Many highly esteemed Swamis encourage yoga teachers and students to practice pranayama daily for its therapeutic rewards. We feel the benefits if we engage in a daily practice of pranayama. Paulji has often said that pranayama is one of the most underrated yoga techniques. After learning these valuable techniques, we must make the time to do them daily, which is as important as brushing our teeth. Many Swamis have videos and books, which give us guidelines for the cultivation of energy by practicing pranayama.
Since the beginning of time, the simple act of drawing universal life energy into the body has represented the basic essence of our being. Whether known as qi, prana, or some other name, this force not only enables life itself; it also balances the conscious and unconscious realms of the body, the processes scientifically identified as the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems.
In the words of Thicht Nhat Hanh, a priest, writer, and peace activist, “Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts.” The practice of pranayama, or Yogic breathing, bridges the gap between the conscious mind and the processes over which the mind has no conscious control.
How does breathing affect the mind-body-spirit connection?
• When we experience stress, our hearts beat faster, our muscles contract, and our breathing becomes quicker and shallower. Over time, this process damages our organs and leads to ailments like hypertension and chronic inflammation.
• Stress also contributes to shallow breathing by restricting the range of motion of the muscles in the abdominal wall. As a result, the exchange of air takes place in the upper chest and lungs, reducing airflow to the abdomen and circulatory system.
• Shallow breathing contributes to anxiety, panic, depression, and poor concentration. Breathing exercises, such as those in Yoga, have the ability to calm the emotions, increase focus, and promote clear thinking.
• Controlled breathing requires mental and physical attentiveness, an action that focuses the mind and makes rumination, distraction and fatigue less likely.
• Spiritual teachings tell us our inhalations and exhalations have different influences on our consciousness. During inhalation, we move closer to our spiritual states, a process strengthened by deeper, longer inhalations. During exhalation, we move back toward reality. To reach the subconscious realm or trance stage, we must slow down our breathing and lengthen our inhalations. With consistent practice, we can carry the results over to our daily lives.
It seems ironic that we need to learn something as essential to life as proper breathing, but this yogic practice allows us to bring more vital life energy into our bodies and increase the supply of oxygen to the bloodstream and brain. Yogic breathing prepares the body for meditation and self-realization. If we are able to regulate our breathing, the union of our minds, bodies and spirits will follow naturally.