Mind and Body: A Journey through Breathwork and PranayamaJan 02, 2024 06:00AM ● By Noah Chen
For thousands of years, specialized breathing practices have been used by healers, yogis, shamans and everyday people to strengthen the body and focus the mind. In ancient India, the founders of yoga used the breath to influence their life force and expand their spiritual awareness. The ancient people of Egypt used their breath to align themselves with the energy of the universe. Today, there are breathing techniques to quiet anxiety, increase energy and even release trauma.
Science has gone on to prove many of the benefits touted by various breathwork techniques. For instance, in a study published by the National Library of Medicine, slow breathing exercises were shown to significantly lower blood pressure and heart rate. Another study by the International Journal of Health Sciences and Research concluded that a specific breathing exercise played a role in improving lung function and decreasing stress and depression.
Even so, there are aspects of breathwork that some of its practitioners claim science can’t speak to. For many, there is a spiritual aspect to the practice that goes beyond what can be scientifically measured. For example, they find it can help provide insight into the Self and foster connections to the Earth and the beings that live on it.
Certain breathwork techniques remain quite popular today and are frequently taught in yoga studios and similar venues, while others are a little more obscure. Many of today’s breathing techniques can be traced back to or fall within the scope of the ancient practices of pranayama, a yoga practice whose origins can be traced back to more than 5,000 years ago.
Pranayama was originally conceived as a way to prepare the mind for spiritual growth. “Some of the earliest texts of the practice show that pranayama was a practice that was conducted by Pundits, or Hindu religious figures,” explains Meera Dhawan, a California-based yoga teacher who was first introduced to pranayama as a child by her grandmother in India. “These pundits had to sing mantra for long periods and they found that connecting with the breath not only helped them do so, but also helped them tap into their spirituality.”
The Sanskrit word pranayama consists of prana, meaning “life force,” and yama, meaning “expansion” or “control.” Those practicing pranayama with its original intention see it as a tool to influence their life force, allowing it to move throughout the body and gather in key areas.
Today, while pranayama still holds spiritual importance, it is often taught before or after yoga lessons more casually than when utilized by yogis to attain enlightenment. “I usually like to teach pranayama at the beginning or at the close of a practice,” affirms Trishna Patel-Grigowski, a Michigan-based yoga teacher who incorporates pranayama into her lessons. The techniques, she says, “bring in this calming energy so that [my students] can be more present and focused and aware.”
For Patel-Grigowski, the initial introduction to pranayama is also meant to inspire those in her class to take the practice off the mat. Yoga, she explains, is a lifestyle, and she stresses that the more consistent the practice, the greater the benefits. “I do believe pranayama is one of those tools you can build upon. Ultimately, it comes to a state where you can practice it everywhere.”
Jenn Cook, an Atlanta-based yoga teacher, also describes how pranayama can be utilized during stretches and physical activity to increase performance. Cook says breathing properly during a twist can be beneficial. “Twists are notoriously difficult to breathe in,” she says, noting they also work muscles that many of us might not be used to working. “But if you can find the support to find your breath, you will start to bring that tension out of your shoulders, out of your jaw, out of your neck, out of your belly even, and into the areas that are actually going to support you for a more spacious and healthier long-term rotation of the spine.”
Removed from any spiritual context, the benefits of pranayama have been well demonstrated. The breathwork study mentioned earlier that exhibited decreased stress and depression was done on a control group practicing a pranayama technique. A further study showed pranayama decreased anxiety and modulated brain regions associated with emotional processing, such as the amygdala. Elsewhere, scientists have proven a connection between the breath and the physical body, showing that, by calming the breath, the body calms as well.
Of course, some breathwork practices are not necessarily pranayama techniques. When distinguishing between the two, some believe the key differentiator is the retention of breath. According to Adrian Cox of BreathYoga in Japan, many pranayama techniques focus on “extending the pause between the inhalation and exhalation rather than removing it—like in breathwork.” While this definition is not entirely accurate—some of those interviewed for this article reference pranayama techniques with no breath retention—it still serves as a common differentiator that often appears in texts comparing breathwork to pranayama. Cox also traces the term “breathwork” back to breathing techniques that were pioneered in the 1960s. These techniques are still used today, although they are commonly executed slightly differently.
Kelly Walden, who has been providing breathing technique instruction and running the Atlanta Breathwork Center for more than 30 years, teaches a therapeutic technique called Conscious Connected Circular Breathing (CCCB), which was originally developed in the 1960s. For years, the technique was done while submerged in water, says Walden, but these days, the practice is mainly done without water present. Either way, the effects of the practice are reportedly quite potent. Walden says that CCCB has led to a wide variety of reactions from her clients, from emotional release to creative stimulation. “I love it because it releases trauma and grief and stress,” says Walden. It can also help develop lung tissue.
The most common experience is emotional release. “Because our lungs are connected to our emotions, and since the breath is under our control, it is connected to our emotions,” she says. “You can make a decision to take a breath, but like with your heart, you can’t make a decision to take a heartbeat, right? So, there are emotions involved.”
Walden’s sessions are a solid hour of CCCB, which follow an initial pre-session interview when she gets the opportunity to learn about her client, their goals and what brought them to her. The technique remains the same throughout the session, “but it’s all about the rhythm,” she says. “You have to get into a rhythm. That’s where the training comes in.”
In CCCB, the breath itself is quite simple—just a smooth inhalation followed by a smooth exhalation, with no pauses or retention of breath between them. Walden explains it’s important not to “push the exhale,” which she says can lead to hyperventilation. Instead, she advises clients to let the pressure exhale for them so that “the oxygen going in and the carbon dioxide going out are in equal measures.”
