Notes on Your Practice:
Pranayama, Part 2
Written by Kevin ODonnell
As many of you have experienced, at Chorus we use a specific three part breath. This breath can be traced back to the fourth limb of yoga called pranayama. Prana is the life force that is within the breath, it is the energy that allows creation and gives life to the universe, and yama means control or expansion. This practice is done through conscious breathing much like the breath we use in Chorus. So, where does this practice come from?
The practice of Pranayama can be found in texts that date back to 3,000 BCE. The first writings about prana are found in the Chandogya Upanishad, while the practice of pranayama is first found in the Brihadaranyaka and Maitrayaniya Upanishads, which outline this practice and the importance of including it in your sadhana (practice). In one of my favorite Upanishads, the Shvetashvatara Upanishad, it describes the Self as a river and the breath as the streams of that river. These are some of the interesting concepts we discuss during my Story Time Tuesday and Wisdom Wednesday classes!
The idea that breathing could be used to achieve greater health and even immortality is a theme that is often repeated in subsequent yogic texts and teachings such as the Bhagavad Gita (chapter 4, verse 29). In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali also outlines the importance of Pranayama. He describes it as one of the prerequisites of meditation along with asanas (poses), pratyahara (sensory control), and other codes of conduct called the yamas and niyamas. Patanjali notes a number of specific benefits of pranayama practice which include mental fitness and the ability to concentrate. Additionally, Patanjali shares that regular breathwork practice could lessen or dissolve the veil that covers our “inner illumination” (verse 2:52).
The reason this is so important, according to Hindu philosophy, is because breath does not just begin and support life, the breath is life. It is much more than the movement of the lungs within animals and humans. Every movement in the universe is the Cosmic Breath, or vishwaprana. Everything that occurs within ourselves and the cosmos is the movement of prana. Now imagine how interesting life could be once we learn how to control this prana the way these practices train us to do!
There have been documented stories of beings who have been able to master the control of prana over time. For example, the Buddha was said to be able to only take 10 breaths per day while he was doing his tapasya (austere practices). In today’s world, we see people, like Wim Hoff, who have been able to overcome extreme weather and illness by using the breath as a tool. Through pranayama we are able to rewire our mind, our bodies, and our spirit to strengthen our abilities to live more fully. Swami Sivananda states “if you can control prana, you can completely control all the forces of the universe, mental and physical.”
Many of these traditional pranayama techniques are nasal breath practices whereas the more modern “breathwork” practices are done with an open mouth. These practices, like Chorus, allow more prana to enter the body and induce altered states of consciousness quicker than traditional techniques. This is almost a shortcut to different states of consciousness and can lead to extraordinary experiences and deep healing.
Although these experiences can be beautiful they can also bring a lot of unexpected feelings to the surface, like different traumas or repressed emotions that we as practitioners have forgotten about. These shortcuts, unlike traditional techniques, can bring this right to the surface rather than easing you into it. This can be great for deep healing if you are prepared but if you are not prepared it can be something you weren’t expecting. It is important to understand the implications of these practices and ease into them with great respect. You should dip your toes in the water before you dive into the ocean.
As you can see, this breath that we use in Chorus has a long history and has deep importance within a yogic practice. Conscious breathing, or pranayama, is a practice that we should strive to master as it leads to deeper meditations and a longer more enjoyable life. It should also be handled with delicate care, respect and intention as these practices bring you deeper into your inner landscapes and some of which may have never been explored before. With proper guidance—like what you receive from our Chorus teachers—and a loving supportive space—like our amazing community—these practices can lead you to deep healing and a beautiful, unified state within yourself.