Conscious breathing is one of the most important parts of Hatha Yoga. Certainly it is the most important part of asana practice as it feeds and guides our practice and is the source to our inner awakening; to our body and mind and ultimately, our soul. So it is not to be underestimated or forgotten about in our bid to get into 'that posture' or secondary to our everyday thoughts that come to mind during our practice when we let our busy lives seep into our thought patterns during yoga practice. When we let our breathing become unconscious, it usually fades, we lose focus and our attention drifts. With this, our attention to how the subtle awareness of how energy is flowing in our bodies disappears and the union of mind, body and spirit ceases and we are then not practicing yoga. We are simply moving through postures with no real benefit to ourselves.
Keeping ourselves aware of our breath is extremely difficult, particularly if we are new to yoga practice and we are trying to get to grips with learning the yoga postures and are internally bemoaning the aches and pains which often go with starting a yoga regime. Or we may be simply be trying out new, more challenging postures and lose awareness of the breath while practicing these new postures. But what we fail to realise is that if we maintain awareness of the breath, the practice will be easier, we find greater stability in the postures and we will move ourselves with greater ease into a posture or deeper into a posture through conscious breathing. Conscious breathing is our aid and friend throughout our practice. Ujjayi breathing or ujjayi pranayama is essential to yoga practice but is perhaps the most elusive to most students of yoga. Many yoga classes do not teach or emphasise the importance of ujjayi breathing enough, if at all. Or it is mentioned but students never fully grasp how fundamental it is to their yoga practice. It is perhaps because it is quite difficult to maintain and the technique can be tricky to master well. It takes focus and deep concentration to maintain the flow of ujjayi pranayama but the results are so mind blowing, it seems futile not to bring it firmly within our sphere of daily yoga practice.
Pranayama is the fourth limb of the Patanjali's eight limbs of yoga. Prana is the life force, also referred to as the inner breath with pranayama meaning extension of or control of the life force (breath). Lets examine what prana actually is.
Swami Rama in his book, The Science of Breath with co-authors Rudolph Ballentine and Alan Hymes, states that 'In Sanskrit, the level of functioning involving energy is called prana'. He is talking about the functioning of the body. He claims it is impossible to study the physical body without looking at the the non-physical phenomena which is called 'energy'. Newtonian physicists were only concerned with the physical but with further study into electromagnetism and nuclear physics, we are now questioning the relationship between matter and energy. Of course the ancient yogis knew all about this relationship eons ago. In the Quantum (I will explain more about this in another essay) all possibilities exist in the electromagnetic energy field of frequency.
Swami Rama tells us 'The Upanishads tell us that various levels of existence form a continuum - the physical, the pranic, the mental and the higher levels of consciousness and they are layered upon one another. If the mind wants to affect the body, it alters the flow of prana. If the body affects the mind, this too is affected by a change in flow of energy which then impacts on the mind.' He further states that 'prana is called the vital link between the psyche and soma because energy is the very basis of life and vitality.' So when we die, prana leaves the body. Breath is the vehicle for prana.
The Upanishads state that this pranic level is a second body or 'vital sheath' within the physical body which takes the shape of the body. The energy flows through pathways called nadis. There are 72,000 of these nadis in our subtle body which change rhythm every 90 to 12- minutes. Breathing brings in oxygen for fuel and energy exchange through our respiratory and circulatory systems and the way in which we breathe therefore affects the way we energise our bodies. So prana is the energy permeating the universe at all levels; physical, mental, intellectual, sexual, spiritual and cosmic. Prana is the link between the astral and physical body. When the thread-link of prana is cut, the astral body separates from the physical body and death takes place.
Though prana is one, it assumes five forms: 1) prana (heart and respiration) 2) apana (lower abdomen to anus and excretion) 3) samana (navel and digestion) 4) udana (throat and swalling and sleep and death) 4) vyana (whole body and blood circulation).
All ancient texts from the Vedas through to the Pradipika state that the "breath is the gateway to the world of vital energetic currents generated in the human body and controlling all the biological processes". (Mark Stephens, Teaching Yoga). the Taittiriya Upanishad stated that prana has five energetic expressions; prana vayu, apana-vayu, samana-vayu, udana-vayu and vyana-vayu. Each of these expressions affect different parts of our body and from circulation to digestion, from movement to elimination.
Pranayama is breath control. In order for us to have breath control we must bring breathing into our conscious awareness. There are various techniques in which to do this; a few of which we will examine in greater detail shortly. Dona Holleman (Dancing the body light; The future of yoga) believes that pranayama was first developed by ancient yogis who observed the natural cycles of breath within their own bodies. Slow breath is more relaxing, faster breathing is more energising. Holleman believes this le to kapalabhati (skull cleansing) pranayama where intense rhythmic breathing energises the body leading to the kundalini awareness and energy travelling up the shushumna nadi via the chakras and the ida and pingala nadis to the brain centre where chemical or alchemical reactions occur to transform the sense of being. In natural breathing, the pauses between breaths when expanded lead to the sensation of pranic energy rising up along the spine. If this is done consciously, this is the practice of kumbhkaka or breath retention. However, blocked chakras can prevent the rise of this energy. Working through the asanas to clear the blockages can help with this. The practice of Nadi Shodhana pranayama ( alternative nostril breathing) balances the flow of prana up the ida and ingala and ultimately the sushumna.
While the breath is the principle vehicle for the cultivation and movement of prana, pranayama is more than just a set of breathing practices. It enables us to expand, direct lengthen and regulate the movement of breath. This tool of breath conrl is found in the early Vedas, particularly the Rig Veda from more than four thousand years ago.
The Yoga Sutras tell us that we should master the asanas before trying pranayama. Mainly leading teachers say the same. B.K.S Iyengar said "Attain steadiness and stillness in asanas before introducing breathing techniques" (Light on Pranayama; The Yogic Art of Breathing) This is probably because if the nadis and chakras are blocked then unpleasant physical and mental reactions can occur in the body when prana is prevented from moving freely through the powerful kundalini awakening. when kundalini energy is forced up the sushumna by what is knows as spontaneous kundalini awakening before the nervous system and energetic system are prepared then it can lead to traumatic physical pain and inner confusion as experienced by government official and scholar, Gopi Krishna. His autobiography tells and amazing account of how he managed to tame his awakening eventually but it remained incomplete and so although he experienced much of the 'bliss' described by other yogis who have achieved full kundalini awakening with a prepared body, he still fell short of true realisation.
So pranayama should be practiced when the asanas have "removed the symptoms that arise from obstacles in the personality" (Patanjali's Yoga Sutras 1.31) Pranayama aids the respiratory ad circulatory system and thereby the digestive ad elimination system and together with the asanas allow for the body to function well. When practiced together they provide an easier path to concentration, serenity and inner awareness. When asana and pranayama ae practiced together over time, we become aware of the subtle energies that reside within us that separate our annamaya kosha and how we see ourselves in relation to the world around us through the koshas to anandmaya kosha or bliss where we feel oneself as the pure being as nothing and everything.