One of my closest friends gave me a T-shirt for my birthday a few years ago, and I still wear it a couple times a week, every week. It says, “just breathe,” a reminder I can never get too often.
Being a yoga teacher, I’m well aware of the benefits of pranayama (breath work). Not only do I see the good it does in my own life, but I also have been privy to many student testimonials that serve as anecdotal evidence of reduced stress, lower blood pressure, better sleep and other benefits reaped from working with the breath.
Independent studies provide mounting scientific evidence to back up the observations of yoga teachers like me. Most recently, a physician at the Cleveland Clinic has been studying the effects of breath work on the heart, brain, digestion and immune system. A story about his work aired today on the NPR program Morning Edition. For the complete story, click here.
After listening to the story, my partner Peter asked me if pranayama was “that dragon breath thing” (he huffed a few times to demonstrate). Yes, I answered, in a way, but that’s just one of the many ways we work with, or “restrain” (yama) our breath, or “life force” (prana). There are other techniques to instill balance, energy, focus, calm and many other states.
Peter has practiced a fair amount of studio yoga, on top of what he does with me, and I was dismayed to see that he knew little about pranayama. Like meditation, mudra, mantra and other lesser-known aspects of yoga, breath work is often foregone to make more time for asana, the physical postures, in many classes and styles of yoga.
“People like to sweat,” Peter sums up from our discussion of it, shrugging as if to add, “What are you gonna do?”
What I intend to do is take to heart as a teacher this reminder of the importance of pranayama. Although all good teachers integrate breath work with the physical practice (“Inhale and raise your arms overhead; exhale and fold forward at the hips”), I believe pranayama merits some of its own dedicated time. And, apparently, the Cleveland Clinic agrees.