// Pranayama: the formal practice of controlling the breath, the prana, the life-force.
“The practice of pranayama removes the veil of ignorance covering the light of intelligence and makes the mind a fit instrument to embark on meditation for the vision of the soul. This is a spiritual quest. “- B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras,
Pranayama falls at the heart of our yoga practice. It is the 4th limb of the 8 limbs of yoga. Preceded by asana (postures) and followed by pratyahara (withdrawal from the senses). It is the bridge between the outward expressions of yoga and the inward manifestations.
The practice of breath control is the experience of the now. In the rhythm of our breath we are able to calm our mind and rejuvenate our spirit. It is through our breath that we can understand the subtle qualities of the elements (sound, touch, shape, taste, smell) and move our consciousness into stillness. The heat of the breath moves through our body exhaling out our past attachments and beliefs, creating a space that is ready to be filled with the new. It is this space that we approach the core of our being and become internally cleansed in thoughts, words, and actions. This is the beginning of a meditation practice. Breathe in and breath out.
Mechanics of Breathing
When we breath, we change shapes by the movement of the diaphragm in the thoracic cavity (including everything above the diaphragm) and the abdominal cavity (including everything below the diaphragm).
On the inhale the thoracic cavity grows three dimensionally, changing its shape and increasing volume. The abdominal cavity, compressed by the diaphragm, also changes shape, but keeps the same volume. Volume and pressure are inversely related; as volume increases, pressure decreases. When we breath in, the volume in our thoracic cavity increases, so the pressure decreases. Air always moves toward areas of low pressure, so as volume increases when the thoracic cavity changes shape, pressure will decrease and air will flow into the body--an inhalation.
Your body’s role in breathing is to change shapes; to increase the volume of the thoracic cavity. You do not and are not responsible for pulling air into your body. When pressure changes in your thoracic cavity it allows air to be pushed into you by atmospheric pressure. “In other words, you create the space, and the universe fills it,” says Leslie Kaminoff of Yoga Anatomy. Wow! Think on that for a bit. You are here, breathing and alive, because you are being supported by the universe. Living is a means of making room for life to enter into you; that’s it.
The exhale, in relaxed, non-directed breathing is a result of a passive recoil, the tissue springing back to initial shape after the inhale. Active exhaling, as done in many pranayama practices, is performed by the engagement of the muscles surrounding the two cavities.
Starting a pranayama practice can be intimidating, but it need not be.
-Start sitting in sukhasana, or any comfortable position.
-Allow your eyes to close, and simply begin to observe the fluctuations of your breath. What does your inhale look like? What does your exhale look like? How many counts do you breathe in? How many counts do you breathe out?
-Begin counting your inhale and exhale. 5 counts for an inhale and 5 counts for an exhale. Stay here for 5 full rounds.
There, you just completed your first pranayama practice. Stay tuned for many more breath practices to come!