We can live for weeks without food and days without water, but only a few minutes without oxygen. Our life itself is measured from our first breath to our last. Still, most of us don’t give breathing a passing thought except when we have a head cold or visit that friend who lives in a fifth-floor walk up.
In yoga, we learn that the breath is the bridge from body to mind, from outer concerns to inner peace. Yoga is like a four-legged stool – postures, breathing, relaxation and meditation and each “leg” is of equal value. Breathing is used during asanas to assist in reaching our personal best (usually, inhalation accompanies an upward – or backward -bending movement, exhalation a downward – or forward bending move). Pranayama is also an important practice in its own right. Pranayama brings under your control the normally automatic function of breathing in order to regulate the flow of prana, or life energy, throughtout your system.
With the exception of trained singers, elite athletes, and yogis, most people are shallow breathers who seldom completely fill their lungs with air or fully exhale stale air and start fresh. Learning pranayama can help you use your lungs full capacity for breath. The result is greater vitality, clearer eyes, skin, and a better functioning respiratory system. (This may be the reason many people who take up yoga say they get fewer colds than they did before.)
Some basics of pranayama are:
Sit cross-legged on the floor or on a cushion. As an alternative, you can kneel or sit in an accomodating chair. In any case, avoid rigidity, but keep your back straight enough that your lungs feel open and free to expand.
In most yogic breathing exercises, the exhalation should be one-and-a-half to two times as long as the inhalation. If this dosen’t feel natural at first, advance slowly. Count your breaths to keep track.
“When you hold the breath, you hold the soul”- B.K.S. Iyengar
Pranayama is more about guiding the breath than controlling it. Unless your teacher instructs you otherwise, allow your body to breathe of its own accord and gently usher your breath where you want it to go..
By regulating your breathing, you can increase the oxygenation of your entire system, improve circulation, relieve tension and anxiety, and increase concentration. Breathing practices can also regulate the flow of prana or life energy in your body; and slow, steady breathing is an essential component of meditation. In addition to formal pranayama, you can do a simple yoga breathing routine during the day when you need to calm down, energize yourself, or clear your mind before giving a presentation or dealing with a problem.
The simplest practice is basic, three-part, deep breathing (deerga swasam). To do this,you inhale by extending first your abdomen, then your diaphragm, and finally your chest; and follow by exhaling slowly and fully, drawing your abdomen in as if to push out the last vestiges of stale air. Doing even three of these inhalation-exhalation has been shown to slightly lower blood pressure and steady brain wave patterns.
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Most importantly, whenever you do a breathing practice – and whenever it crosses your mind during the day – observe the point of stillness between each inhalation and exhalation. This is a tiny meditative movement. When you momentarily focus on it during pranayama – and at other times as well – you gently train your mind to focus and even in the midst of past memories and future plans, become acutely aware of the present. It may not be possible in daily life to take a break from a board meeting to stand on your head, but you can pay attention to your breathing. Thus the yogi’s saying “Breathe first. Act later”