by: Stephanie Miller
“Tug on anything at all and you’ll find it connected to everything else in the universe.” –John Muir
Every night we charge our cell phones but how do we recharge the mind? The secret is our breath. “Prana” refers to the universal life force and “ayama” means to regulate, stretch, extend, or lengthen. So pranayama is the extension and expansion of all our vital energy. Pranayamas are yogic breathing exercises that have the ability to improve our health, and increase mental clarity and energy.
“All vibrating energies are prana. All physical energies such as heat, light, magnetism, and electricity are also prana. It is the hidden potential energy in all beings. It’s also the prime mover of all activity. It is energy that creates, protects, and destroys. In the Hindu tradition they often say that GOD is the Generator, Organizer, and Destroyer. Inhalation is the generating power, retention is the organizing power, and exhalation is the destroyer. This is prana at work. Vigor, power, vitality, life, and spirit are all forms of prana. “ (Light on Life, BKS)
Prana is more than just breath, it’s a vehicle. Just as our cars carry us from one place to the next prana carries awareness. If you want to send your awareness to your pinky toe, prana will carry it there. When you have sufficient flow of prana you can spread your consciousness everywhere within.
Think of your body as creating hydroelectric power. Stagnant water cannot create energy which means if we’re not breathing, we’re not alive. Breathing normally means there is some flow but we’re really just creating enough energy for what we require in the moment. There’s no surplus stored or invested. Pranayama techniques allow us to channel, direct, and dam the flow of energy to better harness it’s inherent power.
We can’t rush this process though or skip the fundamentals. The fundamentals would be creating a stable container. We must first strengthen the body and mind through asana to ensure we don’t overload our circuit board. If the body and mind are weak we can experience bouts of depression, tremors, and restlessness. If this is the case it’s important to just start with slow even inhalations, retention, and exhalations. Finding the evenness in the breath as well as space. Finding space along the spine is really important as the spine is the central column of the nervous system. “By lifting and separating the 33 articulations of the vertebral column, and by opening the ribs from the spine like a tiger’s claw, we deepen and lengthen the breath.” (Light on life, BKS)
This month enjoy exploring the many healing aspects of pranayama. Pranayama cleanses, balances, and invigorates the body and mind. It reveals our own divine nature and serves as a conduit to cosmic consciousness.
If you find it difficult to sit upright for pranayama try lying on your abdomen with a rolled blanket under your sternum. Bend your elbows over your head and grab the opposite elbow (your chest should be slightly lifted off the floor.) Rest your head on your forearms. This is crocodile or Makarasa pose. This pose helps to develop a diaphragmatic breath, soothing and balancing the parasympathetic nervous system. Pay attention to the four parts of the breath.
- The Inhalation (puraka)
- Retention of the breath after inhalation (antara kumbhaka)
- Exhalation (rechaka)
- Retention after exhalation (bahya kumbhaka)
You could also lay on your back placing your hands on your abdomen and/or your chest. Work on creating a steady, even breath again paying attention to the four parts of the breath. Without forcing anything, feel your body as a three dimensional container, breathing into the front, back, and sides of the body, lean into the experience with ease.
As you build strength and endurance in the lungs and spine you may feel more comfortable sitting upright. You could start by sitting against a wall feeling your back supported. Inhale from the crown of your head to your heart, exhale from your pubic bone to your navel. Over time you can start to feel your breath move further down on the inhale and further up on the exhale.
Note to teachers: Create a safe and relaxed pranayama experience providing options to modify if needed. Be sure to offer any contraindications if necessary. Encourage a practice of gratitude as learning to appreciate breath, we’re learning to appreciate life itself. I think it’s also important to note the practice of self love. Pranayama as we know can bring up a lot of emotion especially for a student new to the practice. If this is happening they are breathing from their head not their heart. Hold space for it all.