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A Primer on Pranayama
Learning to Breathe

Many Yoga studios these days offer at least one or two Pranayama classes a month, but the average Yoga student never thinks to attend one. Somehow, focusing on something we do naturally just doesn't seem as exciting as mastering Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) or actually reaching your head to your knees for the first time in Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend). The thing is, we don't really breathe all that naturally. Most of us don't have a relationship with our breath. Although our bodies are nurtured via the breathing process, we mostly just ignore it. To become aware of the breath is an enriching, health-giving process. Pranayama - the manipulation of the breath through various exercises - goes even deeper by engaging the soul.

(Article continued below.)

The first step in truly understanding your breath is to learn how to experience it. Try observing your breath for a few minutes without changing its pattern. Are the inhalations and exhalations uneven or ragged? Do you take a couple of short breaths and then one long one? What are your torso and abdomen doing? Is the upper ribcage rising and falling? Is your abdomen expanding and contracting? How about your nostrils - is one of them blocked? Do they feel dry? You can learn a lot about your breathing patterns and habits if you just sit or lie quietly and watch.

Most of us do not breathe optimally. That includes those of us who, through either meditation or Yoga, have worked with the breath. Observation will show that most of us neglect part of our lungs when we breathe - for example, how many of us pay attention to the back of our lungs? And our breathing patterns are radically affected by our emotions. It's one thing to lie in Shavasana (Corpse Pose) and breathe evenly, but when you're caught in the middle of a stressful day, the breath becomes shallow and maybe even labored. It's ironic that it happens this way because the purpose of the lungs is to take in oxygen that will be sent through the bloodstream to nourish your organs - especially your brain. And your brain could definitely use more oxygen when you're under pressure!

Through improper breathing we are robbing ourselves of optimum health and clear thinking. We all know the importance of eating well, but breathing well is even more vital to our existence. Without air we would die in just a few minutes. Part of the reason our bodies degenerate as we age is because we aren't circulating enough oxygen throughout our system. Note the hunched over posture of many old people. Take on that posture yourself and try to breathe fully. No wonder the elderly don't get enough oxygen! This is also the reason many Yoga practitioners have such a vibrant old age. Yoga encourages you to open your chest, and to keep your back and posture straight. Not only do your joints remain supple through the Asanas, the poses themselves encourage intake of air. Pranayama takes that one step further by focusing on breathing exercises away from the Asanas themselves.

Next page >> The Power Behind Pranayama >> Page 1, 2

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