Pranayama is derived from two Sanskrit words: prana (life force) and ayama (control). So, in its broadest description, pranayama means ‘the control of the flow of life force’. Through the practice of pranayama you can achieve a healthy body and mind. Pranayama is the fourth limb within Patanjali’s Eight-fold path of Yoga. Patanjali says that you should have reasonable mastery of asana first, so you can comfortable sit while doing pranayama practice. It does not mean that you necessarily need to be able to sit in Lotus Pose for thirty minutes, but at least you have to be able to sit in an upright position where you can be relatively still.
In the Yoga Sutras, pranayama is described as means of attaining higher states of awareness. The postures are merely preliminary states of deeper levels of meditation that lead you toward enlightenment or a place where your mind is perfectly still. Pranayama serves as an essential bridge between the outward, active practice of yoga – yoga postures – and the internal, surrendering practices that leads you into deeper levels of meditation. You could say that asana is focused on developing your body and pranayama will develop your mind.
For sure, breathing is an essential part within your yoga practice. Since unconsciously you choose how much you are going to feel by how much you breathe. When you breathe more deeply, it provides you with an opportunity to release constrictions in breathing and focus on what you feel. Pranayama makes you more sensitive and focused. This increased awareness is a real possibility for personal growth and integration.
At the Yoga Centre where I regularly practice (Ashtanga) Vinyasa Flow Yoga an Ujjayi breath or victorious breath is taught and encouraged. A breath practice in which the opening of the throat is slightly constricted and the breath made softly audible by the creation of some resistance to the passage of air. By returning again and again to the subtle sound of this breath – something like the sound of ocean waves rolling in and out – my mind is forced to concentrate and become quiet. This Ujjayi breath is used throughout the entire practice of Ashtanga yoga.
However, most people start practicing yoga with many pre-existing blocks and holding patterns. The introduction of a controlled breathing regime straightaway could further magnify the blocks. Therefore, it is important to remove the blocks and holding patterns first to allow you to reveal your natural breath. Step by step you can explore the subtle movement of prana during your yoga practice. Above all, listen to your own experiences and feelings to decide for yourself which method directs you closest to yoga’s ultimate gift: ease, balance and inner quiet.