Yogi Assignment: Prana Vayu, the Breath

It took me years before I understood just how important the breath is to the depth of yoga practice. There are people who can perform quite exciting asanas but they are unable to breathe deeply. Similarly, there are other students whose asanas may not appear so deep but their breath demonstrates a penetrating inner focus. While it may be tempting to associate proficiency in asana with deep yoga, the truth of the matter is that the yoga practice is an inner experience. While we can never measure or judge someone’s spirituality from the outside, the breath gives you a window to peer into the often obscured realm of the spirit.

The breath is the thread that ties the conscious and subconscious together. By tuning in to the breath you have a window into the deepest layers of the mind. Even more, the mysteries of life and death are contained within inhalation and exhalation. The faculty of the breath is the power that illuminates the body with the vibrance of life. Without the breath, there is quite simply no life. There is an old yogi myth that states that each individual’s life span is defined by the total amount of breaths allotted to them on this journey. When those breaths are finished, then the journey ends. If you have had the grace to be present when a soul is born into a human body, it is miraculous to see the breath bring life to the body. Similarly, if you have been present when a being breathes their last breath out and life leaves the body, another miracle has occurred. The breath is life and intimacy with the breath brings wisdom and attunement to the rarefied realm of the spirit.

My teacher said that the entire purpose of the asanas is to create a field of experience for you to breathe. The breath is the magic catalyst for the inner world. Without a deep full breath the asanas are just body bending. Use each pose as an opportunity to breathe deeply. Let the shape of the pose be a secondary experience to the depth of the breath. During the context of the asana practice the breath is resonated, creating the deep breathing with sound. The audible breath allows you to hear and feel your breath more powerfully. It also allows the breath to resonate within the emptiness of the inner body.

Called Prana Vayu in Sanskrit, the breath in yoga is more closely related to the winds of our life force than simple oxygen. There is a breath associated with every emotional state. Anger and anxiety are often associated with short, shallow, rapid breaths. Sadness, depression and hopelessness are often associated with long exhalations or sighs. Happiness, joy and love are often associated with deep, rhythmic diaphragmatic breaths. During your practice, you will notice that certain poses trigger different types of breathing. Proficiency in asana is demonstrated as much by the ability to breathe deeply as it is by the ability to bend he body. Place your emphasis on the inner experience of the breath and there will be no limit to how deeply your practice will go.

This week’s Yogi Assignment is Prana Vayu, the Breath. During your practice each day this week place careful emphasis on the depth and quality of your breath. Then, in your life throughout this week place extra attention on the quality of your breath in all moments. Notice when your breath changes from moment to moment, depending on various life situations. Let this be a root into your inner world.

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