Pranayama is the yogic practice of breath control. This Sanskrit term is made up of two smaller words; prana and ayama. The term prana refers to the subtle energy that pervades all things. Ayama translated as “to stretch” or to expand. The practice of controlling breath allows us to expand breath capacity and manage subtle energies.
Pranayama is also the fourth limb in Patanjali’s 8-Fold path as described in the Yoga Sutras. According to the sutra 2.50 (bahya abhyantara stambha vrittih desha kala sankhyabhih paridrishtah dirgha sukshmah):
“Pranayama has three aspects of external or outward flow (exhalation), internal or inward flow (inhalation), and the third, which is the absence of both during the transition between them, and is known as fixedness, retention, or suspension. These are regulated by place, time, and number, with breath becoming slow and subtle.” – translation from SwamiJ.com
The mechanics of breath involve the process of pulling in oxygen and diffusing it through the blood stream. The primary role of inhalation is to bring in oxygen, thus bringing energy into the system. The role of exhale is to release waste (carbon dioxide) and releasing stress, tension, even thoughts. The techniques described by Patanjali include inhalation, hold/retention after inhale, exhale, and pause/suspension after exhale. The different parts of the breath can be combined with certain movements to increase the effect of that movement.
There are many pranayama techniques that manipulate the breath to achieve different results (relaxation, invigoration, narrowing focus for deeper states of concentration, etc.). But the first step of controlling the breath is to become aware.
Take a moment now to become aware of your breath. Close your eyes and put one hand on your chest, the other on your belly. Feel your body move as you breathe. Feel the expansion of your chest, your belly pushing out as you inhale. Feel the contraction of your abdomen and the softening of your ribcage as you exhale. Take a few breaths with this awareness. Even as you bring your attention to your breath it will change, often lengthening without any conscious intent. Take 10 breaths simply focusing your awareness. After you’re done, notice the effect you feel. Notice how much time this practice took. Did it relax you? Do you feel clearer in your mind? Did it bring up emotions – if so what? Now you can do the practice on purpose – breathe on purpose!
Kim has been a student of yoga since 1993 and her training has focused on using movement, breath, and meditation to best meet the needs of the practitioner. Her certifications include the 500-hour yoga teacher training and 500-hour yoga therapist through the American Viniyoga Institute. She also is a certified health/wellness coach, ACSM personal trainer, and massage therapist.