One of yoga’s most transformational practices, pranayama serves as the bridge between the external and the internal. It’s a conscious regulation of the breath that increases your energy and life force while helping to focus the mind. Pranayama creates harmony at all levels: physically in steady, healthy breathing patterns; mentally in calm and focused thoughts; and spiritually in connection to the universe.
Spiritual awareness is pranayama’s most important effect. The breath, which is the physical body’s main prana, belongs to the cosmic breath or universal spirit. Pranayama is the practice of harmonizing the two and bridging any gaps in their connection.
The first three of Patanjali’s eight limbs—yamas, niyamas, and asana—are considered external practices that help the yogi master their body and energy. After these comes the fourth limb of pranayama, and the steps that follow are internal practices that help the yogi master their senses and mind.
Pranayama is the step that helps yogis graduate from the external to the internal. Strangely enough, pranayama is skipped in many modern yoga classes. However, it’s important to keep in mind that yogis who want to advance on the yogic path shouldn’t skip this crucial practice.
What is Prana?
Prana is the energy that’s found in all living things—from humans to plants. It controls all forces, from our thoughts to our cells. It is not the body, or the spirit, but the life force that makes up both. Prana is sometimes deduced to the breath, but it’s actually something much more subtle. It’s an energy that regulates all bodily functions.
Five main types of prana:
1. Prana- Controls breathing.
2. Udana- Governs the senses, enthusiasm, and speech.
3. Samana- Responsible for assimilation and distribution of nutrients.
4. Apana- Governs the downward expulsion of wastes.
5. Vyana- Pervades throughout the whole body and distributes energy.
Together, these five pranas make up the pranayama kosha, or vital energy body. They flow in all possible directions and in essence, make things happen within the body. Their route is through the nadis: the body’s subtle channels.
The human body depends on prana to function. Healthy thoughts and all mental functions depend on the proper flow of prana, which is why developing prana is so important for an abundant meditation practice.
To see for yourself, try closing your eyes and holding your breath for 20-30 seconds. Notice how your thoughts come to a pause. When prana is dormant, there are no thoughts. If prana is lost completely, all cognitive functions come to a halt.
On the one hand, this is a good thing: by controlling the breath, you can harness your thoughts. But on the other hand, imagine how distorted your thoughts would be if your breath was in some way impaired, as it is in most of us who’ve lost our ability to belly breathe. Pranayama has a profound effect on stagnant thoughts and stored negative emotions that have developed through improper breathing.
Where Does Prana Come From?
The main source of prana is the breath, which is a manifestation of prana; without it, life ceases. This is why proper breathing is so important. Prana also comes from food. Freshly picked fruits and vegetables are filled with life-giving prana, while anything canned, overcooked or old has very little prana.
Think back to a time when you ate a processed food such as chips or cookies. How did you feel afterward? Probably a little sluggish. As a contrast, think about the feeling you get an eating a bowl of steamy vegetable soup or a summer salad. The latter likely gave you a feeling of freshness due to its heavy dose of prana. Hence, both pranayama and a healthy diet are incredibly important for your prana.
What is Pranayama?
As BKS Iyengar explains, “Pranayama is the science of breath”. In this two-part word, prana means vital energy, life force, breath, wind or vitality, and ayama means “expansion”, “length” or “extension”. Pranayama is a conscious regulation of the breath: an altering of its natural flow. It’s a method of increasing prana, vitality, energy, and spirit by regulating or expanding the breath.
Four parts to pranayama:
1. Rechaka - Exhalation
2. Puraka - Inhalation
3. Bahya-kumbhaka - Suspension of the breath after exhalation
4. Antar-kumbhaka - Retention of the breath after inhalation
Beginner’s pranayama focuses on the exhalations and inhalations. While advanced pranayama incorporates inner retention, outer suspension, bandhas, and mudras. And although there are many types of pranayama, the following are some of the most practiced:
Anuloma viloma or alternate nostril breath is one of the most calming pranayama. In this exercise, the breath is exhaled and inhaled through one nostril, then exhaled and inhaled through the other. More advanced stages include breath retention.
Ujjayi or victorious breath is popular amongst the vinyasa yogis. The back of the throat is slightly constricted to make an audible, ocean-like sound with each breath. This mimics deep sleep and sends the mind into a meditative state.
A warming practice of vigorous exhalations and passive inhalations, kapalabhati or shining skull breath is also considered one of yoga’s cleansing exercises. It expels respiratory wastes and ignites digestion.
In bhastrika pranayama also known as bellow's breath, each inhalation and exhalation is big and exaggerated. It’s similar to how bellows are used to stoke a fire; only here, it’s the digestive fire that’s fueled.
Sheetali and Sheetkari
In sheetali or cooling breath, is inhaled through a rolled tongue, and in sheetkari also known as hissing breath, the breath is inhaled through lightly closed teeth and open lips. However, the effect is the same: a cooling, calming influence on body and mind.
Surya bhedana or right nostril breath, the breath is inhaled through the right nostril and exhaled through the left nostril. This heats the body and dispels any mental lethargy.
In Bhramari or honeybee breath, the eyes and ears are closed and the practitioner makes a long humming sound while exhaling. The gentle reverberation throughout the body calms the mind and the nervous system.
