(March, 2011) “Yoga is union; breath is yoga.” These words, spoken by my yoga teacher with regularity, are engraved in memory, like carvings on a meditation bead. It’s been more than five years, less than ten that I’ve been “practicing” yoga. If I were more conscious, I'd know exactly how long. If I were less time bound, it wouldn’t matter.
In any case, one thing I know for sure––it’s about the breath. Breath, breath, and okay class, take a nice deep breath. Whether you can do pretzel postures or are simply trying to perfect corpse pose (savasana) by lying flat on your back, it all comes down to the in-and-out flow of oxygen.
What’s the big deal? It’s just air. You might say we’re so good at taking it in that we can breathe unconsciously, which is, in fact, why we’re actually pretty bad at it. Pranayama, or the yogic art of breath control, focuses on breathing consciously. It means treating the breath like another yoga pose. A pose with benefits.
Practice Makes Perfect
Years of skimpy, shallow breathing take a bigger toll than you might imagine. Breathing without awareness not only affects the lungs, which with time tend to become less elastic, but also our metabolism. Other common effects of underbreathing can include a buildup of uric acid in the blood, which can lead to joint pain, backaches, and stiff muscles; an overall loss of vitality; and even obesity.
Deep breathing exercises the lungs, heart, kidneys, stomach, pancreas, liver, intestines, and diaphragm. It oxygenates the blood and improves circulation (which impacts obesity by revving up a sluggish system). Taking fewer and deeper breaths can help heal hypertension, benefit digestion, quiet the nerves, and ease wear and tear on the body. It’s not for nothing that in times of stress we’re told to take a deep breath.
But pranayama goes deeper than deep breathing. It’s an essential component of the discipline of yoga, partnering with the poses, or asanas. A science and an art that affects our physiology and neurology, it can also influence the psyche, creativity, and, of course, spirituality.
Among the multitude of pranayama breathing exercises, some warm you up in the winter while others cool you down in the summer. Some give your memory a boost; others stimulate the thyroid or enliven the digestive organs. Some ease cold symptoms, and a handful even claim to make you beautiful, although really—on a completely different level—they all do.
“If you’re not breathing, it isn’t yoga,” says B. K. S. Iyengar, one of the great living yoga teachers and a vital force at 91. Pranayama comes in all shapes, sizes, and decibels. I’ve been in some classes that sound like Lamaze competitions, others where you’d swear you fell into a wind tunnel, and still others where the stillness lets you softly implode.
But you don’t have to be a yogi to take my word for it. Start off with a little breath control and see where it leads.
Try It Yourself
Each of these simple exercises will gently introduce some of the benefits of pranayama. Remember, in pranayama, breathing is generally done through the nose, unless stated otherwise. It’s best to avoid eating for at least three hours before practicing.
1. While you sit in a comfortable position, inhale deeply and slowly. Exhale at the same pace. Don’t hold your breath; simply observe it. Mentally repeat to yourself “inhaling” on the inhalation, “exhaling” on the exhalation. A great beginner exercise, breath awareness is an enormous step from breathing erratically to breathing evenly and consciously.
2. For anxiety and stress, try a one-part inhalation to a three-part exhalation. Start by exhaling all of the breath and then take a long, slow, deep breath in. Now exhale the breath in three equal parts. Let the pause between exhalations be a comfortable one. Start with three to four repetitions.
How much further you explore after this is up to you. But whatever you do, don’t stress about it. You already know how to breathe. You’re just taking it deeper.