Why pranayama? A personal view

When I came to yoga in 1991 I can’t say that I felt a connection to my breathing at all. Perhaps you can relate to this?

My experience of the breath and pranayama (yoga’s breathing practices) in classes was limited and sporadic.

As someone who often likes to learn ‘in order’ and develop a full picture, I was curious to discover more.

It was from 2000-2015 that I had the good fortune to learn pranayama consistently with one of my teachers, Clive Sheridan. A friend and I had initially gone to a weekend of workshops expecting asana. How mistaken we were! I remember feeling light-headed and unable to complete the pranayama practices. What was this yoga?

I took time out from everyday life to attend several retreats with Clive in Europe and India. There were hours of pranayama each day: an hour and a half before breakfast and an hour after our early evening asana practice of backbends, arm balances and inversions. Early morning meditation was part of our daily routine, as was satsang (discourse or ‘gathering for the truth’). To my surprise, the hours of pranayama were timeless.

And so, a new world of prana – the life force – opened. I began to feel the extraordinary potential of the breath and why pranayama deserves to be explored as a practice in its own right.

It gradually became clear to what extent there is an order in the practice vs. how we are working with types and fields of energy, how pranayama supports asana, the organs and functional movement through the deep core, and what is sufficient for practice in the ‘real’ world, away from the privilege and intensity of retreat. Certainly not hours, rest assured.

For me, there is a felt-sense of the mystical in pranayama and its residue, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Each person’s practice is very much their own.

In these tumultuous times, pranayama and the simple natural breath are a steady companion, a comfort and a miracle when I just want to take a moment to appreciate life and stay connected.

The breath is what I gravitate to in the first moments of meditation. As the fourth of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga it begins to bridge our outer and inner worlds.

In daily life, when my emotions and thoughts begin to go from a canter to a gallop and my breathing alters, feeling this guides me back to a more soulful rhythm.

Friends and students have told me that their conscious return to the breath has enabled them to avert migraines, asthma and panic attacks. I experienced this myself once on the packed London tube years ago. Travelling home in the rush hour on a sweltering day I felt as if I couldn’t breathe. Cue turning inwards to the breath to stabilise and take care of myself. It worked.

I’m grateful for insights from other ‘traditions’ such as Iyengar and somatics and from physiotherapists about the Buteyko method for respiratory conditions. There are significant common threads.

It’s interesting to stay abreast of research findings from physiologists and cardiologists that are consistent with what we find in the ancient yoga texts. How could yogis have known, so long ago, how the breath supports specific body systems and our health overall, as well as our deep interconnection?

Apparently one in ten adults hyperventilates and I expect this has risen over the past months. It’s possible to re-pattern our breathing and to return to an easeful relationship with the breath.

In the five classes of Pranayama: Falling In Love Again we’re starting from the beginning, with functional breathing and with the emphasis on trusting felt experience rather than undertaking a conceptual or mind-led practice. I’ll show you how the breath can be so beneficially integrated into everyday life too.

We begin online next Tuesday evening, 22 September. Recordings are available.

You can find more about the five-week course here.

Pranayama requires (and nurtures) patience, sensitivity and the willingness to watch ourselves with compassion. It’s a receptive practice that comes naturally over time, rather than being worked on or ‘done’. Progress can seem slow, yet this engagement with the breath is transformative.

If this speaks to you, do consider joining us and (re)discovering another dimension to your yoga practice and life.

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