Pranayama (प्राणायाम), like many of the words in yoga, may sound complex and mystical. In Sanskrit, prāṇa (प्राण) means life force, that energy inside of you. Ayāma (आयाम) means to extend or draw out. So the purpose of pranayama, or breathing exercises, is to extend the life force.
There are many techniques in prāṇāyāma, from breathing in and out to a count, alternate nostril breathing, breath retention(s), breathing in and out of the belly deeply, quickly and forcefully, to humming. Using different breathing patterns, the entire respiratory system is cleansed and cleared, allowing for deeper and more complete breathing. The practice also maintains conscious attention on the breath to bring the practitioner into alignment with the unconscious and expansive True Self. As the fourth limb of Ashtanga yoga, pranayama assists in gaining mastery over the mind, breath, and emotions.
You can perform prāṇāyāma by itself or as an addition to a yoga asana practice. If you have not practiced pranayama before, you could start by sitting comfortably with a straight spine and observing your breath come in and out of your body. Allow the diaphragm to drop down into the belly, so you are breathing into the abdomen.
This also brings air fully into your lungs, and prevents the ribcage from moving up and down. The idea is to move energy up and down the spine, so we want it to stay still during this practice. In addition, breathing in and out of the belly physiologically creates a state of greater relaxation since it activates the parasympathetic nervous system.
From there, you could begin with a breath count, for example, inhale 1-2, exhale 1-2-3, pausing briefly at each count. Keep the count steady and breathe fully into the belly. With every exhale, feel the belly fully move in toward the spine, emptying all the air out of your lungs. With every inhale, feel the belly expand fully. You can even place your hand on the belly to become more aware of the movements.
It is strongly recommended that you learn prāṇāyāma from an experienced teacher to gain the full physical and spiritual benefits from this practice. At the same time, any mindfulness practice, even simply taking a few moments a day to be present with your breath, is unequivocally giving yourself the space to rejuvenate your body and mind, connect with your Higher Self, and strengthen your vitality.
Prāṇāyāma is a tool that will help you to more fully connect in life and show you all the glory that lies within you.
by Danielle LaRock
Sādhaka (under Yogacharya Vinay Kumar), RYT200, Licensed Life Coach
Danielle enjoys finding creative expression and self-discovery through the practice of yoga. She began practicing … (read more)