Pranayama is a yogic breath practice and is one of the eight limbs of classical yoga. Prana refers to an energic life force, similar to chi, and it flows through the energetic body, specifically the nadis and chakras. Pranayama is specifically the movement and extension of prana.
In the yogic model, breath practice can move prana, but that movement of prana impacts the physical and mental bodies as well (and vice versa, physical and mental practices like yoga postures and meditations can also move prana). For those practiced in pranayama and yoga in general, individual experiences can validate this relationship. Paying attention to the breath allows for a physical slowing down, facilitates interoceptive awareness (sensing into your self and your body), and decreases accessory mental activity. Western medicine also acknowledges the collaboration of breath and body – long, deep breaths, particularly exhales, can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, improve vagal function, reduce stress, slow heart rate, and produce sensations of calm and relaxation.
The tying of breath to the spiritual and energetic body is not unique to yoga. In many cultures, the word for breath is related to the word for spirit (see Mircea Elidae’s Encyclopedia of Religion). For example, the Hebrew word ruach refers to wind, breath, and spirit, and the Latin word for spirit, spiritus, comes from the verb, “to breathe” (spirare).
One of my favorite quotes relating breath to spirituality comes from a poem by Kabir (emphasis mine).
“Are you looking for me?
I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
You will not find me in the stupas, not in Indian shrine rooms,
nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals;
not in masses, nor kirtans,
not in legs winding around your own neck,
nor in eating nothing but vegetables.
When you really look for me, you will see me instantly —
you will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath.”
Pranayama is best learned in-person from an experienced instructor, and there are a few health risks to pranayama (such as concerns with high blood pressure) . If you are unable to access a yoga professional, some pranayama ideas to begin with are:
- Pay attention to your breath. Notice where you feel it. Notice what happens if you lengthen the exhale. Can you feel a difference in your heart rate during the inhale verses the exhale? Do you feel more relaxed with a longer exhale?
- Pay attention to the spaces in between your breath (non-breath). Not holding your breath exactly but noticing the pause
- Try diaphragmatic breathing. Many people don’t fully utilize their diaphragm during their inhalations, instead resorting to chest or accessory breathing muscles. Are you able to utilize your diaphragm noticeably during inhalation? (place your hands on your belly for sensory feedback to feel your stomach move as you inhale and the diaphragm contracts and pushes the stomach outward; if you are on your back, you can try placing a small pillow on your stomach and try to move the pillow up/down as you inhale/exhale).
References and Resources (not exhaustive but for more information):
- Van der Kolk, B. The Body Keeps the Score
- Discussion of polyvagal theory and yoga, see: https://kripalu.org/resources/polyvagal-theory-and-gunas-qa-marlysa-sullivan and Sullivan M. et al. Yoga Therapy and Polyvagal Theory: The Convergence of Traditional Wisdom and Contemporary Neuroscience for Self-Regulation and Resilience. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2018. Vol 12
- Discussion of breath and spirit relationship: https://www.ancient-tower-press.com/2014/03/the-association-of-the-embodied-soul-with-breath.html
- Also see: Centering by Mary C. Richards and The Four Elements by John O’Donohue
- Yoga Journal’s introduction to pranayama for beginners: https://www.yogajournal.com/practice/pranayama
- Allison Mitch’s (PT) podcast about yoga: https://www.napervilleparks.org/podcast/s12-episode-01-health-benefits-of-yoga
- McCall, T. Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing
Written by Dr. Allison Mitch, PT (DPT), RYT500 and copyright protected, please cite accordingly. Picture was taken by Jana Blue Photography at The Resiliency Institute’s edible garden. https://www.janabluephotography.com/ The picture is of interstices, the in between spaces, a visual representation of the space between breath. (Thanks, Jana)
For more collaboration or more information about yoga or sessions with Dr. Allison Mitch, PT, please email firstname.lastname@example.org