A study of CCCB found that a certain technique can reduce negative effects such as anger, tension, confusion and depression and increase self-esteem. Some evidence also suggests that, under certain circumstances, the practice could have a hallucinogenic effect similar to those after medium to high doses of psilocybin.
Branton Box, a breathwork teacher and practitioner who frequently works with addicts and teaches in yoga studios in Georgia, teaches a similar practice. However, Box’s method has one variation: it includes a second, smaller inhale right after the first. Box practices the technique himself, saying it allows him to “remove blocks—stuff that I’m not even aware of.”
Box says many people come to him in states of distress. “Most people are moving at the rate of pain,” he says. “They’re coming because there’s something causing them pain. Sometimes it’s very raw.” The effects of the practice, he says, are often hard to put into words. However, it did help him gain awareness of how a difficult relationship in his childhood had caused emotional issues that had persisted for years under the surface. “This kind of awareness continues to expand the deeper one delves into breathwork,” he says.
Box says people begin to realize they’re not their thoughts. “[My thoughts are] dictating the quality of my life, depending on my acceptance of them or resistance to them.” But beneath thoughts, he says, “there is a stable, always-aware awareness. That is actually my real reference point.” With this understanding, Box has become aware of certain feelings that have influenced his behavior—and allowed him to change them.
For Box, asking questions of himself has led him to a certain type of spirituality, one which his breath practice seems to suit very well. “What I fundamentally want people to get to is the typical quest for knowledge,” he says. “On the spiritual path, I’ve found it’s asking less and less questions till you get to the last question of ‘Who am I?’” In the pursuit of understanding the Self, the awareness Box finds from his breathing practice is invaluable.
Pranayama as Spiritual Practice
From a spiritual standpoint, the ultimate goal of pranayama is to cultivate the ability to facilitate spiritual pursuits. Abha Rajbhandari, Ph.D., a researcher at Mount Sinai Hospital and also a teacher at Tejal Yoga, had similar feelings following pranayama sessions as those experienced by people who have been guided through breathwork by Walden and Box. She says it felt “almost like touching bliss—where I’ve actually cried and laughed at the same time.”
For many who practice and teach pranayama, its spiritual benefits are just as important, if not more so, than the physical ones. “These practices have been passed down for thousands of years, and what they found is that connecting the breath with spiritual significance enhances the benefits of the practice,” explains Dhawan. Pranayama can enable “people to connect with themselves and the universe with more meaning,” she says. And finding that meaning can feed back into the practice, enabling consistency, which is “a critical aspect to access the benefits of pranayama.”
Numerous breathing techniques fit under the umbrella of “pranayama.” Integral to many of the techniques is kumbhaka, or the holding of the breath. Atlanta-based yoga teacher Tracy Jennings-Hill calls kumbhaka “an essential part of really any good breathing practice.” She points out two key benefits to practicing this breath retention—one is physical, and the other is more mental.
Physically, Jennings-Hill says kumbhaka increases breath capacity. Mentally, she says, it helps to “dispel the fear of not having the breath.”
Indeed. According to Paramahansa Yogananda, the yogi largely responsible for bringing yoga to the West in the early 20th century, the original purpose of pranayama was the “gradual cessation of breathing.” The reasons one would want to do this lie in the origins of pranayama as one of the eight limbs of yoga.
In the Western world, “yoga” commonly refers to a form of physical exercise, but the practice of yoga originated in India more than 5,000 years ago and was originally meant to achieve samadhi, a state of union with the divine energy of the universe. As a spiritual path, yoga consists of eight “limbs”—in Western culture, they might be considered “foundations”—to achieve that union. Two of those limbs—asana, the physical yogic poses, and pranayama—are the third and fourth limbs, respectively. Rajbhandari says the original goal of the first four limbs of yoga is to “prepare your body and mind so you can go to the higher state.”
Pranayama is the “bridge that connects the physical aspect of our being to that subtle aspect of our being through the breath,” says Rajbhandari.
It is said that when someone proficient enough at pranayama uses the practice, they disconnect input from the five senses to the mind, thereby naturally reaching the fifth limb of yoga—pratyahara, or withdrawal of the senses.
But why is this retreat from the senses necessary? Jennings-Hill says it is so we can “sit inside the chaos and not be affected by the mind.” When the senses are stimulated, they stimulate the mind, she says. But when one focuses on the breath so completely and the senses fade away, there is nothing to distract the mind from spiritual self-awareness.
Pratyahara, then, leads to the final three limbs of yoga: dharana, or concentration, dhyana, or meditative absorption, and samadhi or enlightenment. Thus, as the limb prior to pratyahara, pranayama proves itself to be a foundation for reaching that final stage of spiritual pursuit.
A Flexible Practice
But many who teach pranayama today stress that it is a flexible practice, and one doesn’t need such a grand spiritual end goal to engage with and benefit from it. “Unlike the yogis [of India], we live in a lifestyle where we have careers. We’re not leaving everything and going into the mountains and trying to find our higher selves. We have our daily lives going on. And in that chaos of our daily life, how do we find balance and that connection to ourselves? And so in that way, we can use pranayama for that connection,” says Rajbhandari.
From pranayama to CCCB, breathwork is available in many forms. Most share similar benefits, including decreased stress, increased lung capacity and greater clarity of thought. And for those willing to take their practice deeper, breathwork can be a gateway to finding balance within one’s mind and body and facilitating one’s path toward awakening. ❧
Kelly Walden: (404) 310-5336, breathworkers.com