A Quick Guide to Pranayama
For many of us, yoga postures (asana) are our first entry into the world of Yoga. So many of us come to our first yoga class with the intention of feeling better in our physical bodies. So we spend ample time learning sun salutations, “perfecting” poses, stretching our hamstrings and trying to move through the sequences with some degree of control and elegance. But it doesn’t take long before we are introduced to the many other components of yoga, for example meditation, mantra, or Pranayama, to name just a few.
On the most basic level, the word Pranayama refers to breathing practices and techniques that free the breath and clear energy (prana) within our physical bodies. B.K.S. Iyengar, founder of Iyengar Yoga and often credited with popularizing yoga both in India and in the West, describes Pranayama as “a conscious prolongation of inhalation, retention and exhalation.” Some of the techniques can be energizing and detoxifying, like Kapalabhati Pranayama (Skull Shining Breath), for example, which is powerful, rhythmic and quick. While others are calming, relaxing and balancing, such as Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing) or Sama Vritti (Equal Breathing).
The importance of the breath and understanding its potential cannot be understated. We sat down with Cameron Gilley to discuss all things breath, and his upcoming Pranayama workshop at Semperviva:
Breath is literally the first and last thing that we do in our lives, and is the one constant thing throughout the duration of our lives. But without even noticing it, we can gradually develop unconscious breathing habits that restrict and limit the breath, making it shallow and restricted. What makes the breath so unique is that it is one of our only faculties as humans that can be controlled both somatically and autonomically by conscious choice, i.e. both voluntarily and involuntarily. And we can use this tool to consciously change both our physical body and our mental state of mind.
Breath therefore connects the form of our physicality to the formlessness of our experience. It acts the connector between form and formlessness, or between body and mind.
Pranayama is simply breathing consciously and intentionally. The formal techniques themselves have been around for over 5000 years, if thought of in the context of the Vedic tradition, but of course, humans have been breathing for many thousands of years before that.
Historically, its main use has been as a meditative tool to focus awareness and deliberately direct energy, and this is not vastly from different today. Today, the formal Pranayama practice is used primarily as a tool for relaxation, however some of the more intensive and vigorous techniques are still used to stoke and direct energy – particularly within our physical yoga practice.
For me personally, its primary benefit today is as a tool for relaxation. We live in such a stressed out culture that having access to such a simple tool that has the potential to calm, relax and focus the mind is invaluable.
Beyond that, breath and Pranayama exercises can be used to gain access to a deeper aspect of being, and that’s a pretty interesting concept.
First and foremost, gain a basic understanding of the practice itself and some of the techniques, by attending workshops and courses. Beyond that, a trip to Banyon books with a reading list is always a good idea. Do some research into the total depth of what the breath does, the science behind the breath, and the esoteric benefits of moving energy. And then simply do. Practice breathing techniques on a regular basis and let the breath be the teacher.
If you are interested in registering for Cameron’s upcoming Pranayama workshop “When In Doubt, Breathe In, Breathe Out” register here.