Yogis have been attempting to articulate the importance of pranayama for centuries, and the effort is still relevant because when a person starts yoga it doesn’t take long for them to realize its a breath centric practice which changes everything.
The practice of pranayama is an important observance by itself, but is often done in haste, as if a couple minutes at the beginning of class is sufficient warm-up for the real work of asana.
Patanjali wrote, by the right control of breath, we overcome ignorance. Breathwork is a hallmark of the yogi’s intelligence, and control of breath is intimately linked to the yogi’s heightened awareness of biological and cosmic forces.
It’s important to concentrate on breath or prana as a distinct activity with its own benefits and techniques as well as a guiding anchor for asana. Some yoga practices start with pranayama before asana while others pay attention to activating and sustaining ujaii breath throughout asana and pause occasionally to work on pranayama.
Another option is to end practice with a breathing set. But to fully activate the vital life force, central to building the foundation for yoga and life, attention to breath throughout must be paid.
Pranayama isn’t something to rush through in order to get to asana. One 80-year-old man I know got the right idea after his first-ever yoga class at YOGA AND LEATHER: Yoga for Bikers. His replacement knees made it difficult for him to bend, and his large body ached, but he did the pranayama exercises – practicing inhale and exhale – while observing others do asana. While he couldn’t do much in the poses, he followed with breath. Later, I heard him telling others, “It’s all about the breathing. It’s the most important thing.”
Pranayama is the deliberate and conscious linking of breath with movement that sets yoga apart from other sports and disciplines. On occasion, there may be a brief pause or hold during asana, but with inhale, exhale, and kumbhaka (breath retention), nearly anyone can participate fully in a yoga class even if their breath was not linked to their asana.
We come into life through our most violent and important breath – the first one – and we leave by way of breath too, when at the end we exhale one last time.
B.K.S. Iyengar wrote, “There is no asana without breath and no breath without asana.” Desichachar offered, “Yoga is as much a practice involving breath as it is involving the body.
For its centrality to the traditional masters, pranayama in contemporary practice tends to be overlooked. It isn’t because teachers don’t understand the importance of pranayama – they do – but because the Western standard of a one-hour time block that most yoga classes fall into doesn’t lend itself well to the exploration of both pranayama and asana with any level of depth.
In America, I see many people come to class from their busy lives, and they are primed to keep going. They are eager to move and tend to resist stationary breath work but there is a change going on. Lately, I’ve seen more willingness to engage breath work by yoga students.
In Light on Pranayama, Iyengar maintained, “its as difficult to explain prana as it is to explain God.” He then went on to explain:
Prana is the energy permeating the universe at all levels.
Prana is the hidden or potential energy in all beings.
Prana is the prime mover of all activity.
Prana is energy which creates protects and destroys.
Prana is the principle of life, according to the Upanishads.
Prana is the hub of the wheel of life.
Prana is the vital energy of life.
Building Strong Lung Capacity
Our vital lung capacity can improve with practice, and in doing so, the body will be better prepared for asana. Stig Avall Sevrinson, world record free diver with a 20 minute breath hold, writes in Breatheology: the art of conscious breathing, “When our breathing is calm and restrained, the mind relaxes. It is this trinity of heart, brain, and breath that you must bear in mind since it is the source of your well-being and health.”
Lung capacity is approximately 3 liters of oxygen for women and 4 liters for men in their 30’s. By the time we live to 80, that capacity is reduced to 1.5 for women and 2.8 for men. But with pranayama practice, and exercises in breath holding, we can learn to expand our vital lung capacity which adds volume to our total capacity.
Severinsen writes, “There is a direct correlation between the vital lung capacity and health, so the better the lungs are utilized, the better you will become – even during an illness.”
Food and oxygen are the primary energy sources for the body, and if we live to 70 years, we will take approximately 600 million breaths in our lifetime. It makes sense to strengthen the core muscle surrounding the spine – the diaphragm – which delivers this precious life source to us. The diaphragm also protects and encompasses the heart chakra in the middle of our chest. We strengthen life-force and activate food for our bodies and minds by pranayama exercises. Severinsen believes anyone can increase their vital lung capacity even as he cites research showing a typical decline with age.
A focus on pranayama strengthens the heart and activates the inner spiritual center within our dwelling, the temple in which, “We live and move and have our being,” from the book of Acts compiled in the New Testament.
