Please don’t count the number of times your yoga teacher says “breathe” during your next yoga class.
That being said, if I had a nickel for every time a yoga teacher said “breathe” throughout a typical hatha yoga class, I’d have enough change to take all my yoga peeps practicing alongside me out for coffee after that class was over!
Let’s be real here. We need to be told to breathe. As I am sitting here, safe in my office with my cat on my lap, my breath is shallow and short. I am breathing into the top of my lungs. The breath is barely dipping below my collar bones. Of course, now that I am actually paying attention to my breath, it is a bit deeper. My inhalations descend to my lowest rib and my exhalations are more of a sigh. But as soon as I stop paying attention, I’m back to barely breathing. When I’m practicing yoga, my yoga teacher’s gentle reminder to breathe is a life-saver!
Yoga is well known for its ability to improve breathing capacity. Pranayama is the yogic practice that is most closely associated with the breath. In Sanskrit, the word prana means vital energy or life-force and ayama means extension or expansion. Therefore, pranayama means “extension or expansion of vital energy.” The breath itself is not prana, but rather a way of moving prana into, out of, and through the body. Pranayama practices strengthen the lungs, balance the nervous system, and have purifying and cleansing effects that create physical, emotional, and spiritual stability.
Have your prana and eat it too!
Yogic breathing techniques are not the only way that we receive and move prana. Food, sunlight, and the people around us also have a direct impact on our vitality. From a yogic perspective, the old adage is true: we are what we eat. Yogic nutrition means not only eating a well-rounded diet, but eating energetically balanced food as well. Of course, yogis want to get in their macro- and micronutritents. A healthy diet includes good sources of fat, protein, and carbohydrates. It is also varied to make sure we are getting all of our vitamins and minerals.
Perhaps more important than what we eat is how our food got to our table. At every step of the way -from how our food was planted to who served it- energetic fingerprints are left on our food to be absorbed into our bodies. In addition to our concerns about the toxicity of our food and water supply and the impact conventional farming methods have on our environment, we would do well to pay attention to how the food has been handled prior to our eating it. Organic food that comes from a farm, farmer’s market, or even a grocery store where the employees are happy, healthy, and paid a living wage is energetically healthier for us than conventional food loaded with pesticides served by an underpaid worker who has a sinus infection because she can’t afford to take time off. Compassionate laws regarding environmental regulations and a fair minimum wage are not left-leaning talking points. They are acts of self-interest.
Soak up the prana!
Speaking of the environment, another way our bodies receive prana is from sunlight. Science shows us that sunlight is our best source of natural vitamin D. When we do not get enough vitamin D we are more vulnerable to depression. Many people experience seasonal depression that settles in during the late fall and is alleviated when spring arrives. We may be able to cope with the symptoms of lack of sunlight by using things like light therapy boxes, but prana cannot be synthetically reproduced. During the winter it is very important that we obtain whatever natural sunlight we can -even if it is just a bit on our hands and faces for a few minutes a day- and maximize other ways of receiving prana.
What kind of prana do you bring into the room?
Finally, we receive prana from the people around us. We all know what this feels like. We’ve all found ourselves in a room with others when suddenly some uplifting soul walked in and it was as if the room got a bit brighter. Of course, I’m sure we’ve all experienced the opposite scenario as well. It is important for us to take responsibility for ourselves and our energy and remove ourselves from a situation that is truly harmful. However, most situations we find ourselves in will not harm us, energetically or otherwise. It is our reaction to the situation that hurts us!
Yoga is not a path that teaches us, “This is how you fix everyone around you so that you can be at peace. If they can’t be fixed, this is how you dismiss them from your life in a spiritual way so you don’t feel guilty about it afterward.” No. Yoga is about self-monitoring, self-regulation. The point isn’t what they did, it is what you are doing. Whether we choose to allow someone to remain in our lives or not doesn’t matter as much as the consciousness with which we make that decision.
Prana is far more than just breathing. How we receive and assimilate prana is a whole-life practice. However, proper breathing helps. Here is a breathing technique you can use anytime, anywhere to help calm your mind so you can regulate your energy under any circumstances.
- Notice your breath. See if you can locate where you feel your breath as you breathe in and out.
- Take three breaths into your lungs, or upper chest region. Notice how that feels.
- Take three more breaths. This time feel your upper chest and ribcage expand as you inhale and contract as you exhale.
- Take three more breaths. Now feel the upper chest, ribcage, and belly expand on the inhalation and soften on the exhalation.
- You can return to your normal breath, or breathe like this for as long as it feels good to you.