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Book Review: Restoring Prana
“Take a deep breath in,” can be a common way to cue students in modern-day yoga classes. Yet not all yoga teachers question the origin of deep, full breathing. Is matching big breathing to movement rooted in Vedic philosophy? Or is it something that today’s yoga culture invented?
In her book Restoring Prana: A Therapeutic Guide to Pranayama and Healing Through the Breath for Yoga Therapists, Yoga Teachers, and Healthcare Practitioners, Robin Rothenberg, C-IAYT, courageously questions big breathing in modern-day yoga. Rothenberg does so by deep-diving into the biomechanics of pranayama, which she defines as “the vital, energetic sheath of our being” (p. 367). With health and vitality as the ultimate goal of her exploration, this book is a powerful tool not only for yoga enthusiasts but for anyone who breathes.
Throughout the text, Rothenberg weaves together Vedic science and Western physiology to paint a picture of optimal breathing for health and wellbeing. She begins by exploring the origins of pranayama and the theory of prana, defined as “principal life air or life-force” (p. 367). In returning to historical yogic texts, Rothenberg finds that big breathing was not promoted by the ancient yogis. By contrast, pranayama techniques guided practitioners to make the breath slower and more subtle.
Next, Rothenberg uses biomedical research as evidence for the efficacy of slow, subtle breathing. She supports her argument by describing the biochemistry of respiration, the physiology of diaphragmatic breathing, and the interplay of the emotional brain and the breath. Rothenberg provides evidence that, in our modern era, chronic hyperventilation, chest breathing, mouth breathing, and over-activation of the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system are all related unhealthy habits, or samskaras, that negatively impact our respiratory health.
After making a case for slow, controlled, and energetically efficient breathing, Rothenberg circles back to Vedic science. Rothenberg explains that it was only after she had learned to control her breath with the Buteyko Breathing Method, which promotes reduced breathing, that she was able to value classic pranayama techniques. She elaborates on extended kumbhaka, or breath retention, as the ultimate orientation of pranayama and engaging the bandhas, or energetic locks, as ways of extending kumbhaka.
Through her book, Rothenberg reinforces a vital distinction between the objective of pranayama for the ancient yogis and modern practitioners. On the one hand, the teachings of pranayama were once transmitted to an enlightened few yogis to aid in their attainment of samadhi, or deep meditative consciousness. On the other hand, Rothenberg posits that pranayama today can be taught to all to assist with the many chronic illnesses that afflict the population, including asthma, COPD, sleep apnea, autoimmune disorders, and anxiety. Thus, she ends her book with therapeutic applications of pranayama and several safe, easy-to-follow yoga sequences to restore prana.
Restoring Prana is not only a practical guide for all those who teach breathing, but it is also a compelling resource that causes us to question our preconceived notions of respiratory health. Moreover, Restoring Prana is a powerful tool for svadhyaya, or self-study, which prompts us to assess our subconscious habits within the 23,000 or so breaths that keep us alive each day. Indeed, after reading this book, yoga teachers may think twice before we ask students to “take a deep breath in.”
Lacey Gibson is a Boston-based freelance food writer, a global health research consultant, an RYT-200 yoga teacher, and a certified barre teacher. She graduated in 2015 with a BA/BS in French and Physiology from Southern Illinois University, where she also competed as an NCAA DI track/cross country runner. Additionally, she holds a Masters of Science in Global Health and Population from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
As a writer, Lacey specializes in mindful consumption of chocolate, coffee, and wine. Her work appears in the Journal of Wine Research, Gastronomica, Fresh Cup, Elephant Journal, Happy Cow, and DOYOUYOGA, YogaUOnline, among others. Lacey’s mission as a writer and as a yoga teacher is to inspire openness, compassion, and connection through mindful movement, living, and eating.