The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a seminal text on yoga, states that “when the breath wanders the mind is unsteady. But, when the breath is calmed, the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.”
The practice of controlling or extending your breath is called Pranayama, one of the eight limbs of yoga. In Sanskrit, the word Pranayama consists of “prana” and “ayama”. “Ayama” means to stretch or extend, and “yama” means to regulate and direct. Prana is life force or energy that consists of the three gunas, or nature’s building blocks.
The three gunas are:
Sattva: is luminous, balanced and refined energy––what we’re seeking to become.
Rajas: is the activating, dynamic force that propels movement.
Tamas: is heaviness or the inert, dark, stagnant quality of nature
By learning to control the flow of prana within us, we can change how we feel and how well energy flows through our bodies. Regardless of the conditions outside of ourselves, we can harness the gunas to create sattva or balance within us.
Different pranayama techniques enable us to control heart rate and blood pressure. If you’re feeling anxious or stressed out, your breath comes in shallow, short bursts which tax your system. Changing your breathing to extend your inhales and/or exhales can aid you in tapping into your parasympathetic nervous system, or relaxation response.
If you’re feeling weighed down physically, mentally, or emotionally, switching up your breath patterns can energize and wake you up. Kapalabhati pranayama or “Skull Cleansing” Breath utilizes rapid forceful nostril exhales to energize the entire body and clear the mind. It’s a great antidote to lethargy.
You’re probably familiar with Ujjayi pranayama, which is an even paced nostril breathing with a slight constriction in the back of your throat. Ujjayi is a warming breath and translates to “Victorious Breath.” If you need to cool down, Sitali pranayama is a cooling breath which entails breathing in through the mouth with your tongue curved and exhaling through the nose. Changing the way you breathe changes the way you feel!
Many of the respected teachers who helped bring yoga to the West, like B.K.S. Iyengar, believed pranayama was more advanced than asana and that students should master the physical postures prior to attempting pranayama techniques. Others, like Pattabhi Jois, believed in teaching asana and pranayama at the same time. Yoga relies on mindful breathing and pranayama is a vital part of the practice no matter when you choose to learn more about it. Ready to dive deeper? We’ve got an upcoming all-levels Pranayama Immersion program with you a wide variety of short, simple, and powerful pranayama practices. If you’re ready to go deeper, check it out!
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