Have you ever wondered why we make sounds with the breath when we hold a yoga pose? Or what’s the purpose of the strange breathing exercises we do in the beginning of a yoga class? What is prana and why should it matter to you?
Working with the breath is a vital component of yoga practice. Without this focus on breath, a yoga class is nothing more than a stretching session. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with stretching or becoming more flexible, but by incorporating an awareness of the breath you open yourself to a much deeper, richer, more profound experience. It is through the exploration of pranayama that we tap into the energetic and spiritual aspects of yoga practice.
Pranayama is the fourth limb on the eightfold path of yoga delineated by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. These eight limbs are guidelines for leading a life with meaning, purpose, and authenticity. Prana is a Sanskrit term for the vital life force that animates all things; ayama translates as extension or elongation.
Pranic energy flows through nadis (Sanskrit for rivers), the energy channels of the subtle body. Prana is analogous to chi or qi in Chinese medicine and martial arts, and lung in Tibetan Buddhism. Yoga teaches us to access prana by controlling and playing with the flow of breath. Pranayama enables us to connect with the vast energetic network of the subtle body through the breath.
If you’ve been to even just a few yoga classes you’re probably familiar with Ujjayi pranayama. Ujjayi means “victoriously uprising” which refers to the upward movement of pranic energy through the central channel running along the front of the spine known as the sushumna nadi. This is the audible breath that is engaged throughout a Vinyasa yoga class. Ujjayi breathing is the foundation of pranayama. It has 2 defining qualities:
1. A soft whispering sound performed by slightly constricting the muscles of the throat. This action activates the diaphragm and shifts the sensation of the breath from the nose and chest to the back body, creating a more expansive, less strained breath.
2. Steady, even flow of inhalation and exhalation as the breath enters and leaves the nose. Usually our breath begins quickly and then tapers off towards the end of the inhale or exhale; in Ujjayi the volume of the breath remains the same from beginning to end.
It is the soft, steady, sibilant sound of the Ujjayi breath that we bring our mind to rest upon as we flow into and out of each posture. It is the connecting thread that strings together each asana. It is the catalyst for the union of the body, mind and breath that is the ultimate purpose of yoga.
Another common form of pranayama is Nadi Shodhana, which literally translates as “channel cleansing” but is usually referred to as alternate nostril breath. As we manipulate the flow of breath through the nostrils, we access the Surya (sun) or pingala nadi through the right nostril and the Chandra (moon) or ida nadi through the left. At any given time, one nostril is more active than the other. When breath flows dominantly through one of these two nostrils, prana predominates in the related nadi and there is an effect on the nervous system corresponding to the energetic quality of that nadi:
- Right nostril, Surya or pingala: breath is heating and energizing; when this side is overly dominant anger, hyperactivity, aggression, or elevated blood pressure may result.
- Left nostril, Chandra or ida: breath is cooling, quieting; depression, fatigue, weak digestion or sleepiness may result.
Nadi Shodhana calms, centers and stills the mind by balancing the flow of energy between these two channels and discouraging the predominance of one side over the other. Other benefits include:
- Lowered heart rate
- Reduced stress and anxiety
- Synchronization of the right and left hemispheres of the brain
- Purification of the subtle energy channels (nadis) of the body so the prana flows more easily during pranayama and asana practice
Christine Malossi is a yoga teacher and writer based in Manhattan.