Breathing is a process that we rarely give any thought to. It occurs automatically without our awareness, yet at the same time it is something that most people do incorrectly.
Our whole life is entirely dependent on breathing. If we stop breathing then life itself ceases in the body. Life and breath are intimately connected. we can survive for a few days without drinking water, a few months without taking food, but how long can the average person survive without drawing air into the lungs? In most cases no more than a few minutes.
A fast breathing rate is associated with tension, fear, worry, etc. which tends to lead to bad health, unhappiness and of course a shorter life. A person who breathes slowly is relaxed, calm and happy, which is conducive to longevity. Shallow breathing leads to insufficient oxygen in the body. This causes functional disturbances and illnesses concerned with circulatory, digestive and nervous systems, since efficiency of these systems is entirely dependent on healthy, well-nourished nerves and organs, which depend completely on oxygen for survival. A person who breathes slowly tends to also breath deeply and thereby fill the lungs to a greater depth. This helps to remove stale air from the lower reaches of lungs destroying breeding ground of germs. Slow and deep breathing also imparts a good massage to the abdominal organs like liver, stomach etc via the diaphragm which keep them in good working order by expelling old, impure blood and allowing pure, oxygenated blood to replace it.
Therefore breathing is very essential preparatory practice for Pranayama. There are five types of breathing practices one need to be thorough with before they start Pranayama practices:
i) Natural breathing ii) Abdominal breathing iii) Thoracic breathing iv) Clavicular breathing and v) Full yogic breathing.
What is Pranayama?
The word Pranayama is comprised of two roots: Prana and Ayama. There are many misconceptions about Prana and Pranayama. Prana does not specifically mean air or breath, though many people interpret the word in this way. The word Pranayama has far wider implications than the usual definition - 'breath control'. Prana means 'life force' and Ayama means 'extension' or 'expansion'. Thus, the word Pranayama means 'extension or expansion of the dimension of Prana'.
Pranayama is an important part of yoga practices and as such is mentioned in almost all traditional text on yoga. Hatha Yoga Pradipika, an ancient classic on practical yoga says: "When there is prana in the body it is called life; when it leaves the body it results in death". Chandogya Upanisad says: "When prana fluctuates then the Chitta (mind) also fluctuates; when the prana becomes steady then the chitta also becomes steady".
Pranayama helps to steady the mind allowing it to dwell in higher dimension of consciousness.