Pranayama is one of the eight limbs or core tenants of yoga; and It’s meant to prepare the body and mind for other core practices in yoga such as the: asana - physical poses, Yamas - relation to other, niyamas - relation to self, Pratyahara - withdrawal from the senses, Dhara - concentration, & Dhyana - meditation, but where stress is concerned it’s valuable in its ability to shift how we relate with stress, lessen the reactivity of the mind and gain more clairity in thinking.
WHY DO PRANAYAMA?
One of the main reasons that breath regulation is emphasized in pranayama is because it is said to share a special connection between our bodies stress responce and our consciousness / minds; with consistency and practice it aims to restore a sense of still- ness through gaining controlling of the breath, and not allowing it to become irregular.
This connection between consciousness and breathing can be witnessed in how breath- ing becomes agitated immediately with a perception of ‘stress’, it moves instantly from relatively deep and smooth to shallow, rapid, or restrained; whereas when we are at ease (however long ago that might have been) we breath deeply, our pear shaped lungs fill into their reaches, and the tummy fills gently with ease.
In practicing maintaining correct breath during perceived ‘stress’ we provide valuable biofeedback to the body that it doesn’t need to be in a heightened state of ‘flight or flight’ / adrenal / stress responce. The mind becomes less agitated and able to remain calm in the adversities of waking life, the result is that you feel more at ease and less drawn into the reactivity of the mind.
“WHEN WE PRACTICE PRANAYAMA THE VEIL IS GRADUALLY DRAWN AWAY FROM THE MIND AND THERE IS GROWING CLARITY. THE MIND BECOMES READY FOR DEEP MEDITATION” (YOGA SUTRAS OF PANTANJALI 2.52)
THE BENEFITS OF PRANAYAMA
CALM & FOCUS THE MIND - Prepare to still the mind for more techniques such as dhyana (meditation) / Ana Pana (breath meditation). This can be used as a stand alone practice or one to compliment a formal meditation sitting.
LEARN TO DEEPEN THE BREATH & CORRECT IMPROPER BREATHING - Beginners often experience difficulty breathing deeply, they may find their inhales/ exhales to be choppy or differing lengths, or even a tendency to ‘gulp’ or expel their breath hurriedly instead of breathing in/out calmly and in control.These difficulties can aid in compounding an experience of ‘stress’ in a sort of negative bio-feedback loop.
MANAGE STRESS & GAIN MORE CONTROL “FIGHT OR FLIGHT” RESPONSE - These techniques induce a level of controlled (read: workable) stress on the body; this practice teaches us how to relate differently to perceived stressors, in time learning to control the breath as a way of regulating the mind, and its fight or flight response.
COMPLIMENT TO THE OTHER LIMBS OF YOGA & A SENSE OF WELLBEING - Pranayama is a great support to all the limbs of yoga; clearing the mind for better understanding of the Yamas - ethical perception with relation to other, niyamas - ethics and perception when related to self; can send the body into a state of Pratyahara - or withdrawal from the senses; increase Dhara - concentration; aid in creating the stillness required for Dhyana - meditation (quells ‘monkey mind’); and of course helps us go deeper and more fluidily through our vinyasa (flows) in the various asanas - or physical postures of yoga.
KEY POINTS ON ESTABLISHING A PRACTICE
FIND YOUR “EDGE” / INTERVAL AMOUNT FOR PRANAYAMA TECHNIQUES - Begin with a relatively low interval i.e. 3 sec, and continue building the interval until to reach your “edge” - consider it 90% of how far you are able to go without too much discomfort, take the interval back 10-15% from there, this is the place we work in, a manageable amount of induced ‘stress’ to face and practice with.
MAINTAIN CORRECT POSTURE - Having a tall spine and correct posture aids in facilitating a deep breath, it provides the room the lungs need to descend into their lower reaches, when we are slouched there is obstruction in the lungs ability to descend. To correct this, line up and stack your ears above your shoulders, and your shoulders above the hips, rocking back and forth, tilting the head until you find a tall spine.
THE PRACTICE OF CONTROLLING THE BREATH & MIND - Try your best to breath as slowly and steadily as possible to meet the interval you have chosen. If you are having too much difficulty i.e. you feel too starved for oxygen, light headed/dizzy, or the breath is becoming very choppy, consider decreasing your interval to a more manageable amount. Tip: imagine sipping the breath slowly as you work with these techniques, imagine sipping oatmeal or honey through a straw, al- ways meeting your breath at the interval you are working with.
STAY WITH THE PERCEIVER / BE MINDFUL - Do your best to be mindful throughout the practice, try not to enable your subconscious mind, try not to indulge thinking about later in the day, moments from the past etc. Instead stay with the part of you that is aware, the minds eye as it’s called in yoga, the part of you that perceives the thoughts passing by. When thoughts arise, be gentle with yourself, don’t push them away, just acknowledge and gently return to the technique nothing else.
CONSISTENCY & COMMITMENT - Be honest with yourself when deciding how much to commit to; it’s a lot better to
be consistent with training (i.e. 10 min a day) than consistently inconsistent (aiming too high i.e. 45 min). If you’re only able to do 5 minutes once a day do that, just start somewhere. Give the technique an honest run as well, not just trying it for a day and deciding it isn’t helping, you can’t undo decades of chronic stress and tension over- night.
ELEVATING YOUR PRACTICE - COMMUNITY IS KEY / SANGHA (READ: SUPPORT)
Self Care techniques, like pranayama or meditation, can seem like a chore when you’re first getting started. Remember that no man is a mountain, and the most impactful and lasting changes come when we set ourselves up for success. For that reason, if you are just getting started in a new self care technique, I encourage you to find support from friends, your partner, others in your network who you know are also interested in the practice. This helps in a few ways:
i. accountability & consistency - having a practice partner holds you accountable to consistency in practice, it’s a lot easier to bail on yourself than a friend or partner. maintaining consistency is KEY if you are going to discover if the technique has any real benefit for you.
ii. feedback + learning curve - it helps in overall learning and getting feedback, and addressing questions which are bound to come up along the way. ideally this would be under the tutelage of someone who has practiced longer than you, or at least checking in occasionally with someone who has walked that road before you.
iii. group energy/camaraderie - this last point may be subtle but one i find to be very true in practice. in group even if it’s just two of you there is a supportive air that will help pull you through your set interval... whether it’s just 5 minutes or 45 minutes.