What is Pranayama?
An integral part of Yoga, Pranayama is a composite of two Sanskrit terms- ‘prana’ and ‘ayama’.
‘Prana’ is the vital force pervading all life while ‘ayama’ is the dimensional or the control factor.
Prashnopanishad (3:3) says: The prana is the shadow of the Self, a tangible manifestation of the subtle soul, the Atma. Pranayama is the art and science of controlling this prana through our breathing.
To understand pranayama properly we must first understand the nature of the prana and the related ‘prana vayus’.
Prana is intimately linked with chitta, the mental force. When one moves, so does the other. If you steady one, the other automatically stills itself in response!
Pranayama in Hatha Yoga
Hath yogis attempt to control the prana and through it, the mind.
Pranayama in Raja Yoga
Rajyogis, on the other hand, control the mind causing the prana to automatically fall in line. The final goal is always the same.
Pranayama in Samadhi Yoga
Samadhi Pranayama utilizes the fact that the prana can be directly controlled through breath.
Pranayama and the Yogic Practices
Pranayama is one of the eight primary yogic practices-
The 5 Prana Vayus
There are five major types of ‘prana vayus’. These are the types of vital energies flowing through the body in certain specific ways, directing the bodily functions and keeping the body and soul tightly bound together.
Prana is the first vayu, located in the thoracic region and responsible for pranic absorption.
Apana controls the waste-elimination and reproductive processes.
The third vayu- Vyana prevades the entire body and is responsible for circulation.
Udana lies between the ‘samana’ and ‘vyana’ and controls the throat movements and facial expressions. It is the vayu responsible for the movement of food and drink through the digestive system.
And last, but not the least, ‘samana’ is the vayu responsible for assimilation and digestive processes. Samana is linked directly to the ‘sushumna nadi’ and is considered by many to be the most important vayu function in Ayurveda. Maitri Upanishad (11:6) declares Samana to be a higher form of vyana.
Chandogya Upanishad says that the body and soul are supported on the prana. Prana, in turn, is supported on apana, and apana is supported on Vyana, They all ultimately rest upon the samana. Importance of samana is also underscored by the importance yogic practices place on diet control.
In addition to the five major types of pranas, there are also five subsidiary pranas – koorma, krikara, devadatta, naga, and dhananjaya.
Importance of Breathing
Breath is the key to all pranayamic practices. Inhalation is a direct means of absorbing prana and the manner in which we breathe sets off pranic vibrations- the vibrations that expand to fill our entire being. And yes, our lives are a product and a result of our breathing.
The manner of our breathing directly affects the brain and the central nervous system. The nasal mucous membrane is connected to the visceral organs throughout the body. When impulses coming from the nose are arrythmic, the visceral organs connected to the coccygeal plexus respond arrythmically causing disharmony and imbalances. Breathing Reality Embedded deep within the brain lies a bundle of neurons known as hypothalamus, a mysterious region that controls the emotional responses. The modern scientists believe that hypothalamic region is the one responsible for transforming perception into cognitive experience. In a way, the world as we see it is built there.
Erratic breathing sends erratic impulses and creates a disturbed response in hypthalamus, leading to a warped perspective of the world. This twisted perspective is perhaps the biggest cause of suffering in the world.
Breathing right corrects this perspective. Darkness is dispelled and the light shines on, bringing us closer to the Truth. And, yes, that the first step on the path of spirituality.
Breathing Techniques in Pranayama
In pranayama, breathing is an act to be performed with awareness and precision.
It is done by placing one hand on the belly and the other on the chest with deep inhalation using the diaphragm.
Here we focus on expanding only the lungs.
In this form of breathing, the sternum is lifted along the spine as the upper ribs and collar bones are pulled upward allowing the lungs to fill to capacity.
This is a combination of the above three techniques and allows one to have maximum inhalation and exhalation.
Inhalation is called ‘poorak’, retention is ‘kumbhak’, and exhalation is ‘rechak’.
The gap between exhalation and inhalation is called ‘bahya-kumbhak’.
The Samvritti and Visamvritti Techniques of Deep Breathing
‘Samvritti’ and ‘visamvritti’ are further techniques of deep breathing, but this time with ratios.
In samvritti the ratios are same across the inhalation, retention and exhalation, e.g, 3:3:3, three counts for poorak, and three counts for kumbhak and rechak respectively.
In visamvritti the ratios can be uneven, e.g, 1:3:1.
These breathing techniques can be practiced at a slow, natural or fast paces, depending on the type of pranayama and the instructions of the guru. It must be kept in mind that the control of prana is a tedious process requiring high degrees of alertness and perseverance.
Benefits of Pranayama
Regular practice of pranayama increases our internal pranic store, by tapping the primeval Brahmn, the omnipotent and omniscient prime mover that permeates all levels of existence, material or otherwise.
Inhalation is the act of receiving this energy.
Retention of the breath allows us to hold and savor the vitality.
Exhalation is surrender, letting go, the cleansing of the impurities.
Moksha or Englightenment
The ultimate goal of all yogic practices, including Pranayama is Moksha, the Enlightenment.
For the Body
There are other beneficial side-effects, such as improved immunity, optimal body weight, better digestion, a glowing skin, healthy hair, heightened intellectual capacity, sharper focus, better concentration, and a general sense of well-being.
This is one amazing benefit of pranayama and other yogic practices and is separately discussed in a later section.
