Almost a decade ago my shoulders carried the weight of the world due to the stresses of my daily life. As a result I was plagued with horrible neck and excruciating back pain, and was forced at one point to take 3 weeks off work due to my inability to physically get out of bed. I began to work with a manual back therapist, eventually easing my way back into my yoga practice. In addition to asanas, I enrolled in a month-long intensive pranayama course to learn techniques to diminish my stress and feel more grounded. It worked.
Pranayama is the fourth limb of the Astanga yoga system described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and means breath or energy restraint and release (prana-energy or ‘life force’; yama-restraint and ayama-release). It is deeply interlinked with how much our energy is able to flow in and around the body. The ancient eastern traditions hold that dis-ease comes when energy stagnates; when energy is unable to move naturally through it’s channels (nadis in sanskrit). This dis-ease can come in the form of physical ailment: restricted movement, low immunity and even chemical imbalances which can lead to mental dysfunction. An over-active mind can lead to insomnia, anxiety, anger, agression, lethargy, depression; even encephalopathy and more serious polarizing disorders.
When practiced correctly, pranayama can be life-changing. Practice in the right way is a matter of being mindful of the body and working with the breath in increments so as to maintain the integrity of body and mind. We don’t think twice before lighting a match or cutting a piece of paper with scissors, we have an intrinsic understanding that there is a right and a wrong way to use these tools. It should be that same with the practice of pranayama. When we start over thinking and doubting ourselves, we inhibit the body and create knots, or blocks to our energy flow. Doubt is perhaps the single most destructive influence on any yogic practice as its tendency is to resist when we need to release, to close when we need to open, and to disengage when the one thing that guarantees our integrity and intuitive wisdom is engagement. When we cast doubt aside, we can reap the greatest rewards from the practices of yoga, including pranayama. Pranayama promotes:
Inner calm and spaciousness
Strengthened immunity to illness and infection
Improved digestive, liver and kidney function
Enhanced lung capacity
Improved lymphatic circulation
Clarity of our speaking voice, becoming steady and effective
Increased range of our singing voice, becoming sweeter with more depth
Decreased agitation as the mind draws inward
Refined consciousness, deeper contentment (one appreciates simplicity, more with less; the richness of the subtleness all around becomes more visible)
When coupled with asana practice, the benefits of pranayama can be directed more specifically to areas of the body that most commonly hold tension: the hips, digestive system, lungs, shoulders, chest, neck and throat. Not suprisingly these skeletal, muscular and organ-heavy areas are also energy centres aligned with the chakras (energy wheels), special areas of the energetic body charged with moving and maintaining energy flow. Breathing the body enables the chakras to cleanse the static energy out of the system and work towards unblocking the physical areas of tightness and dis-ease. Increased spaciousness in the body enables a state of deep inner calm. Calm body, calm mind.