When I walked into the Art Institute of Chicago it felt like a switch was turned on inside me. I went from a mode that was coasting into an activated state. My eyes became keen as I was primed and excited about what I was about to see. I enjoy and am stimulated by art. And I made a connection: I realized that when I get up from my pranayama (breathing) practice I feel the same way. The difference is that it sets up my frame of seeing without the pleasant expectations of seeing something great. As we know, not all activities are equally exciting. It’s easy to be “on” for things we know we like. Learning about the breath can help us to be “on” for more of life.
Pranayama, or breath control, is the fourth limb of Ashtanga yoga. It can be seen as a bridge towards meditation. The first limb, Yama has to do with relating to the external world ethically. While the second limb, Niyama is for personal observances. And the third limb, Asana is posture. So Pranayama begins to take us into more subtle realms of breath, preparing us for the next four limbs to work with our consciousness on many levels. It goes beyond how we understand ourselves in everyday interactions with others.
Breath connects visible processes with invisible processes. When you take a breath there is a perceivable movement in your body. Your belly moves, and/or your ribcage swells. This is something you can observe on yourself or others. It’s nice to watch pets do this (I like watching my bunnies breathe.). Inside the body oxygen is absorbed from the air, and it cycles through the body—invisibly maintaining our cells.
And air is invisible, so breath can also be seen as mediating the invisible. We take in the invisible air where it goes through invisible processes. So our bodies are in direct contact (inside and out) with the unknown (invisible) all the time. Metaphorically it can also be seen as processing an invisible past towards an invisible future, and the only place we can actually taste it is in the present moment. So when we are working with the breath it is important to be aware of the sensations of what is occurring in any given moment.
Different kinds of yoga handle the practice of breathing in different ways. In Iyengar yoga it’s important to be well established in your asana practice before learning pranayama. But, in Kripalu yoga they teach breath control right away. And, in Ashtanga yoga (of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois) you are doing Ujjayi Pranayama during your asana practice.
I feel a greater sense of wellbeing after my pranayama practice (I have been doing it separately from asana in line with Iyengar yoga). I do it every day before leaving the house. Just five minutes of breath awareness can make a real difference. A good way to start practicing is to lie down and watch your natural breath. Learn to observe your inhalations and exhalations as they appear without any help from you. Then lengthen the in and out breaths so that they are long, soft, smooth, deep, even breaths. Breathe evenly into the right and left lungs. Make sure that the inhalations and exhalations are equally extended for a balancing breath. End the practice by relaxing the breath control, and observe the natural flow of breath.