Benefits of Pranayama
The breath is closely linked to your overall health. It’s one of the body’s most important rhythms and influences each and every cell in the body; providing nourishment, energy, and mental function. Without proper breath, your health can suffer. Without any breath, you can only survive for a few minutes.
Tragically, most people do not breathe correctly. Most of the time, they only use part of their lungs, gripping their bellies, and then breathing shallowly into their chest and throat. Pranayama is the act of taking conscious control of the breathing process. It’s not forcing the breath in any way, but becoming aware of the breathing process itself, by creating healthy breathing patterns, and using the breath to bring stillness to the mind.
It’s believed that proper breathing increases a human’s life span. Yogis believe that each of us is granted a certain number of breaths in this lifetime. The slower you breathe, the longer your life will be. Whether or not you believe in this philosophy, slow, deep breathing makes sense.
The animals that live the longest, such as elephants and tortoises, breathe slowly. The opposite is true of animals with short, quick breaths such as birds and rabbits. Slow breathing increases vitality and keeps the heart strong, elongating the life span.
Benefits of pranayama include:
- Elimination of respiratory toxins
- Reduced blood pressure
- Reduced heart rate
- Balance of doshas (vital energies)
- Improved tidal volume
- Pain reduction
- Reduced anxiety
- Improved sleep
This last point, deeper meditation, is an important one. A disturbed mind is incapable of meditation. Pranayama can clear the mind of ignorance, desires, and delusion.
“As the breeze disperses the clouds that cover the sun, pranayama wafts away the clouds that hide the light of intelligence.” - BKS Iyengar
Getting Started with Pranayama
There are different types of pranayama to practice. Start with simple abdominal breathing and then work with a teacher to learn more complicated techniques. Classical yogic texts caution that pranayama must be learned by a teacher or a guru, as advanced pranayama can be detrimental to health if practiced incorrectly.
“As lions, elephants and tigers are tamed very slowly and cautiously, so should prana be brought under control very slowly in gradation measured according to one’s capacity and physical imitations. Otherwise it will kill the practitioner.” - Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Chapter II, verse 16
That might seem dramatic, but the overall takeaway is that pranayama should not be taken lightly. Consult a teacher, incorporate the tips listed below, and try to make pranayama just as important as your asana practice to keep advancing on the yogic path.
Practice in an airy, open space. - Don’t practice under a fan or under the hot sun; all of which can upset body temperature.
Practice on an empty stomach. - Ideally, asanas and pranayama are done before breakfast so there’s no extra pressure on the diaphragm or lungs.
Find a position you can sit in comfortably for an extended period of time. - You don’t want your posture to obstruct or strain your breathing. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika recommends sitting in Lotus pose, Easy pose, Little Thunderbolt pose, Accomplished pose, or Auspicious pose.
Sit with your spine tall to make full use of your lungs. - You might find it helpful to sit on a folded blanket or a firm pillow, or even on a chair.
Unless otherwise indicated, always breathe through your nose. - If you breathe through your mouth, the air you inhale won’t be filtered or warmed, and you’ll dry out your respiratory passageways.
Focus your mind during pranayama. - You could concentrate on the breath, a mantra, or a specific part of the body. If you don’t focus, the effect of pranayama is lost.
Practice pranayama after asanas and before meditation. - Asanas prepare your body to sit for an extended amount of time. Pranayama prepares and focuses your mind for meditation.
Take your time when advancing. - Slow and steady progress is essential in pranayama—there’s no need to rush.
Pranayama Foundations: Deep Abdominal Breathing
Before exploring more complex pranayama such as anuloma viloma or bhastrika, it’s important to learn how to breathe from the belly first. Everyone should begin learning pranayama through deep abdominal breathing; otherwise all other pranayama is useless.
If you’ve ever watched a baby sleep, you’ve witnessed deep abdominal breathing. With each inhalation their belly rises and with each exhalation their belly falls. This is the way that you are meant to breathe—but because of ego, stress, and improper posture, many of us form the bad habit of holding the breath or only breathing into the chest.
Many of us restrict the free flow of breath that causes the diaphragm to descend and the belly to expand with each inhalation. Thus, relearning proper breathing is a must. Students who skip this step may find themselves dizzy or short of breath when advancing, simply because they aren't breathing into their belly.
Learn basic abdominal breathing:
1. Lie on your back in Savasana; feet wide, arms relaxed by your sides and palms facing the sky.
2. Place a light object such as a paperback book on your navel and close your eyes.
3. Take a long, slow inhalation through your nose and fill the belly. Try to lift the book toward the sky. Imagine breathing through your navel.
4. Slowly exhale through your nose. Become aware of the book and belly falling toward the floor.
5. Now add counting to even out the breath: slowly inhale to the count of four, feeling the book rise, and slowly exhale to the count of four, feeling the book fall. Continue breathing like this for several minutes.
6. Then try practicing deep abdominal breathing while sitting tall. Keep your right hand on your belly and the left hand on your chest. Feel your belly expand outward with each inhalation and draw inward with each exhalation. Once you’ve mastered proper belly breathing, you can explore other pranayama practices.
Pranayama is a great yogic practice that transforms at all levels. It develops healthy breathing patterns that improve health in every sense. It tames thoughts and removes emotional blockages, making the mind more peaceful and balanced.
It enables meditation and helps the practitioner develop their connection to the universal breath. Pranayama is the gateway to going inward, and every yogi should make it part of their daily practice.
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