In my post Climbing the Tree of Yoga: Asana, I explained the significance of the physical yoga postures. In this post I'll move on to pranayama, the fourth limb.
Loosely, pranyama means controlled breath. But it actually translates to something more like "life force restraint". Which sounds strange because in yoga, aren't we trying to cultivate life force? What we are cultivating is balance. Many things can occur in pranayama. Commonly we simply become aware of how unaware we are. With regular practice, we experience increased energy, breathing capacity and better brain function (oxygen!). All worthy gains. And whether we think we are open to it or not, there is a possibility that we begin to realize that connecting to the divine is not only easy, it is inherent. We realize that the connection is not something to be had or chased after or worked toward. It is already there.
Breath gives the yogi a focal point. It assists the mind from talking too much. On the other hand when the mind won't shut up, breath can be a great assistant in showing us that most of what the mind says is of little consequence except that of mis-use of your precious energy. It is much like the chatter of a squirrel, but without the element of judging that chatter. As a sharp saw cuts through the thickest knot in a log, the breath is the tool that cuts through tangled webs of thought.
To practice pranayama, one must essentially decide on a specific breath pattern and practice it. Pretty simple right? It can be, but there are countless pranayama practices that range from simply focusing on the breath to moving the abdominal muscles in what appear to be freak-show like motions. The purpose of each is very specific. My favorite pranayama technique which is practiced in many yoga classes is the ujjayi ("ooh-jai") breath. It is also called the victorious breath.
Most pranayama techniques are not used during asana. Ujjayi breath is the primary breath of most asana. To perform ujjayi, we begin filling the whole body with long smooth inhales creating an aspirant sound through a constricted throat. If you do those things alone, chances are it won't resemble the breath as described in detail by your yoga teacher. What I am saying is not to worry if you try that and it seems strange. The well practiced ujjayi breath is comfortable, invigorating, calming, cleasning and-- here's the cool part, it creates heat in the body which is imperative to practicing any type of asana. The warmer the body, the more relaxed the tissues are. (One reason yoga produces lean definition).
Beyond that, why does it matter?
Well, you could approach yoga from a purely physical angle. And that is totally great. If a person seeks to expereince greater spiritual connectivity, it is easily said as the opening statement.
Different aspects of our physical being can be associated with existential aspects that we view to be outside of ourselves. For instance eating and the process of assimilation can be associated with the aspect of earth as our bodies become the food we have consumed. So breath, as associated with air or ether can be associated with divine creativity, or God. With that association in mind, just think about your breath and everything it connects you to with each and every cycle.
We breathe the same air as everyone around us. When I exhale, that breath goes out mixes with the exhalations of the rest of the world and is in turn, inhaled by other people. When I take another breath in, I in turn breathe the breath of the world. Yet another insight to our interconnectedness unfolds. And in the breath, certain aspects of individual identification and the need to fight to be separate from everyone else is lessened. Through the breath we are One.
Pranayama for me has been the most potent part of my practice thus far. It is also one of the most challenging parts of my practice. Sometimes I avoid focusing on my breath in favor of egoic thoughts about what and who my ego believes itself to be. And even then I am aware of this because I know I am avoiding something. When I give breath first priority, I am allowed to observe those thoughts. Regardless of my physical capabilities during any given moment I know the beauty of the expereince with the execution of every single movement. There is a perfect grace the nuances of fumbling, falling, balancing, bending, trembling, sweating, feeling frustrated, ecstatic and alive. I see it in myself, in every single student and in my peers when I get to join class too. Through the breath that knowing who I am goes from intellectually understood to internally actualized. And that, through pranayama, is the very essence of what yoga is.