The Healing Power of Breath
Breathing is your connection to life force. Scientifically, it brings oxygen in and allows carbon dioxide out. In relation to your vital energy, you can use the breath to control where prana flows. You can also use breath to influence your physical and mind states, with numerous applications. Related to healing the chakras, you can direct your breath to each chakra and up the central energy channel of the body, increasing your life force and bringing healing energy to the entire body.
What Is Pranayama?
Pranayama is one of the eight limbs of yoga, and it consists of various techniques of inhaling, retaining, and exhaling your breath. The word Pranayama can be broken into its two parts: prana, “life force”; and yama, “to restrain” or “hold back.”
Pranayama exercises vary in their difficulty, intensity, and purpose. For some you add the movement of arms and legs, for others you sit still and quietly, and for some you make sound. As with any practice, start slow or with few repetitions to allow your body to become acclimated. Over time, you can increase repetitions and level of difficulty.
Yama in Pranayama is the same word as yama for the yamas and niyamas. For yamas and niyamas, yama is explained as the practices to do in the world, to help distinguish it from the niyamas, which are practices focused inwardly. Both, though, can also be seen as “restraints.” As you discipline yourself with those practices, you restrain and exhibit mindfulness.
Physical Pain and the Brain
Pain is the body's way of sounding alarms to alert you that it believes it's in danger. Your body has sensors all through it, and these sensors look out for potential and actual danger. When your body has deemed that danger is sufficient, the sensors send a message to the brain so that you will feel pain. Studies show that pain is complicated. It's not always present for all injuries, and for others it's excruciating. Also, for the same surgical procedures or injuries, different people experience different levels of pain.
The prevailing explanation is that psychological factors contribute to pain. The context of the injury makes a difference. For example, sometimes you won't feel pain in your body until you see the injury. Or, if you're angry at your younger brother and he pushes you into the wall, you might feel more pain because of your emotions.
How you contextualize the situation psychologically affects how you experience the pain. Did someone intentionally hurt you? How are you feeling, generally, in your life outside of this situation? Do you have support for taking care of this injury? If you have difficult situations in your life, it could increase the experience of pain. In addition, not understanding what's going on in the body can increase pain. The bottom line is that fear, uncertainty, and other disturbing emotions in and around the injury can cause more pain.
The brain also needs to receive sensory input that the threat of danger is gone for the pain to subside. The book Explain Pain gives the example that one of the most common pains on the planet is a toothache, and yet there are times when a patient calls to make an emergency appointment and the pain is gone when he gets to the dentist's office. The conclusion is that the brain is satisfied that the patient did the right thing, before the dentist did anything. The brain felt it was safe to stop giving the alert signal.
Pranayama and Pain
Physically, people may hold their breath or stop breathing when in pain. The brain will identify this as more cause for alarm. Pranayama can help. The appropriate breathing exercises will help calm the body, calm the mind, and allow healing energy to move to those places where your brain is telling you there's a problem. This encourages the brain to receive signals to calm down, feel safe, and soften or stop sending the alert.
“Where the mind goes, the prana follows.”
—Thirumoolar, South Indian Saint
The way that breath helps is twofold. First of all, it creates space in the body. Where the body is tense, more pain and feelings of discomfort can occur. By creating space, emotionally and physically, you create the conditions for ease, peace, and calm in mind and body. The second way that breath helps with pain is that it promotes healing. Remember that the body has nadis running through it, channels that carry prana. Pranayama will purify those nadis, unblocking areas that are blocked off from carrying energy.
When the channels are clear, prana can move to areas where the body needs it. This allows your body to heal itself, as it's open and receiving healing life force. The body wants to be well and is designed to heal, so by relaxing and creating space the body can do its work. With the same premise, Pranayama unblocks chakras, sending energy to support those beaming wheels of light.
Visualizations and Breath
Visualization is an integral part of Pranayama. Depending on the specific Pranayama that you choose to do, you will coordinate your breath with visualizations of where you want the breath and healing energy to travel. You have at your disposal a free and invaluable self-healing tool: You can direct healing energy to wherever you feel pain or discomfort in the body. And, you can use it to help calm your overactive mind, too. Sometimes the hardest part is just to remember to do it. Visualizations strengthen the Ajna Chakra, in particular, whose energy connects you to imagination and seeing areas of yourself and existence that the biology of the eye cannot.