Pranayama is the science of altering the breath in order to control the vital life energy and the pranic process in the body. Interestingly, the Sanskrit word prana can be translated both as ‘breath’ and ‘life force energy’, while yama means ‘control’. Breathing techniques can be used to bring the mind under control by virtue of the mind-body connection. This process, known to many spiritual traditions like yoga, Buddhism, and Sufism, requires that we concentrate on the breath to still the mind and develop one-pointedness, a fundamental prerequisite for meditation.
I teach pranayama in my classes – there are about 50 different forms described in the Vedas – as I believe that breathing techniques are central to the practice of yoga and particularly effective when associated with asana practice. Advanced students can benefit from practicing pranayama both as an isolated technique and as a preparation for meditation. I use pranayama techniques also in my coaching sessions whenever they are appropriate.
Pranayama involves controlling and manipulating the breath, whereas the practice of mindfulness and conscious breathing requires that we give the breath our full attention without wanting to change it. Mindfulness – or the ability to pay attention to the present moment, focusing in the here and now and letting go of thoughts about the past and the future – is deeply rooted in Buddhist philosophy and widely used in therapy to treat a variety of psychological conditions. When practicing postures, the breath is what anchors us in the present, and the moment our mind starts drifting away we can remember to come back to our breath. Staying focused in the present moment while moving from one asana to the next makes yoga practice a form of meditation in motion.