What is pranayama?

Pranayama for beginners

For thousands of years, yogis have developed techniques to work with the breath as a means of cultivating balance and wellness in body and mind. But what exactly is pranayama and why is it so powerful?

Pranayama is usually defined as a set of practices designed to control prana within the human body by means of breathing techniques, meditative visualizations and physical locks (or bandhas).  The word pranayama is a compound of two Sanskrit terms, prana and yama – prana meaning “life force” or “vital energy” and yama meaning “restraint” or “control”. When the word pranayama is separated as pran and ayamapran meaning “life-force” and ayama meaning “expansion” or “extension” – we can conclude that in a Pranayama practice, we are not in fact trying to control the prana, but rather to free it.

Understanding prana

The Atharvaveda – one of the earliest Vedic texts on Indian medicine – defines prana as “the fundamental basis of whatever is, was, and will be.”  Prana creates an aura around your body, flowing through thousands of subtle energy channels called nadis and energy centres called chakras. If you close your eyes and sit in contemplation of this concept, you can actually feel this energy flowing within you. It is said that the quantity and quality of prana and the way it flows through the nadis and chakras determines your state of mind, which is why you are able to change your state of mind very quickly by simply connecting to your breath – the physical manifestation of your life force energy.

Everything that is called energy evolves out of Prana, because Prana is a living force, there can be no life without Prana.
Swami Muktananda Saraswati

While there are said to be 72,000 nadis within the human body, pranayama tends to focus on three primary nadis; ida, pingala and sushumna – corresponding to the left, right and central line of the body. These channels converge at various energetic vortices known as chakras, and energetic locks (bandhas) and seals (mudras) can be used in addition to pranayama as a means of moving, locking and sealing prana.

Experiences in life cause stagnation in your system through which your life force energy becomes blocked. When prana becomes weak or builds up in an imbalanced way, you experience fatigue, lethargy and lack of direction. This may be experienced as a general feeling of low energy, but it is also understood to be the root cause of all disease.

Prana is the driving force of all the functions of the body, the various functions of the body such as swallowing, digestion, and physical movement were all reliant of the efficient functioning of the prana within the body.
Samadhi of Completion: Secret Tibetan Yoga Illuminations for the Quing Court, Fransoise Wang-Toutain

What is the aim of pranayama?

Pranayama is one of the 8 limbs of yoga and precedes meditation by two steps, and uses deliberate control of the breath in order to extend your life force energy. Traditionally, the ultimate aim of this practice was to direct prana into the shushumna nadi (spinal column) enabling kundalini to rise, and thus bring about moksha (enlightenment).

Vedic seers and understood the direct link between the breath and the mind. On a practical level, you can use pranayama breathing techniques to help steady your mind and express yourself better.  When you are calm and happy, you are able to understand others more deeply. That’s why meditation, pranayama and other mindfulness practices that give you more inner clarity are so important – you feel that others can understand you better, and also you can express your views better.

A bird, which is tied by a string flies in all directions, returns to its point of bondage, as it does not reach any place of refuge. Similarly, dear boy, the mind flies off in all directions and, on not reaching any other place to stay, returns to the breath. This is because the mind is tied to the breath.
Chāndogya Upaṇiṣad

On a physical level, through pranayama techniques you can utilise and strengthen all your respiratory organs by exploring the lower, middle and upper parts of your breath and regulating your inhalation, retention and exhalation of the breath.  The practice offers far-reaching physiological benefits such as increasing heart rate variability, improving oxygen saturation and re-balancing your nervous system.

When you work on freeing your breath through pranayama, you are also working on letting the life energy flow through your body. This has the effect of energizing, relaxing and healing your body, allowing everything to fall into place. Pranayama literally increases and balances the life energy in your system.

Pranayama techniques

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is one of the first texts to give detailed descriptions of pranayama techniques, including suryabheda, ujjayi, sitkari, sitali, bhastrika, bhramari, murcha and plavini, each with their own specific benefits.

The four components of a pranayama practice are:

Puraka – inhalation
Antara Kumbhaka – the mindful pause after inhalation
Rechaka – exhalation
Bahya Kumbhaka – the mindful pause after exhalation

The components of Kumbhaka or breath retention are considered to be the most advanced techniques and are not to be practiced until the practitioner has mastered the other forms of pranayama.

Where Should I Begin?

The ancient Indian sages knew that some breathing techniques were simple to practice and brought great relaxation to the body and mind. These breathing techniques can be practiced with ease and at any time of the day on an empty stomach – examples include Ujjayi breath, Bhastrika, Nāḍi Śodhana and Bhramarī breath.

Pranayama is a powerful practice and it is always advisable to practice under the guidance of a qualified instructor, especially when learning more advanced breathing techniques. At Breath Evolution we offer both free classes and affordably priced courses online, making the practice accessible to you, no matter what your situation is and and where you are in the world.

At Breath Evolution, our courses incorporate the teaching of breathing techniques based in pranayama, to achieve specific health and wellness goals.

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