The goal of the fourth limb of yoga, pranayama, is to gain control of the breath. The Sanskrit term “prana” actually refers not only to the breath, but also to the life force, or to energy in a larger, more cosmic sense – gain control of the breath, and you gain access to a sort of cosmic energy. But the practice of pranayama doesn’t have to be thought of as a way to connect to a larger energy (although it certainly can be, if that’s helpful to the individual, and it is for many). At a much more literal level, pranayama is just an incredibly effective way to become more aware of your own bodily reactions to the things that trigger you into stress, negative thoughts, even despair. Learning how to change your breath actually allows you to halt (and redirect) that stress reaction, which is “turned on” all too often for many of us.
For a long time, I actually thought breathing exercises sounded kind of hokey. Breathing itself seemed like an arbitrary bodily process to pay attention to (I mean, why not pay attention to eye-blinking, or any other sort of physical pattern?). But I’ve since learned what any yogi or scientist will tell you: Breathing is truly unique in that it’s the only bodily process that lets us gain access to – and control of – our brains. And importantly, for some of us more than others, this lets us have some element of control over our stress responses and our reactions to the world around us.
Rolf Sovik, PsyD, the president and spiritual director of the Himalayan Institute, agrees that “the importance of breath work in yoga and in human life can hardly be over-estimated. Normal, automatic breathing is governed by cells in the brain stem. These cells propel breathing by adjusting its style, pace, and volume. Breathing is also affected by emotion, pain and stress. And, of great significance, breathing is the only autonomic system that permits conscious access. That means that through breath training, a practitioner can gradually gain the ability to restore nervous system balance during times of stress, and use the breath as a focus for attention.” Controlling the breath allows us to take matters into our own hands, dialing down the sympathetic nervous system (the one charged with the “fight or flight”/stress response) and activating the parasympathetic nervous system (which calms us down after a stressful encounter).
Another way of thinking about it is that breathing helps strengthen the connection between the body and mind: In this case, it’s through the one we have access to the other. That’s a lot of what yoga is all about, reconciling the “divide” between gross and subtle – and doing physical things (like breathing and asana) is often the easiest way to gain access to the mental ones. Sri Swami Satchidananda even asks, “which is subtler, mind or breath? Which is easier to handle, a subtle thing or a gross one? Always the gross thing.” As we become more experienced in our practice over time, we can rely less on the physical methods, and more on the mental ones. But for people just getting into the limbs of yoga (like me), it’s a little easier to work on the physical methods.
There are a lot of different practices in pranayama, from observing the breath, to training it, to retaining it for some length of time. For most of us, the simpler ones are probably the most powerful and the safest. To start out, Sovik recommends relying on the natural patterns: “Breathing practices are most helpful when they arise from the spontaneous flow of normal, relaxed breathing,” he says. “It is a process that evolves over time and emphasizes smooth, deep, diaphragmatic breathing.” He recommends beginning breath training in one of two reclining poses: corpse pose or crocodile pose. (Here’s a more in-depth description by Sovik of how these poses can help with deep, diaphragmatic breathing. Also see YogaGlo’s collection of classes on pranayama.) Having a teacher who can help you with more advanced forms is generally a good idea.
Sovik stresses that pranayama should really be about getting in touch with something visceral and learning how to work with it – it’s not about teaching the body something new or unnatural. “Frequently, breathing techniques lead to over-control and a sense that the life force can be governed mechanically. Ultimately,” he adds, “the effort to control the breath is not robotic but a natural stage in the meditative process.”
So here’s to breaking misconceptions. Pranayama isn’t hokey, mysterious, or mechanical. It’s actually quite simple and natural, and it may be the single best physical tool we have to gain some access to our minds. Offering some perspective on how the limbs of yoga relate to one another, Satchidananda sums up the transition across the eight limbs in this way: “first we learn to control the physical body, then the movement of the breath, then the senses, and finally the mind. It is very scientific, gradual and easy.”
Does your yoga practice include pranayama? Do your teachers integrate it into their classes?
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.