A student in a stress management course once commented, “I just don’t have time for a Yoga practice.” My co-teacher responded, “Do you have time to breathe?” Even slow, deep breathing is a Pranayama practice that can be done almost anywhere, anytime, by anyone and has numerous benefits. It interrupts the stressful reactions we have to difficulty, and sends a message to the whole body to relax.
Pranayama is the fourth of the eight limbs given in the Yoga Sutras, and refers to breathing practices done to extend or bring control over the subtle, vital energies that animate all movement and thought. Whenever the mind is agitated, the breath also becomes agitated. Conversely, when the breath becomes smooth, deep and steady, the nervous system is calmed, prana flows more freely and fully, and the mind is influenced to become energized, balanced and serene.
We decided to focus on Pranayama in October to help us transition from the more active summer months to the seasons of shorter days and growing darkness. In this age of sensory overload from all of the devices we use, a practice like Pranayama is especially needed. Focusing our attention inward on the breath is one of the most effective ways to shift from externally oriented attention, drawn outward by rapid-fire images, to an inner awareness that allows us to plumb the depths of our being.
There are many ways of practicing Pranayama, all of which are done to create a relaxed alertness in both body and mind. I encourage everyone to spend at least 5 minutes in the morning doing some rapid breathing, kapalabhati, to energize the body and encourage prana into the upper chakras. Then, I recommend 5 more minutes doing slow deep breathing through alternate nostrils, nadi suddhi, which balances the flow of that subtle energy and steadies the mind.
Only with a clear, calm mind can we hope to have enough refined awareness to free ourselves from all the movement in the mind that so convincingly feel like who we are. Even a few moments of disengaging ourselves from the gravity of these habitual thoughts, allows us to rise above the superficial layers of the mind, and taste the deeper sources of contentment and peace within.