Prana can be loosely defined as “life force energy” or the source of our consciousness, the source of our life force. It is also referred to as breath. Breath exercises are called pranayama.
This is often a focus or theme of my practice. I call it a “root” theme because if I’m not in a focus on breath I’m missing the elementals.
So why and how can we bring a breath/energy focus into our practice?
- Physiological. The benefits of focused breathing are almost innumerable. Increase clarity with more oxygen flow and clear the lungs for better capacity for breath. The lungs power moving so many other organs so improved breath helps circulation, digestion, hormones and the endocrine system and of course eliminating waste.
- Elimination! Yay. While yoga’s intention is to help us on the journey of self-actualization (and caring for the body is one of them) to get there we should probably know whats in the way and eliminate that! So… elimination is a huge part of breath practice and thus energy practice. When we are increasing a type of energy we probably need to remove an energy that is detrimental.
- Mental clarity. The breath is the thread between our mental awareness and the physical body function. They help each of them inform each other. The breath can tell the story of the mind – how preoccupied or worried it is. The breath informs us about tension or fears in the body or even fatigue. “The mind is the king of the body and the breath is the king of the mind,” said BKS Iyengar.
In asana practice (particularly flow)
Inhales when the body is expanding and lengthening – Mountain, lifting up into warrior 1 or 2, backbending.
Exhale when the body is contracting or folding – forward fold, twisting.
Abdominal breathing. Keep the belly loose and relaxed. Allow the stomach to fill and expand like a balloon as you inhale. Allow it to relax naturally without tension as you exhale. Feel the limits of your breath in and out without forcing.
(TW – trauma/choking/suffocation) Kumbaka. This is a breath retention. The holding of the breath intensifies focus but it can also be very triggering. Breathe in naturally and hold at the end of the inhale. Maybe start with just a second or two. Then exhale and hold at the end of the exhale, again for a second or two. Repeat as comfortable and if this is not a triggering exercise, continue over time (days… weeks) and extend the amount of inhale (capacity) and time on retention (duration) and observe your mind and your reactions and try to work on ease and calm. And the same on the exhale. WARNING: the exhales and hold at the end may cause panic. Be kind and come out of this exercise any time it doesn’t feel safe physically or emotionally.
Alternate nostril breathing. This is a cooling and nervous system regulating breath, stimulating both sides of the brain. Close the right nostril gently with your right thumb. Breathe in up the left nostril. Close the left nostril with the last two fingers of your right hand and breath out the right nostril. Breathe up the right, and down the left, alternating closing nostrils. Relax the diaphragm and follow the sensation of breath flowing up and down both channels, cleansing and clearing.
Breath focus that leads to Saucha – purity or cleanliness in the Niyama branch of yoga
Focus on the length, duration, smooth quality of your exhales. TK Desikachar says focus on the exhales more than the inhales because yoga is about elimination. You can add a visualization to this, visualizing your breath carrying out toxins from the organs, muscle tissue, skin and even fluids of your body.
An intentional focus on energy flow and breath in your yoga can help connect the mind and create focus and calm. It can also start to elevate your intention and awareness of the flow of your energy mentally and emotionally. As we build this awareness we gain understanding of how our energy ebbs and flows during different times of day, in life events, under certain stressors and in new and uncertain circumstances. With this information we are equipped with practices that can help bring us into better balance.
Great segue to next week’s focus: Sattva/Balance!