Pranayama is the conscious regulation of the breath. Considered one of the most powerful tools to purify and discipline the body and mind, it is a subtle practice. To benefit, a practitioner should be knowledgeable in the application of pranayama as its misuse can create harm. That is why pranayama should be learned with the guidance of teacher skilled in its practice.
Why do pranayama?
The practice of asana or postures in yoga help to remove obstacles, restrictions, or tensions in the body. Pranayama helps remove the obstacles, restrictions, or tension in the mind. The work with the breath is also the most important part of moving the body in asana practice.
As we pay attention to the breath, we notice how the breath also reflects the state of the mind. Notice your breath when you are nervous or anxious. It will feel shorter, faster, more shallow. Notice your breath when you feel calm and peaceful. You will see it, too, is calmer, longer, deeper.
Likewise, we can affect the mind by changing our breathing pattern to help feel calmer or more alert. If I am feeling anxious and do a few postures with the breath, and then do a pranayama practice in which my exhale is twice as long as my inhale and use a throat-sounding breath, I will likely feel more calm. If I am feeling sleepy or dull and must take a test, and perform a few postures with the breath. and then do a pranayama practice in which I hold my breath, 2, 3, then 4 seconds after inhale, keeping my exhale the same length as the inhale, I will likely feel more alert as I take my test. But these are just examples to help you see how pranayama can affect how we feel. We have many possible pranayama practices, each with their potential effects depending upon the person and the context.
As you can probably imagine, pranayama requires complete attention. Because pranayama requires so much focus, it helps train the mind for meditation. We can’t be thinking about lunch or work or a disagreement with a friend and do the pranayama practice. Pranayama prepares the mind for moving within, away from the focus on what is around us in our lives and toward our inner life. And, in that way, pranayama helps move us toward yoga. For the goal of yoga is connection. And, not just to mind and body. But beyond to what is most profound and subtle, to what is deep within us – to that place of such clarity that is pure light and peace.