The Power of the Breath
Prana in Sanskrit is defined as "life-force" energy. In yoga, the word “prana” relates to breathing consciously. In yoga, there are controlled breathing exercises ( pranayama) that affect your vitality, lifestyle choices, your mind and ultimately your life fulfillment. Certain behaviors are uplifting while others lead to unhappiness. Experience how pranayama exercises affect the mind and slow thoughts.
Prana is called “Chi” in Chinese or “Ki” in Japanese. Western culture does not have the same reverence for the breath that they do in eastern cultures. There is a tremendous lack of awareness about how important breath and air quality are to our level of vitality and wellness. The quality of air we breathe severely compromises our level of health and vitality. The FDA lists indoor air quality as the worst environmental problem we are facing today. Some of the factors that contribute to poor indoor air quality are common household cleaners, off-gassing on furniture, lack of fresh air from outside coming in, pet dander, dust mites etc. Since our air quality is so compromised, we must take extra steps in order to ensure that when we breathe, we are breathing in strength and health, with awareness and compassion.
Prana is a grand cosmic energy that is only recently starting to become acknowledged by current Western science. Prana is more prevalent in some places and severely depleted in others. In New York City, when I am deep underground in the subway system, I can feel no positive life force in there, which is either a cause of or a symptom of all the trash, aggression, rats, cockroaches that is so ubiquitous down there. When I am out in nature, away from the turbulence and industrialization of the city, I can breathe in fresh natural air that is not as saturated with dirt and pollution. The air that I like the best is the air right before or during a thunderstorm. There is an abundance of negative ions before and during this process, which is also abundant when we are near a waterfall. I often open the windows very wide when it is raining in order to cleanse the air and the energy of the home. I actually own an air purifier that uses ionization and oxidation that mimics the same processes at play during a thunderstorm. Negative ions have been proven to lead to improved well-being, physically and emotionally. My lungs and mind feel purified after a powerful storm.
I think the only time that the general public becomes aware of the power of breathe is during labor. Partners take Lamaze class together as a way to prepare for arrival of new life. Since the birth of a child is usually the most life-changing event in most people’s lives, it is amazing that people can unconsciously acknowledge how important breath-work is at this pivotal time in one’s life. During labor itself, you always hear people coaching the woman to “breathe, breathe” and they will often breathe with her as a show of solidarity and support.
Our respiratory system is actually the only system in the body we can consciously control. The ancient yogis realized that when we are relaxed, we are breathing deep and heavy. When we are anxious or stressed, our breathing is short, shallow and measured. So they experimented with consciously changing the meter of their breath and realized that it was easy to change one’s emotional state when one consciously controls the breath. As babies, we breathe deep and into our bellies. We somehow seem to lose this practice as we grow into adults. We have many expressions that correlate our breath with our mood, such as “I‘’ holding my breath”, which means that we are on the edge and full of suspense. Many holistic therapies focus on breath-work, such as rebirthing, which focus on breathing fully and deeply in order to powerfully release deep-seated trauma. My first rebirthing session I would describe as “lancing an emotional boil” since it was a difficult and painful process but I felt such an incredible release after we were finished. I was not even aware how much tension I was holding in my body and psyche. This was my first experience with the power of the breathe for transformation and healing.
My other experience with conscious breath-work was when I attended a Vipassana mediation retreat for 10 days in Northern California about 9 years ago. We were instructed to simply observe our breath, often for hours or days on end. This was incredibly difficult. I never had paid any attention to my breath before. After observing our breath, we were then instructed to observe sensations in our body, whether they were positive or negative. It was though the experience of the body that we learned to become equanimous with pain or pleasure, since we realized that there was no reason to fear the pain since it was only temporary and there was no reason to cling or attach to the pleasure in bodily sensations since they would also be fleeting. Afterwards, I realized that I had the ability to be a much more objective and calm person by maintaining meditation and conscious breath practices.
The main types of breathe-work that I practice now on a more regular basis is Pranayama. I have recently become more open to using this method the past few months. Alternate Nostril Breathing is usually the method that I will do first. I will sometimes practice this when I feel unbalanced or uneven. Until the last few weeks, I also though Pranayama was a waste of time too, since I never noticed any benefits. I then started to practice this by itself and noticed the subtle yet powerful shift in my mood and stress level. I was having pretty intense insomnia upon my transition to Philadelphia. I could not get to sleep late at night and it was too late to do a bunch of yoga poses and I did not want to become too reliant on various sleep aids ( herbs, pills etc) Pranayama was an effective tool for calming my central nervous system and producing alpha waves in my brain.
Occasionally, I will practice 3 part breath, where I start to breathe fully into my belly and then have it move to my stomach and then let it expand into my lungs. I do feel more calmed and tranquil after doing this for awhile. This is a great one to do when you are resting, in shivasana, before going to bed.
Another practice is a partner practice. You first sit on the floor and get centered within yourself by a few minutes of meditation and then just becoming aware of your breath. You then transition to sit on the floor in a yab-yum position with your partner. At first you spend some time, sending the breath through all of your own chakras. After you have spent a sufficient amount of time moving your breath through all of you own chakras, then you start to send you breath in a circle towards your partner’s chakras, until there is a continuous flow of breathe and Prana that is starting with yourself and moving through your partner. You literally breathe into their mouth your energy and vitality and then you receive their breathe as well (brush your teeth first!). The entire time you are holding each other, with no goal or no attachment to any specific outcome.
I have practiced this a few times with a partner, although not on a frequent basis. Every time, I do this, it ends up being an incredibly bonding and intimate experience that seems to transport us both to a higher level of reality. It is definitely my favorite breath and energy work to do. It can be an uncomfortable position though so it might be nice to do some movement (poses, dance) in order to open up the hips first.
The way in which you breathe is the way that you live your life. Do you take little sips as though you don’t feel you have permission to have space on this planet or do you take in full, slow luxurious breaths, allowing the universe to be generous and giving to you? When we learn to breathe fully and deeply, we are enlarging our spirit and reconnecting to the self. When we are breathing consciously, we are remembering who we are.