When we enter the world, our very first, triumphant act is to fill our lungs with air and cry out. And throughout the moments that make up our lives, it’s this same breath that sustains us. A big inhale before we do something brave. A long sigh at the end of a struggle. The deep belly laughs that cause us to double over when we experience true joy.
Yoga practitioners have long studied the importance of pranayama – the practice of breath control during yoga. They teach that by inhaling and exhaling in connection with different poses, we can become more centered, clear obstacles in our emotional and physical bodies, connect to our spiritual selves and ultimately, reach a state of mindfulness. Medical practitioners and scientists have also been studying the impact of breathwork to better comprehend its positive influence on our mental, physical and psychological wellbeing. While there is undoubtedly more to discover, the benefits of consciously controlling the rise and fall of our breath are profound – our prana "life force" can help us access the body’s amazing capacity to heal itself. Read on to learn more.
The Breath of Life (Prana)
Pranayama can be translated into two parts. Prana is the vital force within all living things. Ayama is the extension or act of yearning forward and suspending the breath. In most yoga practices, breathing is coordinated with the flow in and out of poses, yet deep breathwork can also be practiced on its own through such techniques as alternate nostril breathing (nadishodhana), victorious breath (ujjayi), female honeybee humming breath (bhramari) or bellows breath (bastrika), to name a few. Whatever method one uses to still the mind and focus inward, however, it’s this calculated and intentional control that guides the expansive and calming experiences we receive. And virtually all would attest that the amazing quality of relaxation and clarity is felt almost immediately.
Mind, Body, Breathing
The goal of pranayama is to strengthen the connection between our mind and body, and extensive studies have shown there to be a direct correlation between breathwork and our physical health. Specifically, by calming the nervous system and increasing the flow of oxygen in the body, pranayama has been proven to reduce stress, improve sleep quality, lower high blood pressure, improve lung function, enhance cognitive performance, and help curve cravings for cigarettes and other unhealthy habits. Conscious breathing also supports improved mental health, greatly improving conditions such as depression, anxiety and PTSD.
Science vs. Spiritual
Not everyone is looking for a new practice, and sometimes yoga or yogic breathing can feel intimidating to those who have yet to give it a chance. For cancer patients, though, clear evidence proves the many benefits of pranayama. In several studies, patients showed a marked improvement in pain levels, nausea and other side effects resulting from chemotherapy when using controlled breathing in conjunction with treatment. In addition, doctors treating certain types of breast cancer now utilize deep breathing techniques to optimize radiation therapy. With targeted radiation therapy, patients are trained to use deep breathing to protect their hearts and lungs—literally shielding the prana within – from the harmful effects of radiation just millimeters away.
In yoga, there is also a teaching by Swami Satchidananda around "nonattachment" – the idea that we are not our body, our feelings or our thoughts. Learning to reconnect with our body can be a huge relief and provide us with profound physical and emotional freedom. Breathing and meditation can help us be be present, over and over. The goal is to understand that we are not our cancer, but rather, divine beings with immense power and strength.
The Art of a Practice
Whether we’re facing illness, preventing recurrence or simply trying to promote or sustain wellness, having a spiritual or physical practice (or both!) is something not to be minimized. Deep belly breathing calms our body and mind. It is easy to learn, it doesn’t cost anything and we can take it wherever we go. And while not necessarily a cure for dis-ease, yoga can help us access our inner and outer strength, regain a sense hope and promote vitality.
We’ve paid a lot of attention to our breath this past year – wearing masks and taking precautions to protect ourselves and loved ones – yet, throughout most of our lives, the air we breathe goes unnoticed. From the very first to our very last, it enlivens, calms, heals and connects us all. Join us in delving deep and accessing the power of pranayama.