The Sanskrit word Pranayama can be broken down as Prana “Energy” or “Lifeforce” and Yama “Restraint” or “Control”. Your breath is your energy, your lifeforce. When you control your breath, you control your mind. Part of yoga principles include the Sutras. They are guidelines for how to live, and a famous Sutra is 1.2 and it can be translated to mean “The practice of yoga begins when you calm the mind”. As yoga teacher trainees we liked to tease that we were practicing yoga to learn mind control. This is a funny thought, but it is not far from the truth.
When we are born, we automatically perform belly breathing. As we age, our breath gets more shallow and shorter. We gradually begin to lose lung capacity as we age. The average adult, by age 50, loses 50 percent of their lung capacity. Performing mindful breathing techniques enables you to calm the mind and strengthen your lung capacity. Most of the yoga techniques are done with an inhale and exhale through the nose. The breath is slow, controlled and as deep as possible. If any of the techniques are practiced a few minutes a day, you will notice your natural breathing pattern improve. This means your unconscious breathing pattern during the day or while you are sleeping will benefit.
If you have trouble focusing on the breath due to distractions, try a counting system or imagery. Find a number that works for you and repeat it in your mind. An example would be to count 1,2,3,4 on the inhale and then 4,3,2,1 on the exhale. Another technique is to imagine you are controlling wave movements on a beach, just like the moon controls the tides. Picture a beach and each inhale pulls a wave closer to you. Each exhale returns the wave to the vast ocean.
During our yoga asana practice, the breath is used as a meditation tool. The sound of the breath brings our attention inward so we can focus on only our practice. If we get distracted and start looking around the room, we are no longer doing yoga. If the focus can be centered on just your mat, your breath, your movement in the present moment…then you are performing yoga.
The breath is also an amazing indicator if we need to take a break, like performing a child’s pose. If the pace of the breath and quality is quick or shallow, we are beyond our edge. Listening to the feedback we receive from our body is a wonderful part of the yoga practice. This allows us to listen to our body off of the mat and know when we need to slow down and rest.
Remember, practicing yoga poses is just one branch of a very larger yoga tree (Eight Limbs). The true yoga practice begins when we step off of the mat.