Unless we have a cold, bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia or another condition that shortens our breath or makes it uncomfortable, we usually don’t think about it. Breathing just happens. Our body goes right on taking in air, sustaining our life, just as it did from the moment we emerged from our mother’s womb.
What makes our breathing apparatus so fascinating to me is that it is both involuntary and voluntary. Our body continues to breathe even when we pay no attention. Yet, we can change our breathing patterns in quite profound ways, if we choose.
Because the experience of stress is so ubiquitous in our culture, I encourage people to pay attention to how their breath responds when they feel stressed. Inevitably they will say their breath becomes shorter and sometimes irregular while their bodies tense and anxiety rises. When a waterfall of hormones initiates the flight or fight response, all aspects of our system react.
When we come to understand the concept of prana in yoga, we can understand why we pay such a high price for a stress-filled life, and, also, how the tools of yoga help to mitigate the effects of stress.
Prana is vital, life force energy; it functions in the most subtle aspects of our systems. “Prana… is responsible for all movement in the body and directly influences our physical, mental, and emotional health,” according to Nicolai Bachman in The Path of the Yoga Sutra. It is the means by which our mind influences the body, and the body the mind. Making sure prana can move freely and smoothly so our body feels stable and relaxed and our mind is calm is one reason we do yoga.
Our breath influences prana. That is how the breath influences the state of our mind. And, as our mind influences our breath, like when we are frightened or overwhelmed, prana is affected. When our breathing becomes irregular or shortened, our life force energy is interrupted or blocked.
The fourth limb of yoga, pranayama, is the conscious control and regulation of the breath. These breathing practices can help balance, slow, and smooth the breath, which affect prana, helping to calm the mind and relax the body. They can counteract the negative impact of stress if the practice is appropriate for our body, and we perform it consistently over time.
One caveat is the strong effect that pranayama can have on the breath and nervous system. Consequently, it is important to learn pranayama from an experienced teacher.
Saturday, February 20, from 1:00 – 4:00 pm, I am offering a workshop entitled “Breath as a Path to Change: Exploring Pranayama.” If you would like to learn more about and experience pranayama, please join me for what I believe will be an engaging and enjoyable afternoon.