One of the most important parts of a yoga practice is the connection to breath. There are lots of other elements that “make” a yoga class, but breath is high on that list. If it weren’t for this conscious awareness then it would be a program for stretching and strengthening, not quite yoga. Some of us may know that pranayama has something to do with breath, but what does it really mean?
There are a few different translations for pranayama, one is “breath control,” a variation on that definition is “extension of prana, or breath.” Prana refers to one’s life force energy. The entire universe shares this connection as one, larger organism: plants, animals, water, food, even the sun and moon contain prana.
So why is pranayama so important? Consciousness while breathing creates a stronger connection with the rest of the universe – it can take us from being one person, to a sense of “oneness.” There are many other benefits to a pranayama practice.
- Guiding the nervous system into the parasympathetic response a.k.a. the rest-and-digest or relaxation response; giving the body an opportunity to restore and heal
- Increases oxygenation of blood
- Eliminates excess carbon dioxide in the body
- Can increase lung capacity
- Encourages full range of motion in the diaphragm
- Promotes a steady stream of concentration or consciousness
There are many other specific benefits that come from practicing specific breath techniques. A recent 2014 study (Pal et al.) showed that slow yogic breathing improved heart rate variability and cardiovascular risks in young adults. However, certain pranayama should be avoided if you have specific concerns such as pregnancy or high blood pressure. Make sure you consult a yoga teacher who is knowledgeable in the practice of pranayama to adapt for health considerations.
Anyone can practice pranayama, that’s one of the beauties of the practice. It doesn’t matter if you’re 18 or 80, strong or weak, in good health or sick… there is still a pranayama out there for you. Is there one you’d like to learn? Ask us in the comments or join us for a class!