Introduction to Pranayama and Breath Control - Part 1
Part 1 of a series providing a beginner’s guide to pranayama and breathwork.
By: Amalia Briggs
Anyone who has taken a yoga class before knows the emphasis put on bringing yourself back to your breath. Breathing is an important piece of any good yoga practice, but the importance of your breath goes far beyond the time you spend on your yoga mat. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines yoga as being made up of eight distinct parts. What we typically think of as “yoga” is only one of these eight parts (asana). The fourth step on Patanjali’s eightfold path of yoga is pranayama, more commonly known as breath control.
The word pranayama is comprised of the word prana, or ‘life force’, and ayama, which means ‘extension’ or ‘expansion’. So a more comprehensive definition of pranayama might be “the extension or expansion of our life force.” From a yogic perspective, the purpose of pranayama is not to increase the amount of oxygen we take in, but rather to use the breath to enhance the flow of prana throughout the body.
Scientifically speaking, our breath plays an essential role in every single one of our bodily processes. It is through respiration that our body produces the energy that makes it possible for our cells to function. Most adults tend to breathe by taking in shallow and rapid breaths, meaning we are not taking in as much oxygen as is necessary for the optimal functioning of our body and mind. Pranayama helps condition our respiratory system, making our breaths longer, deeper, and more rhythmic, and thus increasing our oxygen intake and fueling our body.
The Four Aspects of Pranayama (Breath Control)
Pranayama utilizes a combination of four different types of breath control:
Internal Breath Retention (Antar Kumbhaka)
External Breath Retention (Bahir Kumbhaka)
Breath retention is commonly regarded as the most important aspect of pranayama. However, much like any other skill development, practitioners need to work their way up to being able to exercise safe and effective breath retention. It’s important that all practitioners first build a solid foundation in basic breath control before trying more advanced practices. Throughout the course of this series, you’ll notice that most of the beginning practices focus more on inhalation and exhalation, giving practitioners the chance to practice acquainting themselves with their breath and expanding their lung capacity before getting into more advanced practices.
Basic Pranayama Practice - Natural Breathing
Before you jump into any controlled breathing exercises, it’s helpful to start by simply acquainting yourself with your own breathing system and patterns. When you put focused attention on your breathing, you’ll notice that your breath naturally slows down and becomes more rhythmic. You can focus on your breathing anytime and anywhere, but you might notice it’s easiest when you’re sitting comfortably or lying down on your back. Start by closing your eyes if it is comfortable for you, and put your attention on your breathing process as a whole—noticing your nose, throat, lungs, chest, and abdomen. Pay attention to the general pace and rhythm of your breath as it enters and leaves your body. Remember to observe your breath without judgment, and without trying to change anything.
Now take some time to give focused attention to isolated parts of your breathing system. First pay attention to the air as it flows in and out of your nose. Notice whether one nostril feels more open or involved than the other. Pay attention to temperature changes as the air enters and leaves through your nose. Next, observe how breathing feels in your throat. Note whether your throat changes at all between inhales and exhales, noticing any feelings of tension or relaxation in your throat as you breathe. Now allow your attention to flow into your lungs and chest. See if you can sense the air as it fills your lungs and expands into your bronchial tubes. Pay attention to changes in your chest as your breathe in and out. Perhaps you’ll notice sensations of heaviness or lightness in your chest. And finally, allow your attention to drop down into your abdominal region. Notice changes in your abdomen as your breathe in and out, such as an expansion outward as you inhale, and relaxation as you exhale.
Once you’ve given isolated attention to each part of your respiratory system, bring your awareness back to your whole breathing system, again noticing the natural rhythm of air as it enters and leaves your body. If it helps, you can envision that the air is nourishing or fueling you with each inhale. See if you can practice this natural breathing exercise for at least 7 minutes, but remember that you can continue it for as long as feels right for you.
Our breath is a natural point of focus. Beyond a regular pranayama practice, bringing your attention back to your breath when you’re feeling unfocused or overwhelmed is a great tool for helping you to feel grounded or to regain focus throughout your day. After years of intentionally concentrating on my breath, I’ve noticed that I now automatically direct my attention to my breath whenever I start to feel stressed or unfocused. Breathwork can feel funny or even uncomfortable at first, but the more we attend to our breath, the more it attends to us.
Amalia Briggs, LMSW, RYT is a mental health clinician, yoga teacher, and meditation teacher with expertise in breath and mindfulness. She is the founder of Great Lakes Mindfulness, which delivers mindfulness-based interventions through mental health therapy, mindfulness coaching, and professional staff development. Through her company, she develops and leads trainings for healthcare professionals on mindfulness and stress management, and contracts with nonprofits, schools, and government agencies to teach breathwork, yoga, and other mindfulness exercises to a variety of populations. Amalia also manages the clinical content delivery for online self help programs offered through companies including The Great Courses and Yoga International. After receiving her clinical training from the University of Michigan, Amalia spent years working at a nonprofit organization as a clinician and clinical supervisor. Amalia has since received extensive training on breath and mindfulness-based interventions both nationally and internationally, and is now excited to educate on the power of effective breathwork as a Thought Leader for Respa Better Yoga.