The Power of Breath Awareness
The Power of Breath Awareness
Breath is central to yoga because it is central to life.
….. and yoga is about life.
We are all breathing, always. But seldom aware of our breathing – without knowing whether we are breathing erratically, more on the inhale or the exhale, with force or quiet calm, we loose most of the benefits of breathing – literally just keeping ourselves alive!
Prana – breath
Ayama – control – direct translation is ‘extend’ or ‘stretch’. Therefore, control not as in domination or subjugation but through extending the lungs to a certain rhythm – using steady awareness and looking.
Breathing is the most readily available resource for creating and sustaining vital energy. The process of breathing is the most accurate metaphor for the way we personally approach life, how we live our lives and how we react to the inevitable changes that life brings.
Hatha yoga gives attention first to the physical body, which it sees as the vehicle of the soul’s existence and activity. Purity of mind is not possible without purity of body in which it dwells, and by which it is affected. By the practice of asana and pranayama, the mind becomes one-pointed and one can progress quickly in concentration and meditation.
Pranayama is the knowledge and control of prana. The yogic practice of pranayama is designed to minimize the loss of prana through exhalation, so that prana can be increased in the body.
The grossest manifestation of prana in the human body is the movement of the lungs. The highest and most subtle manifestation of prana is thought. If the motion of the lungs is stopped, all other energy and movements in the body will stop automatically. In order to control the subtle prana, i.e. the thoughts, the yogi begins by controlling the lungs – breathing.
The nature of the mind is unsteadiness. It is affected every waking moment by things it perceives and experiences, sees and hears, through the senses. This is controlled through pranayama.
Most people often unknowingly transfer prana in their daily lives: if a friend is sick, we transfer prana by gently stroking his forehead. When you fall and hurt your knee, you immediately hold your breath and fold both hands over the injury. The speech of one person may thrill the hearts of listeners, while the speech of another will have no effect despite being a good speaker. The speech of the former is charged with Prana.
Controlling of the prana bestows on the yogi tremendous will-power and inspiration. The yogi, trained in the techniques of pranayama, is able to tune to the infinite source of energy, use this energy for spiritual growth and thereby reach the highest perfection.
Yogic breathing attempts to control the manifestations of prana in the physical body. As the student progresses he is taught to control the prana by mental means. Mental ways of controlling prana are through decisions to control thoughts. We are not victims of our thoughts if we make the choice not to be. We can control the nature of our thinking and thus control prana in its most subtle form. This process of controlling the prana by mental concentration is called raja-yoga. Thus, hatha and raja are two sides of one coin. Raja yoga is the systematic control of the mind.
Real breath control means controlling the way we exhale, not the way we inhale. Energy is best renewed by the orderly release of breath, not by strenuously pumping the lungs full of air. Thus in sustained physical exertion your power is enhanced when you concentrate on the slow expulsion of air from the lungs.
Test this for yourself: when you step into a cold shower, the tendency is to gasp and tense the muscles. This only increases the torture. Instead, if you try breathing out in a steady purring breath, you will be amazed at how little the temperature of the water affects you.
Exhaling helps the body accommodate itself to change.
Careful breath control, with the emphasis on exhaling, aids relaxation. Most of us breathe in because we can’t help it and we fail to breathe out completely. The result is that we sigh a lot out of a need to exhale. The sigh is nature’s way of deflating the lungs when we have neglected the breathing apparatus for too long.
We breathe about 18 times a minute, 1080 times an hour, 25290 times a day. The more air exhaled, the more air we can breathe in. The amount of air we breathe in is called vital capacity. The increase of vital capacity is the object of all breath discipline. Consciousness of breathing is a helpful habit to cultivate. Breathe out before you begin any task. Once you grasp the idea of correct breathing, you will become more healthy and vital.
The marriage of breath and movement is deep and abiding.
The breath was seen as a force that ran through mind, body and spirit like a river running through a dry valley giving sustenance to everything in its course.
The paradox of free breathing is that it is the result of deep relaxation and not of effort. Trying hard through pushing and striving does not help us open the breath.
Be aware not of what you should feel, but what DO you feel. Trust that if you let go of the preconceived ideas and expectations, the vitality of the breath will emerge naturally.
When you do breathing exercises, you are effectively changing the chemical and neurological systems that calibrate the entire breathing mechanism.
Below are excerpts from various sources regarding Pranayama, breathing, meditation and realisation.
Pranayama – breathing exercises to control the breath.
Breath with awareness becomes prana (vitality) in the body.
The physical nerves as well as the astral energy tubes (nadi’s) must be pure and strong enough to withstand various mental phenomena and disorientations that can occur during yoga practice. In the process of turning the mind inward, old negativities may surface. On rare occasions they may even appear symbolically in the form of visions. A frail person may discontinue their practice rather than confront this aspect of the sub-conscious.
Hatha yoga emphasizes practice and transformation, the physical practice of yoga – asana and pranayama. Practices awaken the psychic centers or chakras that exist in each individual to raise the state of awareness. Hatha yoga had at its center-piece the system of six chakras or wheels of transformation. Prana and pranayama are means to realization. Hatha yoga appreciates the nadis, chakras and kundalini as inner potential for spiritual evolution.
WARNING: with its emphasis on forceful effort and the fiery will of practitioners, there is temptation to the ego.
(another meaning of hatha is force).
Mudra and bandha are part of physical purification related to asana and pranayama that directs the energy / life force within the body.
Pranayama is the regulation of the incoming and outgoing flow of breath with retention. It is to be practiced only after perfection in asana is attained.
The fundamental nature of the breath is that, like life, it is constantly changing. The breath oscillates. One of the easiest ways to perceive this natural flow of the breath is to learn to recognize the basic movements that go along with the breath. Recognizing these movements is the first step in getting to know your breath.
(Donna Farhi, The Breathing Book).
“In order to find out who is breathing, we need to ask how we breathe.”
Richard Rosen, the Yoga of Breath