What's the Point of Pranayama?



An excerpt from Ekachakra....


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” (as is very common here at Yogalife Studios). 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 many, though, you’re intrigued by the philosophical and non-physical aspects of yoga. But you might also be wary of esoteric or religious ideology (as many of my teachers are...). Some teachers are pretty skeptical of chakras, doshas, nadis, or many of the other spiritual ideas you sometimes hear yoga teachers talk about, while others base their entire practice and teachings on them.


What is important to recognize is 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 (have any of you reading this felt this way...been annoyed with something other than the physical practice?). 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 pranayama 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.


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.


I 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.


Have any questions about Pranayama or all things "breath?" Feel free to contact us at info@yogalifestudios, or get in contact with our Exquisite Breath expert, Brittany Rudyck!