Traditionally, though, the practice of pranayama—releasing and channeling the body’s stores of internal pranic energy—has been seen as the core of hatha yoga practice. Pranayama is meant to nurture a high level of bodily health and mental clarity, both of which are crucial steps on the path to self-knowledge and a wholesome, authentic life.
Many people are aware of the theory in modern physics that matter and energy are just different manifestations of the same thing. So one way to look at the body or body-mind is as a cloud of energy—a cloud of energy so concentrated that it’s visible. Prana is just another word for that energy. Prana is the energy that moves the universe, or that is the universe.
So pranayama—literally, “control of prana”—isn’t just breathing exercises. Through pranayama, you use the breath to affect the constellation of energy that is your body-mind.
When you start paying attention to energy, often the first thing you notice is that you’re not in charge; you don’t have any choice except to be moved by it. If you’re alive, energy moves and shapes you. And oftentimes it seems that the way the energy moves you is random and incoherent. Things happen which feel chaotic and out of control, and you long to give them some order.
Long ago, people discovered that their own minds are part of that disorder. We are subject to the wanderings and rapid turnings of thoughts and feelings we don’t seem to be in control of. The desire to calm this mental and emotional storm is age-old. In searching for methods to calm the mind, one of the tools that people discovered was the breath.
Normally, when you’re not paying attention to your breath, it is quite random, subject to all kinds of fluctuations according to your moods, your thoughts, the temperature around you, what you last ate, and so forth. But the early yogis discovered that if they could even out the breath, they could even out the jumpiness of the mind. Over time, they elaborated that discovery into the practices called pranayama.
There are as many approaches to pranayama as there are to the practice of asana. Some schools of yoga immediately introduce quite forceful and/or complex pranayama techniques, likekapalabhati (literally, “skull shining,” but better known as “breath of fire”) and nadi shodhana(alternate nostril breathing). Other approaches incorporate pranayama techniques into asana practice from the very beginning.
To set up for beginning pranayama practice, take a firm, densely woven blanket and fold it to create a bolster which measures approximately three inches thick, five inches wide, and 30 inches long. You will be resting on this bolster along the length of your spine. Take a second blanket and fold it across the bolster as a thin pillow for your head.
Sit with your legs stretched straight out in front of you and your long bolster extending out behind you. Then lie down so that your spine is supported all the way from the lumbar region to your skull. (This bolster both supports your spine and opens your chest.) Separate your heels and move your arms out a comfortable distance from your sides, palms up. Make sure your body is arranged symmetrically on both sides of your spine. For the next couple of minutes, only relax. Do Savasana (Corpse Pose). Let your body be still; let your nerves become quiet. In this stillness and quietness, simply observe the quality of your natural breath.
You will probably notice that your breath is uneven and erratic. The breath is sometimes quick and sometimes slow, sometimes smooth, sometimes harsh; sometimes it even stops for a moment or two and then begins again. You might also notice that some parts of the lungs receive the breath more readily than others, or that your inhalation and exhalation are quite dissimilar. As much as you can, notice these qualities of your breath without interference and without judgments.
After several minutes of observing your breath in this way, begin shaping the breath to make it smoother and more regular. Without hurrying, you want gradually to guide your breath from its naturally rough and ragged gait toward a smooth and even rhythm. Make every part of the inhalation just like every other part of the inhalation, and do the same with the exhalation. This evening-out of the natural breath is called samavrtti, which means “same action” or “same turning.”
In an untutored body, the most mobile part of the rib cage is usually right at the bottom of the breastbone. All the rest of the lungs are neglected; only this front and center portion really gets much attention. As you continue to breathe smoothly and regularly, begin to distribute your breath evenly so that the whole circumference of the lungs becomes equally elastic and receptive to the breath. Take your attention to the dark corners of the lungs where the breath is a little reluctant to penetrate, and use the attention itself to open those spaces to receive the breath a little more fully.
Once you’ve worked for a while with samavrtti, imagine your belly as an ocean and your chest as the shore. Your breath becomes a wave washing up from the ocean depths of your belly onto the wide shore of your chest and then falling back again. Let the wave of your breath wash back and forth from belly to chest, chest to belly, again and again. Keep your belly soft and deep—resting back towards your spine rather than pushing aggressively outward—and keep your chest wide and bright. Though the chest and belly will move slightly with each inhalation and exhalation, their basic shape should not change.
When you start working consciously with the breath, it naturally increases in volume. Don’t suppress that increase, but don’t actively encourage it, either. You’re not trying to ingest more air, but instead to increase the quality of your breath and your sensitivity to it.