A central practise in any Yoga session, be it on your own or in a larger group, is pranayama (from the sanskrit prana: breath and yama: restraint). This focus on the breath is, essentially, what makes Yoga, Yoga and not, say, gymnastics or a simply physical discipline. As we inhale we energise the body and prepare for movement, as we exhale we sink into the new shape we’re asking of our body and relax.
Prana is translated linguistically as breath, but actually has a more profound meaning: that of ‘life giving energy’. Whilst this is technically true of our breath, and the oxygen it contains, Prana is far more than gases and air. It has its own consciousness and connects us to the whole of the universe. It has similar connotations as the Chinese ‘Chi’ and Japanese ‘Ki’ and is fundamental in Yoga both during physical movement and during meditation. Have you heard your Yoga teacher say ‘breathe to the right leg’? or ‘take the breath along the spine’? At first, it sounds like they don’t know their anatomy from their physiology, but as you get deeper into your Yoga, phrases like this make more and more sense. Why? Because Prana knows what it’s doing and knows where it’s going!
When we bring ourselves to the Yoga mat we come to it for all manner of reasons. Most of my students attend classes for one of three reasons: they’re stressed or anxious, they have a bad back or they have been recommended to attend a gentle exercise class to improve their health. After their first class, I often witness people leaving with a ‘blissed out’ expression on their faces and an air of someone who has, literally, ‘seen the light’. By the third or fourth class, hungry for more of this amazing elixir they start to ask me shy questions: “why do I feel so good after Yoga?” “How come I fall asleep here, on the hard floor, but not at home, in bed?” “Why does nothing seem to matter so much after Yoga, what is it that makes me stop worrying?”
The answer, of course, to all of these questions (and possibly any and all you could put to your Yoga teacher) is: Prana. When we engage with our breath truly magical things start to happen. As I often tell my students: you could sit for an hour trying a variety of pranayama techniques and still call the class a Yoga one. Contained within our breath is the subtle combination required to keep our entire planet alive! It’s no coincidence that as we breathe out, we nourish plant life, and vice versa. Mother Nature has ensured the recycling of one species’ breath is to the benefit of the others’. Earth keeps going because we breathe. What a wonderful idea! It’s the very thing we have in common with all other animals and each and every person we encounter: the breath. It’s what we are.
When you come to your mat, then, recognise what it is you’re offering yourself: some space to breathe. As you bend and stretch and extend and curl that amazing body you were born with, you’re creating space inside yourself. Those legs get lengthened, that spine gets realigned, your hips get more mobile. Why? Because you’re opening them up and allowing them some room. The magic happens when you incorporate your breath with those movements. As you open the channels in your body and you breathe deeper, Prana can flow around you with more ease and it will start to affect how you feel. Do Yoga more often and it will start to affect how you look, too. Do it every day and you’ll start to heal in ways you didn’t think possible.
1 Sit comfortably with a straight back & take some deep, Yogic breaths
2 Close your eyes and put your awareness just below your navel – maybe imagine a patch or pool of light there
3 Inhale slowly and deeply and draw a line of this light up to the base of your throat. Exhale slowly and allow it to flood back down/through your body
4 Repeat for as long as you like and notice how you feel.
5 Now, add a sound, inside your head, to the inhale: ‘So’ and draw the sound all the way up with the light, to the throat (do silently to yourself). With the exhale add the sound, inside your head, ‘Hum’ and ensure the sound lasts as long as the breath.
6 Do for as long as you feel able and then gently open your eyes. Tap your feet on the floor, stretch and yawn, drink a glass of water and move slowly until you feel ‘grounded’. Notice how you feel. Can be repeated every day as part of your meditation practice.