It’s worth nothing the air element is connected to the heart chakra, and air has always been connected with spirit and spirituality; this is reflected in the Western JudaeoChristian heritage by the Hebrew ruach, or breath of God within us, and the Greek psuche, as wind, breath, and spirit.
Through a centering breath, yoga empowers and brings seeds to fullness; it admonishes humans to wrestle with self and do the vital inner work which transforms the outer structure.
Indian yogis, in their discussion of the koshas, spoke of the anandamaya (illumined interior) changing the outer physical structure. When the yogi pays attention to breath, the vital energy fields of each sheath are activated: pranayama, or energy sheath, manomaya, or mental sheath, and vijnanamaya, or wisdom sheath.
Traditional practices included asana and pranayama as a unified set and both are necessary for yoga. The deeper meaning of two existing together as one is consistent with the Indian worldview of a unified field, and its belief system capable of simultaneously holding two antitheses strongly marked. This starts with a strong notion within Indian philosophy which incorporated both the cosmic and the psychic as one.
“The most important step in the development of Indian philosophy was taken when the Brahman, the cosmic principle, and Atman, the embodied psychic principle in man [sic] were linked as identical. This is expressed by the saying, “That art thou,” (Tat tvam asi); and “I am Brahman,” (Aham brahma asi).”
A well-integrated yoga is an active practice of pranayama, meditation, and asana. Pranayama increases the expansive muscular power and opens up space for diaphragm movement within the rib cage. Meditation holds this increased prana which is then embodied through asana.
One day, after yoga class, an insight arose from a place within the wisdom body (vijnanamaya sheath). The idea came in a sentence: The phenomenology of the wind is a poem; a poem is a temple, and a temple is a breath. Wisdom goes back to an inhale and an exhale, and every breath is only a temporary event between the first and last breath. Each breath is temple, and the way of the wind is its poem.
Before I started yoga, I hadn’t thought much about breath or breath control. But that changed one day when I vacationed in Hawaii and saw a group of free divers descend to 80 feet and interact with a pod of sleepy-eyed spinner dolphins.
Free diving is the art of going deep without using air tanks. It’s a mental and physical discipline requiring many of the same skills as yoga; but while yoga teaches conscious breathing, free diving trains divers in conscious breath hold. Breath awareness is the foundation for both disciplines, and both improve with training for a calm mind and stress-free movement.
When I saw the Hawaiian divers gracefully bend into a pike position at the surface and effortlessly propel themselves down with long fins and steady full-bodied kick strokes, I thought I was in an interactive art gallery. Nearly three atmospheres below the surface, I watched them roll and twist. Dolphins mimicked their fluid movements, and I was captured.
Later that day, I asked one of the divers if he would teach me how to swim into the deep. I wanted to dive like that; I wanted to interact with dolphins and other marine life below the surface at the place where they were comfortable. He said he would, and we promised to meet again at the same beach in two years.
Two years later I met him and we started on the shore. My teacher led me through breathing exercises, meditation, and mental imagery. He talked about the importance of relaxation, calmness, slowing the heartbeat, and becoming one with the environment. He asked me if I did yoga. At the time, I didn’t, but I was curious and asked him why.
He said, “Yoga will help you swim. Freediving aims to slow the heart rate, rid the body of tension, master breath control, and stop the mind from overthinking. It brings us to the present moment. The mental preparation and breath work of yoga can prepare the mind and body for intense underwater pressure.”
After starting yoga, I saw the clear parallels my freediving instructor had spoken of. Freediving creates physiological changes in the body, what divers call the mammalian diving reflex (DMR). This constricts blood flow to extremities and concentrates the vital force of life in heart and brain.
One method of stilling the inner chatter of our mind in yoga is by tuning into our breath. Free divers do this by counting as they prepare on the beach before going into the water. Focusing on our breath is one way to sublimate the endless vritti, or monkey mind.
When we follow our breath we tune into awareness in bodily movement. If the yogi knows how to engage the bandas, or energy locks, then breath is economized and centered in vital organs and at the place of need. Prana is locked, as in heart, lungs, and brain.
