In the first podcast episode of the Hacking Consciousness, founder of Yoga Elements Adrian Cox spoke about the power of pranayama (breath control exercises) for entering into expanded states of consciousness. As he put it in our conversation:
“Pranayama truly is the gateway to higher yoga and by yoga I mean expanded consciousness. It is the gateway, the step before meditation and the doorway with which our practice begins to really, truly deepen.”
Let’s briefly define “pranayama.” In the yoga tradition “prana” is a term that refers to both our own breath and to the very life force that animates every particle of this universe. “Yama” can be translated as to regulate, to control, or to channel. Thus, pranayama is the process by which we learn to skilfully channel or regulate our breathing (our very life force).
In my own practice, I’ve certainly come to appreciate the wisdom in Adrian’s statement. Recognizing the relationship between the state of our breath and the state of our mind invites deeper insight into the ways in which the mind and the body are deeply interconnected, an essential point that we often forget when we’re deeply lost in thought.
It’s also a view of consciousness that runs contrary to the traditional, dualistic body-mind split in Western thought that dates back to Descartes. In other words, especially for those of us in the West, we need to drop our assumptions that consciousness is simply equated with the brain, or that it’s even located solely in the region of the head.
How we breathe is deeply connected to our nervous system. There are two major aspects of our autonomic (involuntary) nervous system: the sympathetic (“fight or flight” response) vs. the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) response.