This is something we should endeavour to bear in mind throughout all our practice and our lives. It will enable a student to approach their practice without flippancy, but with thought & dedication. This unity is something to strive towards on a physical and philosophical level.
Before we can achieve unity with God, or a greater being, or the universe, we must “pull ourselves together”. Unification of the body, mind & breath must be achieved. This is one of the keys to the physical elements of yoga practice.
In the physical practice of yoga, breath is the key to yoga. As the famous saying goes that without the breath, yoga practice is simply gymnastics, a sequence of bends, extensions & complicated positions.
By using correct breathing techniques, we are able to achieve far more. Too many people have forgotten how to breathe properly. But by learning to breathe more fully & deeply our stamina increases, our general health & wellbeing increases.
There are many physical ailments that can be attributed by people not receiving enough oxygen into areas of their bodies. Learning to breathe to the body’s full potential & to consequently increase that potential is one of the first steps to proper yoga practice & to improved health. But it is not just the “in” breathe that needs to be relearned, breathing out is also something that can be improved upon. If we are not exhaling fully we are not expelling some of the toxins are bodies are supposed to clear out from our bodies; phlegm, carbon monoxide etc.
Correct breathing in physical yoga practice serves many purposes; it aids the body in temperature control & regulation, it gives the yogi something to focus on, listening & focusing on the flow of the breath. This focusing of our attention helps us in blocking out all distractions of outside influence, other things going on round the room etc. It also helps steer us away from internal distractions, as the mind tends to wander. Bringing our mind’s focus & attention to the breath and to nothing but the very moment of the present aids in achieving or creating the “settling of the mind” that Patanjali describes.
The breath used correctly through the asanas helps us to work further on these positions. For example, as we inhale in any of the forward bends we may feel still a little tightness. However, as we exhale the body can move further into the asanas utilising the breath without any additional force from the body.
The breath can be used to revitalise us throughout practice whereas without correct breathing we may struggle. This is not simply because of the oxygen we are taking into our bodies. It is also the absorption & distribution of prana through the body.
It is a common misconception that prana is simply the breath & pranayama the control of the breath. However, prana is more that simply the practice of breathing in & out. Prana is energy, or the life force that is in everything around us. We absorb prana from the food we eat, from the sun’s rays & from the air that we breathe.
So pranayama is the control of prana; this life giving energy. For example, when we practice anuloma viloma (alternate nostril breathing) we are balancing the breath & moving the prana so that we in turn are balanced for our physical practice. When we practice kapalabhati (shining skull) in pranayama it is a kriya, a cleansing exercise. We are expelling certain toxins from our body, but we are also drawing the prana upwards.
There are times in the practice where certain mudras (gestures or postures) are used to direct the prana. For example, in meditative & seated postures & in breathing practice, mudras such as Chin Mudra or Jnana Mudra are used, both of these having the thumb overlapping the index finger, as this loop prevents the loss of prana, but encourages it to circle around the body in key areas.
Bandhas are also utilized during breathing exercises to direct the prana. Bandhas are muscular locks or contractions, they are used unite prana and apana (apana being the downward flow of energy, compared with the upward flow of prana). There are three bandhas; jalandhara bandha, a chin lock, which is used to prevent the prana flowing further up; moola bandha or mula bandha which is the lower lock, based in the perineum, which prevents the apana from traveling further down, and uddiyana bandha which is an abdominal contraction. By combining the use of mudra & bandhas, prana can be focused & brought together, traveling through our very core, sushumna. And when prana & apana are thus entered into the sushumna, this can tap into & awaken a greater energy, kundalini or serpent energy & power.