It is hard to argue with the importance of breathing. And yet, inefficient breathing is an epidemic in modern life resulting from poor posture, limited physical exertion, lack of physiological understanding, and a dearth of experiential education. Concurrently, the breadth of scientific study touting the benefits of deep breathing continues to expand. Benefits include: reduced inflammation, detoxification through the stimulation of the lymphatic system, a natural painkiller, improved blood flow, increased energy level, and improved digestion.
The importance of learning to guide the breath*, or Prāṇāyāma, is one of the strongest connections between Yoga and Ayurveda.
Ayurveda's interest in Pranayama is first in foremost its importance in Pranic Healing or healthy living. Prana, or the energetic life-force within every living being, is an essential essence, with Prana we live, when Prana leaves us we die. Increasing Prana is a means to bring more vital energy to every aspect of our being. There are many ways in which we absorb Prana, but first and foremost is through our nostrils when we breathe. At the subtle level, we absorb Prana directly into our brain, but the nostrils also serve to clean or purify the Prana so it has greater energy potential when absorbed by the lungs and is transmitted throughout the rest of the body. This is why nostril breathing is so good!
The effectiveness of breathing through one's nose is greatly determined by the ability to do so, hence Ayurveda's numerous daily health routines that include cleansing and taking care of the nostrils: net, sniffing herbs, oil application, nasya, aroma therapy, and Pranayama.
We will discuss and practice these and other Ayurvedic lifestyle practice at my 2020 Costa Rica retreat!
Within the context of Yoga, Pranayama is the fourth limb of Patanjali’s 8-limbs of yoga. It serves as the bridge between the outer limbs of in-action practice and the inner limbs, which incline our yoga practice toward a more spiritual realm. As one practices Pranayama, the senses begin to move inward (pratyahara) and we become aware of our internal world. As we learn to rest in this awareness overtime, we discover meditation.
There are a limited number of Pranayama exercises, however, there are many variations depending on lineage and place of origin. It is best to find a teacher to guide you in developing and growing your practice.
Ujjayi breath is practiced in conjunction with Ashtanga-vinyasa (and subsequent Vinyasa forms), however it is a pranayama technique in and of itself with physical benefits such as reducing phlegm in the throat and sinuses, heating the body, and boosting the immune system, in addition to being a great foundational practice to anchor yourself in the present moment and soften the attachment to the turbulences within the mind.
Here is a brief audio lesson on Ujjayi breath if you want to try it or deepen your practice:
For more information about Pranayama and direct instruction in further techniques, I am teaching a workshop Saturday January 18, 3-5pm at Hot House Yoga (West End). Sign up here:
* Prāṇāyāma is often translated as a practice of breath control, but one of my teachers Rolf Naujokat always describes it as a practice in guiding the breath, which speaks more to the nuances of the energetic practice, both physically and as a meditational tool. Thank you Rolf :)