Pranayama is popularly understood as a variety of breathing exercises. However, there is more to it. Apart from filling the lungs with fresh oxygen, the purpose of Pranayama is to use the effective air circulation in the physical body to influence the flow of Prana or energy in the Pranamaya Kosha or the energy Sheathe enwrapping our body.
Before a child is born, it gets its entire oxygen supply from the mother. After birth, the doctor, nurse, parents, all wait anxiously for the baby to start breathing. If there is a slight delay, there is a panic. The nurse holds the baby upside down, the doctor slaps the baby’s back. Then when a shrill cry is heard, all tension melts away – the baby is breathing! From that moment onwards the breathing process remains involuntary. However, what we fail to understand is the difference between a voluntary beneficial way of breathing and the automatic breathing for survival. In general, humans breathe badly. Shallow, brisk, involuntary breaths. Thus we develop improper breathing habits, using only a small part of the lung capacity. This causes shallow breathing and deprives the body of sufficient oxygen and energy or prana, essential for good health and leads on to lack of resistance to disease, making us easy prey to extreme stress and chronic ailments.
An essential prerequisite for a calm and contented state of mind is a consciously controlled rhythmic deep and slow respiration. Untrained, irregular breathing disrupts the rhythm of the brain and causes physical, emotional and mental blocks. Through a deliberately controlled breathing practice or Pranayama, an immense amount of energy, trapped in the dark neurotic thought patterns, can be released for use in creative, rewarding and joyful activities.
In simple words, Pranayama consists of breathing in, breathing out, inward breath holding and outward breath holding. Literally speaking ‘Pran’ means energy or life force that exists in all things and the definition of ‘Ayama’ is, extension or expansion. Hence true Pranayama is the unique technique or proven, age-old tools, to activate, circulate and strengthen the energy system, which then permeates into other dimensions like vibration and resonation. The undeniable consequences of serious Pranayama techniques are rapidly getting acceptance of modern science and medical faculties.
Yoga-meditation breathing is based on natural breathing, consisting of the rhythmic inward and outward flow of the breath through the nose. Consciously observe this flow of cool air reaching throat, chest, and lungs. Bring full awareness of the expansion and subsiding of the ribcage, rising and falling of the diaphragm. Abdominal breathing is the most natural and efficient way to breathe. However, often under extreme stress, poor posture, and to a certain extent, lack of guidance from guardians, this procedure is flouted. Irregular breathing throws into disarray the regular rhythms of the brain, causing physical, emotional and mental blocks. In the long run, afflicted individuals show signs of inner conflict and personality disorder, leading to a chaotic lifestyle and diseases. When the correct form of breathing is restored, healing and repairs begin and one starts to experience an improved state of physical and mental well-being. Thoracic breathing uses the expansion of the rib cage, to make more room for extra air in the middle lobes of the lungs. Yoga meditation uses all these methods to optimize inhalation and exhalation.
There are various Pranayama techniques. Each technique concentrates on a specific area of the human body and enriches the entire body mind and soul.
It is believed that there is an intimate connection between the breathing process and the flow of energy or prana along the nadis (energy channels) and chakras or energy grids. Prana, the life energy manifests in the physical platform as movement and action and on the mental platform as the conscious, subconscious and unconscious thought process. Through committed Pranayama practice, the performer attempts to fathom the cosmic nature and partake the supreme wisdom to conquer afflictions and petty limitations. The basic requirements for success with yoga-meditation are sincere determination, an ethical and well-structured livelihood in which unselfish thoughts and controlled breathing play an important role.
Breath awareness is the starting point of Pranayama practices. We must understand how we are breathing and the breathing pattern generally. Try to understand whether your breath is fast and shallow. Which part of the body is moving most? Notice if your breathing is quiet or little bit noisy. Try to feel the air temperature. In normal circumstances, the inhaled air feels cooler than the exhaled air. Feel the difference. With full concentration, your breath should become smoother and deeper. At this stage be aware of your breath only, how air is entering through the nostrils, then traveling down, along with the windpipe, into your lungs. When exhaling, be conscious of the toxins and carbon dioxide escaping from your body. There is no set length of time for Pranayama practices, do them as long as you enjoy without getting bored.
Breath is the most vital process of our everyday life. It influences the cells of the body, the brain, muscles, and the glands. From simple yet wise observation of animals, such as elephants and tortoises, who have a long lifespan, the ancient yogis realized the importance of deep, slow and steady breathing in prolonging longevity. Recent scientific studies have established that breathing through different nostrils have different effects on the human body. Right nostril breathing stimulates sympathetic nervous system (fight or escape response) positioned at the left hemisphere of the brain. Left nostril breathing, on the other hand, stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, whose typical response is relaxation and concerns right hemisphere of the brain.
In yoga language, there are three primary energy or air channels, Ida, Pingala, and Susumna. Ida channel is affiliated to the moon, which is cooling, restorative and feminine in nature and is connected to the left nostril. The right nostril, on the other hand, services the Pingala channel and is associated with the sun, being warming, energizing and masculine. Nadi Sodhana or Alternative Nostril breathing balances the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions of the Autonomic Nervous System. When Pranayama processes clear the blockages and breathing is comfortably balanced between the two nostrils, Susumna Nadi or the middle channel gets activated, awakening the serpent power, whose upward journey begins with inexpressible sensation, pleasure, and satisfaction.
One must not forget that Pranayama practices are not an end in itself. Proper Pranayama and meditation should lead on to liberation of the soul and the achievement of ultimate knowledge and wisdom.
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