Pranayama or yogic breathing, is one of the main eight branches of the yoga sutras.
Performed with or without asanas (yoga postures), pranayama also has an enormous amount of benefits, for mind body and spirit.
When we break down the word… ‘prana’ refers to breath, vitality, energy, wind or life force. ‘Ayama’ on the other hand, means to expand, control, lengthen or regulate. Put that together and the term Pranayama simply refers to a controlled intake and outflow of the breath!
Simple may be a bit of understatement, as while we’re all capable of practicing pranayama – this ancient practice has many layers to it.
Pranayama reflects the intimately connected relationship between mind and body. If you’ve ever tried meditating, you’ll know that emptying your mind to watch your breath… isn’t as easy as it sounds! Yogic theory explains this in a nice little metaphor:
Chitta (rational mind and ego) can be considered as a chariot being pulled by two horses. One of these horses is prana (breath) and the other is vasana (desire). Our chariots tend to move in the direction of whichever ‘horse’ is pulling more powerfully. That means, whether your vasana is to clean the house, replay a conversation or get through that to-do list… it can certainly seem more interesting than your breath.
Yet, by practicing pranayama, one can focus the mind and learn to slow down thought. We often practice Pranayama with closed eyes for this reason; or alongside asana – where twisty body positions also tend to minimise mental chatter!
The idea is that by practicing pranayama, yogis can become more equipped to explore other yogic states like concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana). Whatever your goal may be, if you practice pranayama for even five minutes a day, you may just start to notice your mind feeling like a calmer place. Honouring your breath really is the ultimate in self-care.
It’s easy to assume that because breathing is something we all naturally do, the details of ‘how’ are somewhat out of our control. Yet, as our fitness increases – so too does our lung capacity (for this reason yogis can have significantly stronger lungs than most!)
Simply put, better breathing means better health. With Pranayama, we can take it to its most efficient. As lung capacity is gradually increases, the lungs experience optimum ventilation. Beautifully, the depth, rate and quality of each breath we take will start to shift.
The rhythmic expansion of the lungs in Pranayama also improves circulation of bodily fluids within the intestines, kidneys, stomach, liver and spleen.
Note: this is a particularly powerful practice for those suffering from asthma or other respiratory conditions. I can attest to this myself!
Master Yogi B.K.S. Iyengar once suggested that Pranayama acts as a ‘bridge, which helps the student of yoga to cross from the realm of purely physical development to that of the spirit.’
Our breath is our life force. It grants us a new chance in every moment. Simply bringing our deep awareness to this gift, tends to evoke contentment, and reverence. You’ll notice that committing to a regular pranayama practice seems to lighten the ‘burdens’ of life, connecting you to deeper invisible threads, and gratitude for this journey.
Pranayama exercise: Moon and Sun breath 🌙☀️
The following are kinds of single nostril pranayama; Surya Bhedana (sun piercing breath) and Chandra Bhedana (moon piercing breath).
In many Eastern philosophies, the right side of our bodies are energetically associated with our body’s ‘yang’ or masculine side. In yoga, this is symbolised by the Sun and the syllable Ha. Our left side, is the feminine or ‘yin,’ in yoga symbolised by the moon and the syllable Tha.
Within our bodies, these energies can be balanced or in conflict. The latter can lead to sickness. Hatha yoga seeks to neutralise these energies, warming and cooling the body and mind to find balance. Traditionally, Surya Bhedana is believed to stimulate mental focus and increase body heat, while Chandra Bhedana quietens the mind, cooling the body.
- Sit in a comfortable position. Bring your index finger and middle finger down to the middle of the palm (google mrigi mudra if you’re more visual).
- To practice Surya Bhedana, place your thumb against your left nostril as you inhale through the right nostril. Then close the right and exhale through the left. Continue in this manner, inhale right, exhale left, for one to three minutes.
- To practice Chandra Bhedana, simply reverse the instructions, inhaling through your right nostril, exhaling through your left. Continue this for one to three minutes. (Note: avoid doing both ‘breaths’ on the same day. Also avoid doing Surya Bhedana if you have high blood pressure.)
You’ll learn all about meditation, yoga and its accompanying practice of pranayama on our retreats. If this resonates, we’d love to see you soon!
Nisha is a freelance writer and Vedic astrologer, based in the magical Byron Hinterlands. As well as running her candle business, her life and loves involve: yoga, gardening and all things esoteric. You’ll find her out in nature, or curled up at home with a good book. Happy Buddha is one of her most treasured places on earth (and indeed where she met her fiancé!).