To understand what is pranayama in yoga, we should go back through the history of yoga. The ancient yogis advocated the practice of pranayama to unite the breath with the mind and thus with the prana or life force.
Pranayama Yoga Definition
Prana is energy and Ayama is the storing and distribution of that energy. Ayama has three types of movements which are the vertical extension, horizontal extension, and cyclical extension. When we practice pranayama we learn to move energy vertically, horizontally, and cyclically to the areas of the body.
The Yogis say that prana circulates through the human body via a network of special channels called nadis, roughly equivalent to our network of nerves and blood vessels. The nadis, in turn, are governed by seven chakras, or wheels.
The three main nadis are called Ida, Pingala, and Shushamna. Shushamna corresponds to the spinal cord, while Ida and Pingala are represented as two inter-circling snakes on either side of it and maybe identified with the sympathetic nervous system.
Pranayama And Breathe
Pranayama is not just simply deep breathing. There is a technique for doing the pranayama breath.
Deep breathing tenses the facial muscles and makes the skull and scalp rigid. It tightens the chest and applies external forces to the inhale or exhale of breath. This creates hardness in the fibers of the lungs and the chest and prevents the percolation of breath through the body.
In pranayama, the breath is inhaled or exhaled gently and the cells of the brain and the facial muscles remain soft and receptive.
During inhalation, each molecule, fiber, and cell of the body if independently felt by the mind and is allowed to receive the prana or energy. You do not experience sudden movements and you should become aware of the gradual expansion of the respiratory organs and feel the breath gently expanding the lungs.
When in exhalation, the release of the breath should be gradual which gives the air cells enough time to re-absorb the residual prana to the maximum extent possible. This allows the energy to be fully utilized whilst it also builds up emotional stability and calms the mind.
The practice of asanas removes any obstructions which block or prevent the flow of prana. During pranayama, you should be totally absorbed in the fineness of inhalation, exhalation, and in the naturalness of retention of breath.
The yoga practitioner should try not to jerk or disturb the vital organs or stress the brain cells during pranayama. This is because the brain is the instrument that observes the smooth flow of inhalation and exhalation.
Similarly, during retention of breath, you should learn to retain the first indrawn breath with stability. If you lose this stability it is better to release the breath, instead of straining to hold it.
While you are inhaling or retaining a breath in a pranayama cycle, be mindful and remember to ensure that the abdomen does not swell.
Never strain the lungs or become agitated in Pranayama – both inhalation and exhalation must be smooth, calm, and flowing. The quality of your pranayama is more important than the quantity. If you feel uncomfortable and tense then you should return to normal breathing.
Pranayama Breathing Benefits
Patanjali states that Pranayama should be practiced only after a firm foundation in poses or asana has been established. Beginners should master the postures and gain control over the body before attempting Pranayama.
- Practicing Pranayama releases tension in the body calms the nervous system and keeps the mind tranquil.
- In Pranayama the brain becomes quiet and this allows the nervous system to function more effectively.
- It generates storage of energy in the body while it also strengthens and increases the capacity of the lungs.
- At inhalation, you receive energy into the body in the form of breath.
- Exhalation is the removal of toxins from the system.
Where Should I Begin
Pranayama practices are best learned under the guidance of a qualified instructor. It is not commonly known that many Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns practice traditional Hatha Yoga pranayama exercises that can be traced to the 9th century. Many experienced contemporary yoga teachers offer pranayama as part of their classes and this should be a great place for you to start if you wish to begin the practice.
A Simple Exercise
If you work in a sedentary occupation, you will derive great benefit from practicing pranayama while sitting comfortably upright in an easy chair.
For this exercise, gently lower your eyelids, relax your whole body and gently inhale through both nostrils, then hold the breath for a short time before exhaling effortlessly. There is no strict ratio needed to be established between inhalation, retention, and exhalation as long as the process is deep, gentle, and natural.
The important thing is that rhythm be established in your entire being so that the nerves are toned and the mind calmed.
You will be astonished how much easier your next task of studying or working will become, how unrest and disturbing elements will vanish from your consciousness.
Fatigue will disappear and you will feel deeply refreshed. However, in order to get the full benefit of this exercise, you must remember to keep not only your body but your mind passive.
The goal of a yoga practitioner is to be able to practice pranayama and so it is important to attempt pranayama only when you have mastered the yoga asana. Also, learn and practice pranayama under the supervision of your more experienced yoga teacher or guru.
The practice of pranayama can be complex where inhalation, exhalation, and retention of breath require a clear understanding of what you are doing and what you will achieve. Pranayama has to be practiced with sincerity and precision. You can’t achieve pranayama simply because you want to, you need to be ready for it.
For many, yoga becomes a lifestyle and the breath becomes that also when you master it. I hope you have found this topic helpful and there will be something for you to learn and guide you as you create your zen and well being.
If you have some experience or ideas feel free to share and comment here – I will respond as it is great to hear the reader’s thoughts.
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