In this month’s yoga insight, we will be sharing with you an article on pranayama, covering it in context of the Hatha Yoga tradition, how it works, and why it’s fascinating.
The Sanskrit term pranayama means prana = life force, yama = retaining. Pranayama techniques are part of the Hatha Yoga tradition. We see it in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika from the 15th century for example. Pranayama exercises are varied and help you regulate the flow of life force energy throughout your being. The “retaining” comes from literally holding the breath. When we hold in the breath, the discontinuance between the inhalation and the exhalation can calm the cessations of the mind. The more we can extend it, the more we program our being to being in that state, and with practice we can learn how to be peaceful and in a meditative state while holding the breath in for prolonged periods of time (depending on what is best suited to each person) and be more in that yoga state: yoga citta nirodaha.
PRANAYAMA IN HATHA YOGA
According to yoga philosophy, we have five koshas (“bodies”): annamayakosha (physical body), pranamayakosha (energy), manomayakosha (emotional mind), vijñānamayakosha (higher mind) and anandamayakosha (bliss). As you see, pranamayakosha is the second of these. It fills and envelops our physical body. Prana travels through nadis (energetic pathways), the yogis believe there are as many as 72,000 of them!
Every limb of yoga is an aspect of the whole and is interconnected with that whole.
Pranayama is the fourth limb of yoga as listed in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (which contains eight limbs in total). Throughout the second verse of this text, he addresses the advantages of pranayama practice particularly for concentration without going too deep into the philosophy of prana and its nature. He does address it as a preparatory practice needed to advance through the other limbs of yoga: pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) and ultimately leading to samadhi (enlightenment).
When it comes to practice on the mat, pranayama can be integrated before and/or after the asana part of the class, but it can also be practiced on its own. It is also practiced as preparation for meditation. You can do pranayama any time of the day and choose from different techniques depending on what affects you would like to get from the practice. For example, nadi shodhana pranayama (the alternate nostril breathing) is great for balancing and calming the whole being, whereas surya bhedana pranayama (the Sun-piercing breath) is for solarizing, activating the system in a more dynamic and uplifting way.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Sometimes events happen in our lives in and by which stagnant energy creates blocks. This can make us feel imbalanced, tired, and confused. There are certain ways in which prana moves through our being, and when there is disharmony, we can apply pranayama techniques to redirect and/or centre the energy through the deep spine in between the ida (main left energetic channel) and pingala (main right energetic channel) and sushumna (main centre energetic channel). By practicing various ways of controlling the breath, sense-withdrawal is cultivated, and the rising of prana (Kundalini Shakti) energy in this case) towards the third eye is said to lead to enlightenment. By learning how to intentionally move and control our breath, we learn how to clear blocks which can often have great healing effects. Pranayama practice increases our vital life force energy and has many amazing benefits physiologically (for example: healthier heart rate, oxygen saturation and balancing of the nervous system); and also, mentally and emotionally as it has a clearing, purifying, balancing and liberating effect.
There exist pranayama’s for calming down, for energizing, for balancing, for cooling, for increasing inner heat, for preparing for meditation, and for healing, with some of their benefits often overlapping. Some pranayama’s are for example: Nadi Shodhana (“Alternate Nostril Breathing”), Ujjayi Pranayama (“Victorious Breath”), Surya Bhedana (“Sun-piercing Breath”), Chandra Bhedana (“Moon-piercing Breath”), Bhastrika (“Bellows Breath”), Kapalabhati (“Skull-shining Breath) and Brahmari (“Buzzing as a Bee”).
BENEFITS OF PRANAYAMA
Practicing pranayama Increases and enhances the quantity and quality of prana flowing through your being, and clears your energetic channel, your chakras, your aura – expanding into clearing energy in your surroundings and your life! It makes you feel full of vital energy, healthy, and positively charged. It balances, harmonizes your mind, body, and spirit and connects them. It can intentionally be practiced to heal certain parts of our body which need more life force. And of course, it makes you more aware of your breath. Something your life depends on!
*SOMETHING TO BE MINDFUL OF
It’s a good idea to take up yoga gradually and establish your yoga practice.
Although pranayama’s are safe to practice on your own, it’s good to learn them properly and preferably under the guidance of a yoga instructor who can tell you what you need to know about the pranayama and assist you with the technique, making sure you are then headed in the right direction for building up your home practice.
ON THE NATURE OF PRANA
I love pranayama because it is a powerful practice that brings me into presence and energizes me with pure beautiful life force, literally! It is true that it helps you to learn how to be more aware of the flow of energy through your body, and even direct it and regulate if you start making a stronger practice out of it. You get out of it what you put in!
What makes the nature of Prana a beautiful topic to be written about is its intangibility. Although it can be studied scientifically, the fascination around its original source is one that remains alive among many of us. Some esoteric notions of Prana look at Prana as vibrating consciousness – Shakti dancing around Shiva. If you are interested in studying the philosophy behind this in particular further, I would recommend you read The Doctrine of Vibration by Mark S.G. Dyczkowski (1987), a devoted scholar of Kashmiri Shaivism. However, to truly integrate knowledge in our lives, we need to put it into practice. Only then, when knowledge is wholesomely integrated, does it become wisdom. So, to learn more about prana, to refine your awareness of it and truly know prana: practice lots of pranayama! Close your eyes, feel the effects. Feel the different ways in which it manifests through sensations in your being – feel it as you take a deep, intentional breath in, perhaps a tingling up your spine, or as if there is a soft breeze moving inside you … do not limit your perception, be open to feel how it moves in your unique body, in your personal way. Your relationship with pranic energy is yours, and the better friends you become with it, the more you will also be able to align yourself harmoniously with your surroundings as you will learn to perceive energy better. I hope that by now you feel inspired to get started in becoming more intimate with your pranayama practice!
Thank you for tuning in! We hope this Yoga Insight on Pranayama has inspired you.
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