The Power of Pranayama
Pranayama is, at its heart, breath control. Anytime we are mindfully changing the breath, be it in length, depth, direction, or even cessation, we are practicing pranayama. We are fortunate to have a nervous system that regulates our breath for us, but we are even more fortunate to have the power to change our breath patterns because this gives us the power to change our state of being in any given moment. It is this empowering aspect of pranayama that really made it an integral part of my yoga practice.
I was introduced to some basic pranayama techniques by my first teacher, but they didn’t register as that important when I was first learning how to stand like a mountain. What drove home to me the gifts of practicing this limb of yoga was my experience riding out Hurricane Ivan in the Caribbean. For more than 24 hours, I sheltered from this massive storm, much of the time thinking that this might well be the end of everything. It was in the small hours of the night when the storm hit its stride, and I discovered that the practice of yoga had less to do with Downward Facing Dog than it did with the harnessing of emotions and thoughts. After realizing that I’d been holding my breath for what felt like hours, I heard in my mind the voice of my teacher saying, ‘practice your yoga’. Instinctively, I became aware of my breath and began a steady practice of regular inhalation and exhalation. This gave me the mindfulness to realize that though I had no control over the circumstances around me, I had complete control over how I responded to them. What a gift to receive! The practice of pranayama allowed me to master the moments of intense fear, but it also provided me with a way to rest without sleeping, to refresh my mind and body when it needed it most. This experience instilled in me a profound respect for the power of our breath and has driven me to investigate and practice pranayama with heartfelt enthusiasm for the last 16 years. I’ve received many gifts from this practice, and in the sharing of it, I have witnessed students discover for themselves the many ways in which pranayama can help them navigate the challenges that life can present.
When we begin yoga classes, we are frequently caught up in the delight of the physical postures, and breath practice finds itself in the back seat. However, once we find a small comfort zone in how we move our bodies during class, we start to notice our teachers offering us a reminder about our breath. In vinyasa classes, yogis pair their movements with breath and allow that natural rhythm to help guide their practice. Even in gentle or hatha yoga classes, we will often put the movement, like a letter, in the envelope of the breath, regulating its pattern. This simple awareness is probably the most common kind of breath control that students will find in classes, but they may find teachers who invite them to incorporate the Ujjayi or Victorious breath into the practice. This is another lovely way to both assist in the physical practice of movement as well as provide a gentle sound that tethers the yogi to the present moment. Students might also encounter the alternate nostril breath in classes. This practice of breathing through one nostril at a time is a wonderful way to balance our minds and can be very effective for calming the nervous system.
In a pranayama training, students will have the chance to solidify their understanding of how breath works with a brief study of the anatomy and physiology of respiration. This is a great foundation for the practices they will learn. During the training, students will get first-hand experience with different techniques, including the bellows breath (Bhastrika), the skull shining breath (Kapalabhati), and the interrupted breath (Viloma). They will also have the chance to refine their practice of the three-part breath (Dirgha), the victorious breath (Ujjayi), and the alternate nostril breath (Nadi Shodhana) through both practice and practice teaching. Finally, students can expect to connect some of the philosophy of yoga to the practice of pranayama through the exploration of various Sutras and Upanishads.
More than anything, students of pranayama can expect to find a path that will lead them back to the truth of their innate power; to realize a tangible connection to the present moment’s experience; and to hear clearly the sound of that voice within that says, ‘All is well’.
Interested in learning more about Pranayama? Join Lauren for:
- Pranayama Teacher Training
- Saturday and Sunday, June 26 & 27, 2021 from 10:00a – 5:30p
- *This training will be offered Live Stream via Zoom
- Qualifies for 14 Continuing Education Credits
About the Author, Lauren McLaren:
Yoga found me in 1998, and it is certainly responsible for transforming my life from an unexamined existence into a deeply felt experience. The physical practice has its rewards, and I found relief from chronic back pain on my mat. What amazed me and continues to amaze me is the subtlety of yoga’s power.