The word pranayama contains two parts: prana and ayama. Prana refers to the life force, vitality, or energy that sustains us, and indeed, sustains the entire universe. Ayama means “extension” or “expansion.” Pranayama, therefore, means “extension of life force.” Prana is carried on the breath, the breath acts as a vehicle for prana as it flows through the body. In the ancient yogic text, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, it is stated that breath is the key to ultimate emancipation. If you have felt the sense of peace a calm breath can bring, certainly you have tasted this freedom.
Pranayama, as the fourth limb of yoga, comes after asana, the third limb, for good reason. Asana practice, the physical postures of yoga we are all familiar with, prepares the body to sit for pranayama. It is most common for pranayama to be practiced while seated with an erect spine, the correct body alignment for proper flow of prana within the body. For most people, sitting for even short periods of time can be uncomfortable. With regular asana practice, however, this discomfort is alleviated.
Though breath control is used as a practice of pranayama, prana itself cannot be controlled. Rather, breath control helps to remove blockages so that prana can flow freely throughout the body. “Prana is distributed throughout the body along nadis, or channels, that are similar to (but are not the same as) the pathways of nerves that run throughout the body. When prana is blocked, energy cannot flow and disease and imbalance set in. When prana is flowing through every cell of the body, we are vital, radiant, strong, healthy, and clear in thought, speech, and action,” states Alan Finger.
Pranayama usually begins with a few minutes of simply observing the breath. This practice alone—noticing the breath and how the body moves in response to the breath—will automatically bring a sense of ease to the breath, and more importantly, to the mind. Once the breath is flowing with ease, any one of a number of pranayama practices can be used. The ujjayi breath, or victorious breath, is a wonderful breath practice to begin with, because it can be easily incorporated into an asana practice. The ujjayi breath involves a slight constriction of the throat, which serves to modulate the flow of breath into and out of the lungs. Essentially, it helps to lengthen, or extend, the breath.
Constriction of the larynx during ujjayi breathing also adds sound to the breath. With each inhalation and exhalation, the ujjayi breath has the sound of a sigh, or waves breaking on the beach. The addition of sound in this pranayama practice is particularly helpful in keeping the mind in the moment, giving the mind a place to focus. To practice ujjayi:
1. Sit in a comfortable posture such as sukhasana (easy pose) or virasana (hero pose). Ujjayi can even be practiced while reclined, or seated in a chair, being careful to maintain an erect spine.
2. Inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth creating the sound “haaa,” as if you were whispering.
3. Feel the swirl in the back of the throat. Practice this a few breaths.
4. Halfway through your next exhalation, close your mouth, continuing the same sound as the air goes out through your nose instead of your mouth. Practice it a few times. Each time, close your mouth a little sooner until the mouth is no longer open as you are exhaling.
5. Once you are comfortable on the exhalation, try to create the same soft sound on the inhalation. David Swenson recommends gently smiling as you feel the air swirl in the back of the throat.
Just as asana prepares the body for pranayama, pranayama assists the mind in the practice of pratyahara, or withdrawal of the senses, the fifth limb of yoga. Through the eight limbs of yoga, we see how one limb unfolds to reveal the next, and truly, the practice of yoga reveals itself.