This month’s theme is “Breathe”, and if you take anything away from my words here, it should be this: taking long breaths every day increases your life and its quality in every way!
My Story with Breathing
During a teacher training a few years ago, I injured myself and became slightly desperate as I worried whether I could continue my practice with these new physical limitations. In response, one of my teachers advised me to concentrate on Pranayama. As of that moment, my love for the magical practices of the breath began to deepen. Pranayama teaches me clarity and humbleness towards the direct experience - that I’m a small part of this cosmic existence.
I started to practise before sunrise daily. According to yogic tradition, this is the time (Brahma Muhurta) when the pineal gland (the bliss gland) naturally produces a large amount of melatonin. Besides the positive effects I personally experience, I find it so fascinating that this powerful practice can be done by everyone who can breathe. It is a very delicate practice, as the different techniques work in the more subtle layers of our constitution and the desired effects could go sideways if we are not able to control the body or perform the different techniques with precise care. The layeredness of this practice is what attracted me to dive deeper into it.
How The Breath Transforms Us
We all feel the effects of the breath when we’re stressed or fearful and begin to focus on a proper way of breathing in and out. Eventually, we get to a point where the emotions we identify with start to transform as we effectively channel our energy. We begin to calm down and open up to reality as it’s offered; basically, we can see through the drama.
With Pranayama (‘ayama’ reflects on the storing and distribution of ‘Prana’ or ‘life-force’) we can channel and move the energy horizontally, vertically, and in a circular way through the body. By breathing with control, we create heat in the body which is the beginning of the awakening of a higher state of awareness.
Where There is Mind There is Breath
According to the Upanishads (Vedic Sanskrit texts), consciousness and Prana are twins; where there is mind there is breath. If you can control the breath, you can control the mind. Another way to understand this is by placing Pranayama at the invisible border between the material and the spiritual world, and the diaphragm at the meeting point of the physical and the spiritual body.
When our mind is disturbed by thoughts, we cannot see clearly. The practice of Pranayama removes the fluctuations in the mind and brings clarity and illumination. The mind and the energy within the breath are like a fluid love affair; when the mind moves in a particular way, the breath moves along with it through the body and awakens deep sensations and feelings as they move. In the same way, when the breath moves in a particular direction, it stimulates related patterns of thinking or perception in the mind.
Being aware of the connection between mind and breath is the key to releasing ourselves from suffering.
Prana is the substratum of all of our feelings, thoughts, and sensations. The most important movements during a Yoga practice are ‘Prana’ and ‘Apana’. Prana is the physical pattern of rising up (Solar energy) while Apana moves downward, contracting and rooting. Apana is said to live in the Root Chakra (Muladhara) which is located at the perineum and coils itself like a seed at the pelvic floor, whilePrana expands at the centre of our hearts (Anahata Chakra).
We can recognise the qualities of the two aspects of the breath and feel their ‘home base’ locations by tracing the flow of our breath. The upward lifting movement of Prana is physically experienced when we inhale and starts just below the navel. When we continue to breathe in, it spreads and becomes full and wide as it moves to the edges of the diaphragm. This is where the realm of the mind is stimulated.
When we exhale, we allow our mind to remain in the centre of our heart, until we move towards the end of the exhalation. When we don’t consciously experience the union of in- and exhalation we become overwhelmed by the expansive feeling and even feeling of ungroundedness. When we exhale without full awareness, physical sensations related to change can cause us to feel unrooted and even anxious.
Consciously uniting the ends of the breath is the whole meaning of Pranayama, and maintaining awareness within the transitions of the in and exhale and by lengthening of the breath is essential. Through consistent practise, we can experience how playing with breathing patterns affects all layers of our body and mind. When we can consciously join Prana and Apana at the place where they meet, we become witnesses to the experience of inner heat (the awakening of awareness) and bliss. And, as the practice of Pranayama cleans all the energy channels (Nadis), it allows the mind to become steady.