By the time I met my freediving instructor at the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii, I had waited two years and was eager to get in the water and start diving. I didn’t want to sit on the shore talking and meditating. Today, I realize the mental preparation for diving is like setting my intention or sanskalpa (solemn vow) for yoga practice. It’s perhaps the most important part. But my eagerness to get in the water and start diving helped me understand students that come to my yoga classes. They feel the same way; they are eager to move and don’t want to be sitting or standing still for something as simple as breathing.
When yogis and free divers are well prepared and present with all their faculties, their practice can reach heights or depths unforeseen. This is why many yoga retreats and teacher trainings prohibit alcohol or drug use. These substances influence the conscious and unconscious states. But yoga works to bring us fully into the moment with nothing but our true presence and experience in that one moment. Yoga moves us to focus entirely on our mind, body, breath as we are. This is an un-encumbering of the personality. It’s a willing vulnerability.
In Hawaii, free divers descended to swim with dolphins but did so in measured steps. Free dive guidelines call for most swimmers to pause briefly every 3 meters in order to equalize pressure in their ears. But as in yoga, these progressive guidelines are flexible and depend on the person.
In the beginning, both yogi and free diver are struck by the difficulty of their pursuit. Beginners in yoga spend a lot of time splashing around mentally, like snorkelers on the surface who haven’t yet learned to trust the buoyancy of their bodies or remain calm and comfortable in water. In Hawaii, I watched swimmers paddling furiously and recalled a teacher from water safety classes saying that the main danger for lifeguards in a swimming rescue is the panic and resistance of a drowning person. “They fight to stay afloat and will cling to the head of a lifesaver,” she said, “sometimes drowning their rescuer.”
In the same way, fighting to do yoga, or resisting a state of ease in meditation and asana is contrary to the spirit of yoga’s emotional, spiritual, and physical rescue.
Ideally, yoga asana moves to depth in measured steps. Going into a pose, each yogi inhales and exhales as they inventory their body to detect pressure points. Paying attention to inner cues, they decide whether or not they can progress to a deeper level of resistance or take the asana into the next shape shift. With time, yogis move deeper, but it happens slowly.
Learning how to pace oneself in yoga is the growing edge in our busy culture. I’ve observed people rush into class and treat the progressive asanas as if the class was meant to be an aerobic workout. At the end, they quickly pack up and rush out. I’m not the only one who’s noticed this, but I’m seeing a growing call for “slowga” or slow yoga.
The physical, non-physical, and metaphysical medicine of yoga was not created in haste, neither is it learned quickly; but in time, the yogi will acquire life-changing habits turning the inner tide from hasty unconscious breath to slow, conscious breathing.
We are beginning to realize that yoga is not like the rest of life and neither is it just a class. Yoga is a life-saving reclassification of the important versus unimportant. Every class teaches us discernment, and this is a transferable skill. And while yoga practice can be physically intense, it is not a competition; rather, yoga is an encounter with self at the most honest level.
The physical, non-physical and metaphysical medicine of yoga was not created in haste, neither is it learned quickly; but in time, the yogi will acquire life-changing habits turning the inner tide from hasty unconscious breath to slow, conscious breathing.
Yogis do well to remember the lesson of free divers and equalization. Descent in swimming requires skill and efficiency. Underwater, the body is equipped with checks and balances for pacing and handling the increased pressure. In yoga, the stress and tightness in your body are equalization points. The yogi only needs to tune in and listen to what his/her body is saying.
Listen to what your body says, and then as the stress and tightness ease, bend and extend to align mind and spine. The deeper you move, the slower you go. Ideally, move with ease, feel the pose, and find your pressure points. Once there, exhale mindfully and move into your resistance in measured and well-tuned awareness, an awareness that started with pranayama.
Leonard Pitt offered advice for dance and mime. “Let the work take over. Instead of doing, try listening. That’s when the real process of discovery begins,”
Breathe. Honor your experience. Be patient as you reach deeper to find sacred connection with your breath, intimately linked to your movement and awareness. Your yoga is waiting for you. On your mark. Get set. Go slow.
Behanan Kovoor, Yoga: A Scientific Evaluation, Dover Pub., 1937
Leonard Pitt, My Brain on Fire: Paris and Other Obsessions, Soft Skull Press, 2016
Stig Avall Severinson, Breathology: the art of conscious breathing, Idelson-Gnocchi, 2012