As much as the asanas work to improve our understanding of the yamas and niyamas, they do even more for pranayama. Pranayama is breath control and makes up the fourth limb of yoga. Practicing pranayama in the asanas helps us to have it when we need it in life. Like posture, breath controls quite a lot of our mood and outlook. When we know how to control breath, we can also use it to better control ourselves. I like to think of it as getting ready to get back in the fight. That may sound contrary to ahimsa, but I’ve been in positions where my job is specifically to stop future harm to others and standing my ground, controlling both posture and breath has helped me to do just that without causing the harm of those I am temporarily in opposition to.
In yoga, the breath is often the first thing we pay attention to. One of the first things that happen in the average yoga exercise class in the US is to get all the participants on the same breath. There are some verbal cues and guidance and even music to help with picking up the same rhythm of breath as everyone else. As mentioned previously, it’s the breath that governs movement. We move with our breath, shifting positions on the inhale or exhale.
I know it took a while to get the hang of this. It took a long time of going to classes to get on the same breath my instructor and therefore to move with my breath at all. It wasn’t even something I noticed for the first while in classes. Now it’s second nature to inhale when elongating my body and exhale when compressing it. Also, there is something incredibly satisfying about being in a room full of people moving deliberately and in unison down to the breath. It really does make me feel like the same life force is in all of us.
In addition to governing movement, the control of breath is important when static. In class, we hold our asanas for the certain number of breaths. This is different according to skill. As mentioned above, it took me a while to get the hang of this idea and there are always new asanas that challenge my breath but that’s also the point. An asana hasn’t even begun teaching me until I can breath easy in it. Well, most of the time. Until then, it’s teaching me that I need patience and physical strength and sometimes to worry more about balance. There’s so much more that comes after that point though.
There is a mention in my copy of the Yoga Sutra that the “coiled force” or kundalini is a reserve tank of prana (breath, life force, etc) but also that one should wait until we’ve gotten control of our normal breath in the every day.
The most important thing about breath control is that it not strain us. That’s not control. First we learn to control the length and depth of our inhalation and exhalations, holding comes after we have a good handle on those. It’s a process that can always be improving. Sometimes class will end with a breathing exercise that can also be practiced at home. Here’s an introductory video:
Once we can control the breath in yoga, it helps control the breath in the rest of life, which really helps control our moods and ourselves, as mentioned above. There’s a great article at Mindful about it here. It got me thinking about my breath in all kind of situations which made me pay more attention to it. It helped to stop and modify a few breaths before beginning a conversation that made me feel any kind of way but calm and collected. It also helps to concentrate on the breath when attempting a new and difficult pose, ignoring everything else, which inherently leads to the next limb.