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The Importance of Pranayama + Transcendence

Pranayama is the 4th Limb of Ashtanga Yoga. Often translated as breath “control” or “restraint”. The word “Prana” can be broken down into “pra”, “to exist independently”, or have prior existence, according to Dr. Swami Gitananda Giri, and “ana”, short for “annu”, a cell. Prana therefore is that which has always existed – before cells – before cellular life, a manifestation of the Divine. (Yoga Step-by-Step, Module 1, p.44). According to Swami Gitananda, “Yoga should start with the breath disciplines, which will later on lead us to the classical Pranayama.”

The practice of Pranayama is a practice of developing a relationship with Prana itself – with our life force. It is essential for deeper states of meditation. Through Pranayama practices, we are able to understand the more subtle aspects of the Universe and the mind is able to settle into steadiness and ease. It is important to understand that this is a practice developed over time. Westerners tend to think breathing is easy – because if you are alive – you breathe! However, few of us use our full lung capacity to breathe, just as we seldom use our full brain capacity. So, we start where we are. There are Pranayama exercises for becoming familiar with our lungs and expanding our capacity to take in breath, hold the breath in and control our exhalation and hold the breath out.

Pranayama is going beyond the autonomic breathing response. Transcending the need to breathe – the basis of survival. Our breath is regulated by the brain stem (and circulation and digestion – basic needs for life). Breathing is an autonomic response. We are programmed to breathe in – literally to take in a breath. You can hold your breath until you turn blue and at some point, your brain is going to make you breathe in again.

When we become mindful about our breathing patterns, and begin to control our breath, we also begin to move from the Reptilian brain (on autopilot) to the Higher mind.

On a physical, mental and emotional level, when we increase our respiratory capacity, we improve nervous system function, blood oxygenation, our metabolism, our mood, our energy levels and our overall quality of life.

So, the breath affects us at the level of Annamaya (the physical body), Pranamaya (our energy levels), Manomaya (our thoughts and emotions), Vijnanmaya (connecting to the Higher Mind – the Witness Self) and Anandamaya (Our Bliss Body) Koshas. (for more about the Koshas, see:

There are many pranayama techniques used in different traditions that have been passed down over thousands of years of lineage. As modern science begins to catch up and understand how breath control affects our mind and emotions, there is suddenly interest in becoming a “breath coach” and teaching people how to breathe properly – There are Western names for these practices like, “coherent breathing” and “box breath” - often ignoring that these practices have always been part of yoga but have simply had other names.

In Gitananda yoga we begin with sama vritti, the “even pattern breath”, or sukha purvaka pranayama – the easy breath, and move into rhythmic breathing, “Savittri pranayama” which is the basis for many of the more advanced pranayamas, kriyas, meditations and yogic relaxation practices in this tradition.

Join me this October to explore some of these practices, including using mantra, mudra and bandha with the breath, as well as asana. We will be learning the Savittri pranayama, and how to use it with other practices. We will also learn how to balance the energy in the body with different pranayama and asana practices including the anuloma/villoma practice, kapalabhati, mukha and nasarga bhastrika, and ujjayi breath. Many of these practices are briefly touched upon in yoga classes, but never fully explained or experienced, often b/c the teacher has not experienced them within the cultural context from which they evolved.

Learning how to use these practices, and when not to can transform your yoga practice and help you to reach higher states of meditation. For more information on my workshop visit:

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