Have you ever gone a good long while without flossing? I know you have. We all have. And you know when you come back to flossing and your gums bleed and feel sore for several hours afterwards? Even though it hurts, you hate it a little bit and you tend to dislike advice given by the authority figure in the back of your head (dentist, parent, spouse) telling you you should do it, you still know that it’s going to pay off if you stick with it. You can feel it through those throbbing gums. Your teeth and gums like getting a floss.
Pranayama is a little like that, I’ve decided. When we come to a breathing practice and start to work with extending our breath, there are all these things that come with it that might not feel very good at first. There’s the challenge and discomfort of sitting up for 10 minutes at a time. There is the anxiety or fear that can well up from trying to change a breath pattern that has been in place for years and years, and then there is the patience required to just be still and listen to the breath– something that is often very subtle. The breath isn’t demanding, and at first it isn’t even engaging enough to compete with the chocolate chips in the pantry that really want to be eaten, or the phone call that is begging for your attention or the hundred other things that are yelling for you to get up and move. The cool thing is that underneath all those unpleasantries, when we are ready for it, pranayama still feels good and somehow we get a flash of how much potential it has to feel even better. The body seems to know that breathing is good stuff and our brains pick up on that message if we allow it to come through the other, louder discomforts. We might even have the body sense that if we continue, it can get even better. Somehow the body KNOWS that even with the light-headedness that can come or the achy back you have in the early days, more ease in our posture and our breath is possible. There is something underneath all that calling for more.
Your teeth are whispering to you, “I liked the flossing. Don’t give up now.”
And the body is sending a message, “Extending the breath is going to take us somewhere, I just know it.”
Pranayama is the combo of two words: “prana,” vital life force (more on that below), and “ayama,” “ to extend.” We slowly and patiently extend the amount of prana in the system as we learn to lengthen the inhale and the exhale and use bandhas or locks in the body to help contain it. Over years of practice, we can learn to extend the amount of vital life force IN OUR SYSTEMS and our primary tool for doing this is the breath. We can bring in more of this good stuff with each inhale and we can learn how to contain it as we exhale so that our bodies, minds and systems thrive.
Prana and our breath are intimately connected. If you hang out in a yoga studio very often, you might have heard that the words “inspiration” and “inspire” capture this idea of prana and its relationship to breath nicely. “Inspire” means not only some brilliant idea that comes to you from some mystical source, but also to breathe in. Yoga doesn’t explain exactly where, from whom or why inspiration comes, but it’s all around and in everything. Yoga says you are more alive and more engaged in living because of it. Yoga posits that breathing is much more than the mere chemical exchange in the alveoli. There is prana involved. It is all around us, it comes in with each breath and it is this inspiration via prana that is so closely connected to our breath.
Granthis are knots in the subtle body’s energy channels. Sometimes granthis are like plaque, easily scraped away with appropriate asana and breathwork and sometimes these granthis are more like tartar. You might need to call in the reinforcements and schedule an extra long appointment with your subtle body hygenist. Prana can get blocked up by this plaque in the system, but guess what helps… yoga. That’s right, you can remove unwanted subtle-body plaque with asana and pranayama and with those out of the way, prana moves and flows through the system like water flowing through a hose. This is something that helps to set you up for meditation, which is simply (though not easily) the focusing of the mind.
So if you are interested in Pranayama, and your body is asking for it in those subtle ways, and you have a teacher who can guide you through those early days, then give it a go. You might not know where you are headed, exactly, but if your body is sending that quiet message of “it’s going to be good”, then it probably is.