We all know that breathing is an important part of any yoga practice, and most styles of yoga incorporate the breath in one way or another. But as significant as the breath is, many students don’t put an emphasis on pranayama as a separate practice; I know I didn't for a very long time. A few rounds of Kapalabhati (Skull Shining Breath) or Nadi Shodhona (Alternate Nostril Breathing or Channel Cleaning Breath) every now and then at the beginning or end of class (and, of course, Ujjayi (Conqueror Breath) as I moved through the asanas, too) is all I ever did. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In the Iyengar tradition, the practice is introduced slowly (so maybe I’m right on schedule?).
It was only recently that I’ve begun to experience how healing pranayama can be, especially when I don’t have time for a full asana practice. In fact, I've seen many benefits it's made me wonder why I haven't been doing this all along!
Here are a few of the reasons I plan to keep practicing, even if it's just for a few minutes at a time:
1. It’s as important to the practice of yoga as asana or meditation. We often put so much emphasis on the physical poses, it’s easy to forget that they comprise just one slice of the Eight Limbs of the practice. It’s nice to remember that when life feels overwhelming or unbalanced there are other amazing tools at our disposal. Pranayama was an under-utilized tool for me that I've since found to be incredibly helpful.
2. It quickly balances energy and stabilizes moods. For me, a pranayama session is often the best choice when I need an almost-immediate result. Whether I need to calm my nervous system or a quick boost of energy, there's a breathing pattern that will help, and usually just a few rounds does the trick. Long term, the practice can help with all sorts of things, including anxiety, stress, depression, insomnia, improved focus, and, of course increased self-awareness.
3. Allows you to experience mindfulness in a new way. Pranayama offers insights you might miss if you’re practicing asana alone. As Tony Briggs wrote: “Quietness, stillness, and subtlety are much easier to glimpse and grasp in pranayama than they are in asana. The movements of the asanas, although beneficial in many ways, are also a distraction. When you sit or lie down in pranayama, the obvious physical movement of the body is gone, and you can concentrate on more inner qualities.”
4. Can be a stand in for meditation. Pranayama offers similar moments of presence and focus as meditation, making it a worthy substitute for those times when you just can't calm your monkey mind. And often, the focus involved with manipulating the breath can be just what it takes to effortlessly slip into a meditative state. Doing the Long Exhale practice described at the bottom of this page usually puts my mind in the right frame for meditation.
5. It's a good break from asana. Asana is great. It has many benefits all on its own. But, in my experience, it is possible to get too much of a good thing. On those days when I can tell my body needs a break from my normal active yoga practice, a pranayama session can be just what the doctor ordered to help me find more peace and balance.
Do you practice pranayama regularly? How has it helped you?