The mind is the king of the senses, but the breath is the king of the mind
Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Part of our “Eight Limbs of Yoga” series
Pranayama is the practice of conscious breathing. Sounds easy, right? After all, we breathe all the time. Every day, every moment, no matter what else is going on, we keep breathing without even thinking about it. So why should we pay attention to it?
Because pranayama is one of the most powerful and accessible tools of yoga.
Prana is the Sanskrit word for “life force” or energy, and it refers to all forms of energy that the body absorbs, from the air we breathe and the food we eat, to the sunlight on our skin. But prana-yama focuses on practices that control the flow of energy, using the breath.
Yoga is often defined as the union between the mind, body and breath. The breath is really the anchor for this union, and it can influence the state of both the body and mind. We can use pranayama techniques to influence the mind and calm us down, improve mental focus, or prepare for sleep. Similarly, there are practices that change the body, relaxing it, easing tension, or even energising it. Pretty impressive!
Let’s explore the relationship between the breath, body and mind, and the role of pranayama.
The Breath-Body connection
When we practice yoga asana we are aiming to balance sthira, the sense of alertness, and sukha, the sense of ease. The breath is key to this balancing act as it tells us about the tension in our body.
When there is too much sthira, our breathing tends to become faster, more shallow and centred in the upper chest. We also tend to inhale for longer than we exhale as our body tries to suck in more oxygen. This is our body’s natural response to exertion.
When really stressed or in danger, our body goes further. We pump out hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to speed up our reactions; our heart beats faster to flush oxygenated blood to our muscles; our senses become sharper; and sugars and fats are released into the blood for energy. This is the body’s “fight or flight” response, or the sympathetic nervous system that humans developed to survive.
The problem is that our lifestyles and surroundings have evolved faster than our survival instincts, so now our stress response is activated during our daily lives. Something as simple as a negative Instagram comment can trigger a full physical stress response in the body. Science increasingly shows that spending too much time with the sympathetic nervous system activated is actually damaging our health, particularly in relation to MS.
Scientists have summarised basic molecular and animal experimental research, as well as human clinical and epidemiological studies, showing that stress can precipitate relapses and worsening disability through a variety of mechanisms, including an ‘overshooting’ of the inflammatory response, and through worsening degeneration.Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis, the evidence based 7 step recovery program
Dr George Jelinik
This is where a pranayama practice can make a huge difference to your health, because you can use your breath to switch off that stress response.
When your body is not in “fight or flight” mode, the parasympathetic nervous system is active, known as “rest and digest” mode. This is when your body is relaxed and your biological functions can focus on healing, digesting and resting. In this state breathing tends to be slower and deeper into the lungs, with longer exhalations than inhalations. We can use pranayama techniques to mimic the breath patterns that occur in rest and digest mode, which actually activates the parasympathetic nervous system. This is one of the rare situations where “fake it ‘til you make it” actually works!
Pranayama to activate the parasympathetic nervous system
Sit or lie down in a comfortable position where you can be still for a little while.
Bring your attention to your breath and notice its rhythm when you start.
Start to count the length of your inhalation and your exhalation.
Gradually lengthen your exhalation. Inhale for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 6. Lengthen your exhalation by using your abdominal muscles to push out more air.
Continue to lengthen your exhalation until they are twice the length of your inhalation, e.g. inhale for a count of 5, exhale for a count of 10.
Maintain this ratio for 5-10 breaths, or until you feel calm and relaxed. Then let your breath return to its natural rhythm, observing how you feel.
Extending your exhalations to around double the length of your inhalations sends a clear signal to the body that there is no threat or danger, switching on the parasympathetic nervous system. This practice is great for situations where you feel tense or antsy, such as before a big meeting or doctor’s appointment. It’s excellent for keeping calm and still during MRIs.
The Breath-Mind connection
The human brain is miraculous, but living with one in your head is hard work!
In his book “The Power of Now” Eckhart Tolle explains that we all have inside of us a thinker and a watcher, i.e. our conscious and our subconscious mind. Our thinking mind is the one that does great things like our day job, and making sure we don’t forget to buy milk. But it is also the one that ruminates on the past and frets about the future. The trick is to understand that the thinking mind is not who we are. We can choose to ignore it.
For a long time I believed I was an anxious person. I would think through all eventualities for everything, worry about unlikely outcomes, and render myself incapable of making decisions. This changed for me when I learned to reframe the way I think about myself: I am not an anxious person. I am a person who has anxious thoughts, and I have the power to control those thoughts! By learning to quiet my thinking mind, I can calm my anxiety, lower my stress levels, and even focus better.
The easiest way to quiet the conscious mind is to anchor your attention on something here and now, in this moment. The breath is perfect for this, as it’s always there!
Pranayama to quiet the mind
The aim of this practice is simply to focus all of your attention on your breath, to the point that all other thoughts are excluded. For some people this will be easy to do just by focusing on the sensations of breathing, but if you find it hard, try a more involved practice that requires you to count or to move, such as Nadi Shodhana.
Mindful breathing – noticing the sensations
Sit or lie down in a comfortable position where you can be still for a little while.
Without changing it, start to part attention to the natural rhythm of your breath. Notice whether you breathe through your mouth or nose. Notice the length of your inhalation and exhalation.
Broaden your awareness to the sensations of breathing. The temperature of the air. The feeling of the air in your throat. The rising and falling of your chest or belly. The sound of your breath.
Imagine the breath travelling down into your belly, somersaulting and then coming back out. Allow yourself to be mesmerised by your breath.
At first this practice may be difficult, even frustrating. Five minutes may feel like forever. But over time and with practice, the thinking mind throws up fewer distracting thoughts, and you’ll find it easier to dismiss those thoughts and refocus on your breath. Being able to slip in and out of this focused state allows you to use this practice as a tool to manage anger, relieve stress and grow your attention span. It’s worth persevering.
Nadi Shodhana – Alternate nostril breathing
Sit comfortably with your spine tall so your lungs can fill fully. This practice is best done seated rather than lying down, to keep your sinuses clear.
With your right hand, fold your first two fingers down to your palm, leaving your thumb, ring finger and little finger extended. This hand position is called mrgi mudra, or deer mudra.
Bring your right hand to your face and place your thumb on the right side of your nose (just at the top of the fleshy cartilage of your nostril) and your ring finger on the same place on the left side. Let your left hand rest gently in your lap.
Take a deep breath in and a long breath out to get started.
With your thumb, close your right nostril, and inhale deeply through your left nostril. Hold your breath at the top, then close your left nostril and open your right nostril.
Exhale fully through your right nostril. Pause, then inhale through the right nostril.
Pause, then close the right nostril and open the left. Exhale fully.
Inhale, pause, switch sides, then exhale.
Repeat 5-6 times, at a pace that feels right to you. Then release your mudra and breath in deeply through both nostrils. Exhale fully, then allow your breath to return to normal.
I love this practice, because I have to pay attention to remember where I’m up to, so my mind doesn’t wander and I always finish feeling really refreshed and relaxed.
The close connection between our mind, body and breath means that we can use the breath as a tool to change the way we feel in body and mind. Practicing pranayama can help you to relax, to ease tension, and to counter your stress response. Perfect to help you focus your mind, or fall asleep more easily. There are also energising practices that will fire up your digestion and your mind. We’ll cover those another day!
If you are feeling inspired to include pranayama in your daily routine, subscribe to find more practices, and let us know how you get on!