Pranayama is a Sanskrit word meaning “extension of the prana or breath” or more accurately, “extension of the life force”. Put simply, it’s the art of breath control. For some people taking just one full conscious breath is not part of their day. We live in a world full of anxiety & fear; moving too quickly from one moment to the next. Short, shallow breaths have become normal and almost nobody realizes that they’re doing it. As an adult with a chronic respiratory illness, breath had been a struggle at times throughout my life. But then I discovered yoga. In addition to the asanas or poses, I learned how to breathe for the first time in my life. I didn’t realize that, for much of my life, I wasn’t taking full breaths, and when I finally experienced what it was like to take a full, conscious breath, it was like the first real breath I’d ever taken. I realized that my illness played a part, but that I’d fostered bad breathing habits for years as a result of anxiety, fearfulness, and simply a lack of awareness.
As children, we just let that belly hang out and breathe — true diaphragmatic breathing. As we get older, stress manifests itself in breath holding, or a tightened belly, restricting breathing to just the upper lungs. The body actually interprets this kind of breathing as a fight or flight response set off by the sympathetic nervous system. Every time you neglect to take a full breath, it’s the same response as if your body is under attack. No wonder so many people suffer from sleep disorders or are just plain tired or anxious much of the time. So, let the belly hang and relax — no one’s looking.
Try this. Find a comfortable seated position without anything restricting your belly or chest. Give yourself breathing room (pun intended). On an inhale, expand the diaphragm, then breathe up into the lungs, and hold if for just a moment. Then let it out slowly for a truly complete breath. This full, diaphragmatic breathing, activates the calming response of the parasympathetic nervous system. Notice that you feel calmer, lighter, and more present. If you practice 3-5 of these full, conscious breaths often throughout each day, it will once again become your natural respiratory state and not such a concerted effort. In addition to oxygenating the blood, and removing carbon dioxide gas, this three-part breath also known as “yogic complete breath” brings you back to the present and calms the mind. I find this type of breathing the most beneficial in increasing lung capacity and relaxing my “chest armor.”
In my yoga classes, I’m a virtual pest about reminding my students to breathe and to let the breath guide the pace of their Vinyasa. If they try to “catch up” to the pose with their breath, they’re back into a shallow, stressed breathing pattern and they’re out of their practice. Let the breath guide you on and off the mat. If you’re in the midst of a crisis, or you’re in a difficult pose and find yourself panting or holding, breathe in feel the word, “let,” and when you breathe out feel the word, “go.” Breathe in. Breathe out. And, let go.
For Danni & Ruby with Love, breathe deeply and often.
- Your Charmed Yogi