In the eightfold path of Classical yoga, pranayama is the fourth step to achieve samadhi, or self-realization. As a yoga practice, pranayama is regulated or controlled breathing or breath flow used by students to transition between poses (asanas) as well as remain in them and achieve a meditative state.
Pranayama is the Sanskrit word for extended breath or, more strictly defined, prana (life force) and yama (extension). Beginning yoga students typically start with Hatha yoga, which involves regulated breathing, while performing the poses, to achieve more flexibility and control. With any type of physical conditioning, the proper breathing technique comes into play, whether you’re a first-time jogger contending with breathlessness or a conditioned athlete setting a personal best at the bench press. Think of it this way: breathing comes to us automatically unless we’re under stress, at which point it becomes an effort. Pranayama regulates the breathing so that the body directs its focus to the task set forth, be it a difficult pose or a stressful life event.
Just as breathing is necessary for life, the act of inhaling and exhaling is central to yoga’s principles, by linking the physical to the mental and spiritual. Pranayama involves four stages:
- Arambha, considering the place, time, diet and mental state of the practitioner;
- Ghata, considering the causal, gross and subtle nuances of breathing;
- Parichaya, the consistent practice of yoga to cast off bad karma;
- Nispatti, the consistent practice of eating well and living in harmony with the self and others.
So breathing has suddenly become a little complicated. However, pranayama is the way to properly breathe and is intentioned. Rather than solely breathing from the chest, pranayma is the practice of breathing from the diaphragm, a technique well known to opera singers and professionals, which increases lung capacity and generates well-rounded, fully-sustained sounds. Pranayama also releases toxins from the body, improves its ability to fight off disease, helps digestion, increases stamina, relieves stress and clears the mind.
How many times have you heard someone say to you, “Take a deep, cleansing breath,” when you’re presented in some kind of workplace challenge? The type of breathing involved in pranayama is what they’re saying: breathe intentionally before you act or become stressed-out. Pranayama works in concert with the mind to control breathing, lower the heart rate and ultimately not over-react to a stressful situation, which is why it’s important to master.