Sunday, January 8, 2012

What is pranayama?

Pranayama is the combination of the Sanskrit words prana (lifeforce) and ayama (control).  It is oftentimes loosely translated to be a set "breathing techniques".  In the practice of yoga, pranayama plays an important part. 

Let's take a closer look at the breath.  Most of the information that follows comes from my notes and observations from H. David Coulter's Anatomy of Hatha Yoga:
  • Breathing basics:
Breathing in and out has much more to do with sustaining life than simply getting air into and out of the lungs.  Every cell in our body needs oxygen.  Our cells depend on our breathing to move oxygen from the lungs to the blood to the cells and to also move carbon dioxide from the cells to the blood to the lungs and out into the air.
The lungs are composed mostly of air:  %50 after we exhale and %80 after we inhale.  You can tell this by slapping the chest versus the abdomen.  The chest sounds hollow and the abdomen sounds liquid. 
You can observe the rising and falling of the breath if you lie on your belly.  Breathing through the nose, notice how the upper body rises with the inhalation and falls with the exhalation.  Because you are keeping the back muscles tight as you do this, the movement is coming mostly from the muscles for respiration.  If you breathe smoothly and evenly, you feel a gentle rocking movement.  This is an example of “thoraco-diaphragmatic breathing”.  This is a great exercise for strengthening the diaphragm. 
  • Why Yogis focus on the breath:
We take breathing for granted.  It is usually outside of our awareness, but it is possible to breathe with awareness, “volition and will”.   We can choose to focus on our breathing and we can choose the way in which we breathe.  Most of the time we “run on automatic….  Yogis emphasize choice.” 
  • How breathing affects the autonomic nervous system:
            Abnormal breathing can stimulate the autonomic nervous system and create panic attacks.  This can even cause hyperventilation, which lowers the blood’s lever of carbon dioxide.  Quiet, regular breathing can have the opposite reaction:  it slows the heart beat, reduces blood pressure and can bring a sense of calm.  This ability to choose how we breathe “gives us access to autonomic function that no other system of the body can boast.”      
  • Good breathing (pranayama) techniques:
Calming breath.  A great calming breathing technique is the 2:1 breath where the exhalation is twice as long as the inhalation.  Lying supine with a gentle weight (the hand, or even better, a sandbag) on the abdomen and breathing deeply can also be helpful.  “Because the contents of the abdominal cavity have a liquid character, gravity pushes them to a higher than usual position in the torso when you are lying down.”
Relaxed abdomen breathing.  In a seated position, breathe normally with a focus on the transitions between inhaling and exhaling and vice versa.  Notice if there is an uneven quality to the breath.  Imagine the breath is making a circular pattern:  going up is inhaling and coming down is exhaling.  The point is to try to eliminate the jerks in the breath and make the transitions more seamless.
Posture awareness.  Sitting in a chair, try slumping forward slightly and notice the difference:  “inhalation is more labored, exhalation starts with a gasp, and it is impossible to use the abdominal muscles smoothly to aid exhalation.”  Then breathe in a more upright position and notice the improvement.

Most people have bad breathing habits, but the good news is that this can be changed.  “The respiratory motions are entirely controlled by somatic motor neurons – you have the potential of thinking the actions through and controlling them willfully,” says David Coulter.

I love to teach beginner yoga.  I believe that students come into class with many preconceived notions and fears.  I start the class with the students lying on their backs.  I encourage them to become aware of the breath without trying to change it in any way.  Then, I have them follow me through the deep abdominal breathing technique where they have one hand on their belly and one on the outside of the rib cage.
We also do basic yoga poses and move through a sun salutation sequence slowly.  However, I believe that, more than the yoga poses, it is far more important for my students to leave my class learning how to utilize their breath to bring about a calm, meditative state.  This technique they can draw upon whenever they need it.  For more information on yoga classes, click here.

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