The Importance of a Pranayama Practice
by Betsy Weiner
Inhale….exhale…how many times a day does this happen without you knowing? Breathing is the only thing that is both automatic and deliberate. The ancient practitioners of yoga knew that by controlling our breath, we could effectively control our energy and ultimately, our mind. The importance of these practices cannot be overstated. Our asana practice can sometimes afford us the added
benefits of applied pranayama. However, a separate breathing practice has countless and long-lasting benefits on its own.
Often times in a yoga class we will be cued to breathe in a specific way, maybe applying ujjayi or perhaps lengthening and inhale or exhale. These techniques have effects that are instantaneously felt and experienced. But what about our breathing when we step off the mat? How do we gather more of these experiences to reap the benefits of what these breathing techniques have to offer? The answer is a dedicated pranayama practice.
The ancient sage, Patanjali, added pranayama in his Yoga Sutras as one of the steps in his Ashtanga (eight-limbed) path to enlightenment (samadhi). He went into great detail when and how to do these practices. He makes it quite clear that a mind that has not attained the state of yoga will not be able to breathe smoothly and deeply. But what does that matter? Patanjali acknowledges that through a quiet mind we can control our prana (energy) and reach a state of Oneness (samadhi).
The Tantric path has a different approach than Patanjali in the sense that the practices are designed to control our energy first, and through this control, ultimately become the masters our mind. This path dictates that pranayama is the technique to control our energy the most efficiently. Once the energy is contained, the mind can be attended to. It is the concentration of our prana through these practices that brings us more vital reserve to manage our day to day lives with more power, concentration, and less reactivity. The Gheranda Samhita and Hatha Yoga Pradipika are both ancient texts that go into great detail about the importance of implementing pranayama practices into the yogis life.
There is a saying, “Control your breath, control your mind,” and you could say that the inverse is also true. If you want to change how you feel or experience something, and are looking to give yourself the freedom that comes from the pause before you react, pranayama is your answer. It is through dedicated practice of pranayama that you can also shift your energetic landscape which then has the added effect of giving your mind a fresh perspective.
Pranayama techniques can give the practitioner the right frame of mind (and energy) that lay the groundwork to sit in meditation. Breathing in a specific pattern for a dedicated period of time gives the mind something to focus on so it doesn’t get distracted. This is most beneficial for many meditators as it sets the stage for deeper states of relaxed awareness.
Pranayama practices have been shown to lower blood pressure, calm anxiety, reduce feelings of frustration, and bring its practitioners into the present moment.
There is so much buzz about the importance of being present; breathing practices bring us immediately into this moment. Parayoga founder, Yogarupa Rod Stryker, says: “Asana works on the past, pranayama works on the present, and meditation works on the future.” If you already have a dedicated asana practice, now is a great time to begin adding a few minutes of breath work to move you further along the path of attaining the state of yoga.
It may seem less exciting than crow to handstand, but the long lasting benefits of pranayama will ultimately serve to bring you to the present, and facilitate your journey towards concentrating and containing your energy.
About Betsy: Betsy is one of the senior teachers at the Yoga Center of Minneapolis, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She has been a facilitator in the 230 and 500 hour Yoga Study programs at the Yoga Center since 2003, as well as teaching workshops, retreats, and special classes, as well as mentoring teacher trainees. Betsy holds certifications in numerous disciplines as well as over 1000 hours of training.