Kundalini and Pranic awakening
While pranayamas are not specifically designed to awaken the kundalini, this pranic awakening does eventually happen with regular practice of pranayama. When the kundalini courses through the sushumna, not just the subconscious, but the nadis, the chakras and the entire physical being flares up like a million watt florescent bulb, drawing on that endless reservoir of divine energy, the Brahmn.
Types of Pranayama
While Anuloma-Viloma, Kapalbhati, and Bhramari are the most popular pranayamas that you might have heard of, the comprehensive list goes much beyond these.
Pranayamaic practices are generally classified into the following types-
Can be done either sitting or lying down. The lungs are filled with air and the chest is thrust out, expanded fully. Attention is on the throat as we make a rasping sound while inhalation and exhalation by contraction of the throat muscles. It’s good for heart and blood pressure. However, people with low blood pressure should avoid it.
The interrupted breathing technique. It’s like climbing a ladder and stopping at each step. It’s great for developing breath control. Care should be taken to avoid jerky movements during breathing.
Bhramari, Moorchha and Plavini Pranayams-
In Bhramari eyes and ears are covered using palm of the hand and fingers while making a sound of a humming bee.
Benefits of Bhramari Pranayama
This practice opens up the blocked nadis in the head and neck region, leading to improved brain functioning and clearing of karmic blockages.
Moorcha means to faint, or to swoon. It causes the experience of conscious unconsciousness and must always be done under expert guidance. It’s an advanced pranayama technique that purposefully induces hypoxia, by lowering the oxygen concentration in the body.
Plavini, means to float. It’s said to enable one to float on water. It’s an unusual form of pranayama about which not much is written. It’s a practice generally handed down directly from the guru to the disciple. However, most of the knowledge about this pranayama is lost now.
Bhastrika and Kapalbhati Pranayama
In Bhastrika Pranayama we force the inhalation and exhalation in quick even bursts, like the bellows of a blacksmith.
Kapalbhati is similar but with emphasis on the outbreath. The in-breath in kapalbhati is natural.
Benefits of Bhastrika and KapalBhati
Activate and invigorate the liver, spleen, pancreas, and abdominal muscles
Drain the sinuses and stop the running nose.
Create a feeling of exhilaration.
Sheetali and Sitkari Pranayama
These are special in the sense that they are done through the mouth and not the nostrils. These two pranayamas cool the body and bring a soothing effect to the ears and eyes.
An advanced practice that should only be attempted after mastering the ujjayi and viloma pranayamas. Here inhalation is done through the open nostrils and with mula bandha. These are powerful techniques that compound the effect of the earlier pranayamas.
Nostrils are narrowed by fingertips to enable the in-breath to flow with enough finesse and delicacy.
Surya Bhedan and Chandra Bhedan Pranayama
In Surya bhedan, the inhalation is done through the right nostril and exhalation through the left. It stimulates the pingla nadi, making you more energetic.
Chandrabhedan is the opposite of this and is generally not practiced except in special cases and only under the watchful eyes of a qualified guru.
Nadi Shodhana and Anumloma Viloma Pranayama
Nadi shodhana refers to a group of pranayamic practices that are basically a combination of surya bhedan and chandra bhedan pranayamas. Sometimes yogis perform an equal count of each, say 10 repetition of one, followed by 10 of the other. Others do it alternate. It’s a powerful pranayama and should be done only after attaining a degree of mastery over the previously mentioned pranayamas.
Pranic and Spiritual Awakening
There are many signs of spiritual awakening. Heightened senses are among the first. Mastery over the Earth element leads to levitation, the Udbhava. States of natural ecstasy, the ananda occur, leading to kampan, or tremors throughout the body. Swadhisthan chakra awakening grants mastery over water and the siddhas are known to be able to walk on water along with extreme sensitivity to vibrations. Extreme compassion for all living things fills the being. Yoga nidra, the sleep with awareness is achieved. Ghurni – reeling with bliss is also one of the indications of pranic awakening. Pranic awakening also grants siddhis, or the divine powers.
However, it’s advised to never display these powers or use them for personal or material gain as these siddhis are of a transient nature. These siddhis, if achieved in the course of yogic practices, must be kept secret.
The Advanced Stage The high yogis, or the mahasiddhas, are those who have achieved at least one of the ten mahasiddhis. During their sadhana many of them go underground, in airless holes where they focus on the prana, distilling it into a single point of light concentrating into their Ajna Chakra, midway between their eyes.
This focus on the third eye stimulates the mystical pineal gland and brings about all sorts of changes, including the attainment of siddhis and psychic powers. The third eye opens as the ajna chakra completely absorbs the pranic light and with it, the essence of consciousness. That’s when the breath stops. The prana still remains in the body, but there is no breathing. The pranic and apanic functions stop. Only vyana remains, prevading through this ethereal state of suspended animation.
The world today stands on the brink of change. The coronavirus pandemic has brought a shift in perspective as we, as a human race, are forced to reassess our priorities. Life and health undoubtedly emerge as the top priority for most of us.
Pranayama is a gift in that regard. It’s the breath of life, boosting the immune system, and minimizing the damage caused by the viral lung fibrosis. In today’s world it’s becoming ever more important that we adopt a lifestyle that focuses on the right things. An enriched and fulfilling life, filled with health, happiness, and compassion for fellow human beings and mother nature.
The benefits of Pranayama are innumerable. You can opt for whatever form resonates with you- anuloma-viloma, kapalbhati, bhramari, or maybe just simple deep breathing, and derive its immense benefits.
In comments please leave what you think about Pranayama as a practice. Do you already practice it in some form or the other or wish to take it up?
Healing vibes to you!