“…the movements of inhalation and exhalation should be controlled. This is pranayama.” sutra 2.49
“Or that calm is retained by the controlled exhalation or retention of the breath.” sutra 1.34
Pranayama is yoga’s little secret. Outside of the yoga world, no one talks about fully dedicating attention to your breath unless you’re hyperventilating or experience some other health issue like pneumonia or asthma. Even then, in my limited experience, the medical world rarely knows what the power of conscious breathing has to offer.
To the general population of non-yogis, yoga is typically only associated with physical movements/poses (asana). Don’t get me wrong. Yoga asana offers a ton of benefits such as improving balance and coordination, increasing strength and flexibility and boosting confidence and concentration. There are many, many reasons to do it. And in most asana classes, breathing is usually mentioned and encouraged but it tends to be secondary in the minds of many students (at least those newer to asana).
Pranayama (sanskrit for breath control) is really the heart and soul of yoga, just as breathing (the exchange of oxygen and carbon-dioxide) is essential to keeping our hearts pumping and blood flowing. The benefits of exploring pranayama can be as grand as easing high blood pressure and asthmatic symptoms to as simple as cleansing the body and calming the mind.
There are numerous pranayama techniques, each having their own specific function and benefit. For instance, Kapalabhati cleanses the lungs, warms the body and tones the abdominal muscles. Nadi Shodana (alternate nostril breathing) has a calming and balancing effect on the nervous system. Sound breathing improves concentration and can positively shift your energy (i.e. awakening the chakras). For details on some of these techniques, check out The Science of Pranayama. If the techniques I’ve mentioned sound too esoteric (which I get!), Max Strom’s Learn to Breathe DVD might be your speed.
My current fav: Calming Breath. Why? It’s easy. Anyone can do it. Plus, it can be done anywhere, anytime. Simple instructions: Work with a 4:2:4 breathing ratio for a few weeks (5-10 minutes a day). This means inhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of 2, exhale for a count of 4. As this gets easy, you can increase the ratio to 6:3:6, or 8:4:8. Don’t be too ambitious. Remember it’s called calming breath so more doesn’t mean better.
Again in my mind, pranayama is yoga’s little secret. Trust me, my little blog post here really doesn’t do it justice! Explore it for yourself. Read up on it. Find a yoga teacher who can guide you and answer your questions. And just like asana, practice it daily.