dependent on the breath. One can go for a few weeks without food, and days without water, but only a few minutes without the oxygen we obtain through breathing. As such, deep breathing exercises are an important element of pranayama.
Western science has already validated the amazing health benefits associated with relaxed, deep, rhythmic breathing.
Breath is the primary factor in maintaining the health of our body’s one trillion plus cells. Because they are the building blocks of our bodies healthy cells translates into a healthy body.
Deep breathing has a profound effect on the health of our cells because of the important role that breath plays in the proper function of our circulatory and lymphatic systems. Deep breathing oxygenates the blood, which is then circulated throughout the body giving nourishment to the cells. A rich supply of oxygen to the cells is essential to their proper functioning and has been scientifically proven to be a key factor in bolstering immunity and preventing diseases such as cancer.
Deep breathing also has a dramatic effect on the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system can be simply described as the body’s sewage system. Lymph fluid contains white blood cells that protect the entire body and cleanse the system.
Literally every cell in the body is surrounded by lymph. In fact, you have four times more lymph fluid than blood. The blood circulates throughout the body releasing oxygen and nutrients into the lymph. The cells have the intelligence to absorb what they need and in turn release waste and toxins back into the lymph. Some of this waste is absorbed back into the blood, but most of the cleanup is the responsibility of the lymph.
As waste such as dead cells and blood proteins accumulate, it is essential that the lymphatic system functions properly in order to prevent the body from becoming filled with toxins. While the circulatory system has the heart to pump blood through the body, the lymphatic system has no such pump and is dependent on deep breathing and muscular movement to facilitate its proper function. A deep diaphragmatic breath creates a vacuum effect that sucks the lymph through the system increasing the pace at which the body eliminates toxins. Studies have shown that deep breathing and exercise can accelerate this natural cleansing process by as much as fifteen times.
For most of us breathing is an unconscious act that we mostly take for granted. By taking just a few minutes a day to consciously deepen the breath we can dramatically increase our energy levels and the health of our bodies.
The benefits of pranayama include:
+ Oxygenates the blood
+ Stimulates the lymphatic system
+ Bolsters immunity
+ Stimulates peristalsis in the intestines aiding in absorption and elimination
+ Improves digestion
+ Increases vigor, vitality, perception and memory
+ Calms the mind, sharpens the intellect and illumines the self
T.K.V. Desikachar, The Heart of Yoga, Developing a Personal Practice, Inner Traditions, Rochester VT, 1995