Model: Lauren Oiye // Photo Credit: Dave Miyamoto
The first time I heard the term pranayama was in my introduction to Bikram yoga. The instructor had me interlace my fingers under my chin and breathe in through my nose as I raised my elbows past my ears. As I exhaled out of my mouth with a sigh, I was told to drop my head back while I drew my elbows back together, then repeat until the instructor said we could stop. All around me people made a strangled sound on the inhale that sounded like prowling zombies. At the end of class we did a different breathing exercise that involved rapid exhales to the tempo of the instructor’s clap, and were told that the inhale would be automatic. I kept sneaking gulps of air in between. In my limited experience, those two exercises were the breadth of pranayama, and in all honesty, I didn’t really like them. That was at the very beginning of my own yoga journey, well before I knew that there were more than two types of breathing exercises, or that pranayama encompasses all manners of breathing and mindfulness. There’s pranayama for balance, calm, cleansing and more.
What is Pranayama?
There’s some debate as to the exact meaning of pranayama, as some nuance may have been lost in translation. But most yogis break pranayama into two parts: “prana” and “yama.” Prana is life force. Some people would say prana means breath, but it’s more than that. As legendary yogi, B.K.S. Iyengar, explained in his work, “Light on Pranayama,” prana is “physical, mental, intellectual, spiritual and cosmic energy.” Because life requires breath, some may conflate the totality of all the energies in life with breath alone. And while prana requires breath, it is more than the process of bringing in oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide.
Yama is usually translated as restraint or control. Therefore pranayama could mean the control of breath and life force moving through the body. “However, yama is the opposite of restraint or control,” says Honolulu-based yoga teacher Stephanie Keiko Kong, “And I learned from studying the Sanskrit that pranayama is freeing the breath, freeing the life force from restraint.” A 13-year yoga veteran, Kong has completed multiple training programs, and now leads her own teacher training in Oahu.
As Kong’s definition of pranayama shows, there is some friendly debate over whether pranayama reflects the restraint of breath or the freeing of breath. “Semantics don’t bother me at all,” Kong continues, “What does bother me is when people tell each other that they’re wrong.” As with most aspects of yoga, pranayama isn’t meant as a point of contention. It’s a tool to help the individual practitioner. From an open-hearted yogi perspective, perhaps it’s both; pranayama can work to open and close, just as we all expand and contract with each breath. That simple movement of air is at the heart of how pranayama works. The basic mechanics of pranayama are the mechanics of breathing.
According to Iyengar, “The breathing cycle consists of three parts: inhalation, exhalation and retention.” Pranayama is the awareness and manipulation of these three parts of the breathing cycle in different variations. Breath awareness is a unique and fascinating human attribute. All other creatures practice exclusively conscious or unconscious breathing. Dolphins for instance dwell underwater and their breathing is conscious; they regularly hold their breath for extended periods. Dogs, on the other hand, cannot hold the breath. The fact that people are able to control breathing, or leave it to the autonomic nervous system is wholly unique, and something worthy of exploration.
Importance of Pranayama
It shouldn’t be a hard sell that breath-ing is important. As Kong asks, “Can you really say breathing isn’t for me?” We all need to breathe to live. Pranayama brings attention and focus to breathing. According to Iyengar, “the purpose of pranayama is to make the respiratory system function at its best. This automatically improves the circulatory system.” Iyengar goes on to write about athleticism and lung capacity, noting that “the lung capacity of great athletes, mountain climbers and yogis is far greater than that of ordinary men, allowing them to perform extraordinary feats.” Pranayama and deep breathing have many notable health benefits. It can lower blood pressure and heart rate, and increase the body’s oxygen exchange. This in turn reduces stress and anxiety.
Different forms of pranayama are also said to have specific health benefits. Nadi shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing, can increase mental focus, and bring balance to the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Likewise, simhasana, or lion’s breath, is a cleansing breath that helps to relieve stress and tension. There are countless forms of pranayama, from simple breath mindfulness to complicated breathing exercises. Each has its own particular benefit, but all forms of pranayama help improve the respiratory system. This is vital, as breathing is the one regular bodily function that all humans need constantly to survive. People can survive days without water, and weeks without food. But as soon as breathing stops, life stops. It would then seem intuitive that one of the most basic functions of life would have far reaching impacts on overall health.
Pranayama for beginners
“Pranayama should not be learned from a book, ever,” says Kong. Proper breathing techniques are best learned under the guidance an expert. But there are ways that anyone can begin to practice pranayama. “Notice your breathing,” she advises, “If you’re noticing your breathing, you are doing 100% more than you were before.” Simple mindfulness and attention to breath is the first and simplest way someone can engage in pranayama. Pranayama is often considered a set of rigid breathing exercises, but it also encompasses any intentional breathing that improves overall respiration. Another easy way to begin pranayama practice is to visualize the breath moving into the lungs, filling them up, retaining the air, then releasing it out through a deep exhale. Attempt to fill the lungs on each inhale, and empty them on each exhale. The best method for learning pranayama is trying a wide variety of yoga classes with different instructors, who often bring their own flair that will speak to different practitioners.
Julie Yaste is originally from Northern California, but has lived all over the country. Currently she’s living and working in Honolulu as a yoga instructor and writer. Her works can be seen on Huffington Post, Elephant Journal, Waikiki Menus and more.