As part of my attempt to “go beyond asana” this year, I’ve been trying to practice and learn more about pranayama (yogic breathing exercises). Luckily for me, one of my teachers is also into pranayama and he’s been incorporating about five minutes of breathwork into most of his classes lately. Of course, if you practice vinyasa style yoga, you should always be doing a form of pranayama in your regular practice–i.e., Ujjayi breath, or “victory breath”. But there’s a lot more to pranayama than just breathing deeply during your asanas. As you delve deeper into the intricacies of pranayama, however, a nagging question will inevitably arise: What’s the point?
In some sense, this is a question you could ask about any aspect of yoga. With the physical asana practice, it’s a bit easier to come up with an answer. For a lot of people, yoga is just another form of exercise, so “the point” of going to yoga class is to, say, lose weight, tone your muscles, get ready for bikini season, etc. Of course, yoga is so much more than this, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of approaching yoga as mere exercise.
If you’re like me, though, you’re intrigued by the philosophical and non-physical aspects of yoga. But you might also be wary of esoteric or religious ideology. Personally, I’m pretty skeptical of chakras, doshas, nadis, or many of the other spiritual ideas you sometimes hear yoga teachers talk about.
I do, however, recognize that yoga has the potential to be so much more than just a good workout, so I am gradually tiptoeing my way into other areas of yoga beyond asana. For now, these two areas are meditation and pranayama. With each of these practices, I find myself struggling sometimes to relate it to the physical asana practice. I also find myself lost at times, unsure of what these practices are meant to accomplish in terms of the spiritual, emotional, psychological, or what have you.
With pranayama, I think I’m finally starting to get it. For years, I would do breathing exercises in yoga class just as a matter of course. I’d roll my eyes and just go along with it, annoyed that the teacher was wasting valuable class time on something that seemed to have no obvious purpose. I mostly felt like we were playing yogi, and that the pranayama exercises were really accomplishing nothing more than shortening the amount of time we’d have to do the fun stuff, namely, the asanas.
Nowadays, however, when the teacher leads us through some pranayana exercises, I find myself almost elated. I love this portion of the class, when I’m lucky enough to get it. Afterwards, when I reflect on my practice, I often think that the breathwork was the most challenging and rewarding portion of the entire class.
Part of this shift in attitude has been my growing realization that pranayama is a way to prepare for dhyana (meditation). Now that I have a regular meditation practice, I can better understand how pranayama fits into the larger yoga picture. When you control the breath and focus on counting the inhales and exhales, you’re engaged in the sort of mental activity that is the precursor to a clear mind. That is, you encourage your mind to focus, and by turning inward towards the breath, your mind is much less likely to indulge the random thoughts that usually occupy it. (Just try thinking about dinner while you’re in the middle of Breath of Fire, for instance, and you’ll see exactly what I mean.)
So if I had to say, in a word, what the purpose of pranayama is, it’d be this: focus. But focusing is not, in and of itself, meditation. According to the eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga, focusing the mind is an intermediary stage on the way towards meditation. This meditative state, what Zen practitioners sometimes call “empty mind,” is marked by perfect clarity and stillness. You’re actually not focusing on anything; rather, the mind is sharp without being directed towards any particular object or thought.
Admittedly, there’s something rather conspicuous missing from my discussion of pranayama, and that’s prana, or “life force.” This is a concept that’s really beyond my ability to understand. To be perfectly honest, I find most discussions of prana to be just as inaccessible as talk of chakras, nadis, and doshas. Perhaps I am too Western or modern or stubborn in my views, but I’m extremely skeptical of there being anything real that corresponds to the concept of prana or “life force.” Nevertheless, I still find myself drawn to the practice of pranayama. Yet the appeal is not intellectual. Instead, I find myself drawn to pranayama because of my immediate, first-person experience of it. Somehow, the act of doing pranayama is far more enlightening than reading or talking about it. I guess this is the case with many aspects of yoga. It’s worth noting that Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra, a key text in the history of yoga, is a mere 195 lines. In this tradition, practice is paramount. Philosophical treatises and concepts can be useful tools, but they can also distract the well-meaning practitioner from truly embarking on the path of yoga.
(If you’d like to read an academic paper I wrote on Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra, you can download the entire paper here. This was my final paper to complete my requirements for a PhD minor in Religious Studies at Indiana University.)
- Prescriptions for Pranayama (yogajournal.com)
- The Importance of Pranayama, Working from the Inside Out (downdogontherocks.wordpress.com)
- Ashtanga’s Fourth Limb with David Garrigues. (elephantjournal.com)
- Ujjayi Breathing (pranayamayogastudio.wordpress.com)