Pranayama is the yogic practice of breath control, used to manipulate pranic flow in the nadis or channels of vital energy. The Sanskrit word pranayama comes from prana – subtle life force and ayama which means extension or expansion. It can also mean restriction or retention.
Physical, Mental and Karmic Benefits
Learning to breathe slowly, rhythmically and deeply fuels the metabolic processes, massages the organs below the diaphragm, ensures healthy circulation, normalizes body weight and oxygenates every part of your body to ensure healthy performance. The breath is vital in every aspect of our human experience.
The Tibetan phrase lung sem jupa chipa perfectly describes one of the most important benefits of pranayama. Lung means wind or prana, sem means mind, and jupa chipa means they ride together. The inner winds or prana ride in tandem with the mind. Actually they are like two sides of a coin or a horse and its rider. Consider someone in an extreme emotional state of anger, fright or desire, and you can see a direct link to the breath. This opens up the exciting possibility for manipulating the body and mind by controlling and directing our breath in pranayama. We can effect changes in the gross physical and subtle body and guide the pranic energy to enter into the central channel. This triggers the state of Samadhi. The major mental benefit of pranayama is that we can by-pass the mind by using the breath – useful, since most of our minds are in a constant state of agitation and not still enough to guide us into Samadhi. By virtue of the fact that what the breath does, the mind must follow; and what the mind does, the breath reflects, we can use pranayama to bring our minds to a state of stillness. No stillness, no Samadhi.
Subtle Body Focus – Prana, Channels, Chakras, Bandhas
Pranayama directly affects the subtle body. Highly energized prana is specifically directed into ida, the left hand channel, pingala, the right hand channel or sushumna, the central channel, to achieve specific psychic states. As you do your pranayama practice, allow your awareness to sink deeper and deeper into the nadis or channels. Visualizing the prana rushing into the two side channels as you inhale and into and up the central channel to the tip of your head as you exhale will intensity the effects of the practice on your subtle body.
Using our pranayama practice as a way to send someone we care about everything they want and need with every single one of our exhalations, and taking in and destroying all their woes and worries with each of our inhalations would karmically imbue our practice with the power to produce some very desirable results – we would want for nothing in our lives and we would experience a balanced contentment free of anxiety.
Outer Body Focus
You can change your physical body as well as your mood and your mind using pranayama practices. Stay focused on the breath as you do your asana or yoga poses – when you feel tightness or resistance – allow that part of your body to take over the breathing. Fill that space with expansiveness and release. When you come to a place of fear in your life or in your asana practice, you can also use your breath – sigh with your physical body as well.
There are many different types of pranayama, but they all use these four important aspects:
Retention of breath on an inhalation
Retention of breath on an exhalation
Most people don't breathe correctly. Their breath is shallow, even ragged. Many are mouth-breathers, which can cause any number of respiratory and other ailments. Breathing is not normally a conscious process, but if we learn to engage with it consciously, we can change the way we breathe and consequently, the way we think, act and live. When we consider that we take an average of 21,600 breaths (in and out = one breath) a day, that’s a lot of repetitions to be doing incorrectly!
Pranayama is not a practice that you can learn from an article or a book – it requires the guidance of a teacher at all times. But you can get started with some breathing exercises which will act to correct any bad habits you might have, acclimatize your lungs and brain to an increased volume of oxygen and a new rhythm, and relax you deeply. Always breathe through your nose unless otherwise instructed.
Abdominal or Diaphragmatic Breathing
Lie on your back in Shavasana or Corpse Pose with your right hand on your navel and your left hand over your heart. Just notice your natural and spontaneous breath with no attempt to change or control it. Then bring your awareness to your right hand and notice the rise and fall of your belly. Your left hand will stay quite motionless. Imagine that it is your navel that is inhaling and exhaling. Rising and falling. Up with the in-breath, down with the out-breath. Slow and relaxed. No effort. Continue for a few minutes.
Sit in a comfortable meditation posture or take Shavasana – relax your whole body. Now bring your awareness to your rib cage. If it’s comfortable to do so, you can place your hands on the sides of your rib cage, with thumbs to the back and fingers to the front. Otherwise, just imagine that you are doing so. As you breathe, focus single pointedly on the sides of your rib cage – expanding outward and upward as much as you can. Your belly should stay relatively still. As you exhale, the rib cage contracts. As you inhale, it expands. Expand the sides of your chest as much as possible. Continue for a few minutes. Then relax and notice how your spontaneous breathing might have changed.
Tips from Deep Retreat
Pranayama is a deceptively simple but EXTREMELY powerful practice and its results can sneak up on you quickly, both good and bad! Always follow your Teacher’s instructions and never exceed or change your recommended practice.
Keep the corners of your mouth turned up (this keeps your side channels open) and your back absolutely straight (this keeps your central channel open). Even a slight incline of the spine or head can inhibit breathing.
We noticed that we often made daily adjustments in our practice. What seems perfect on one day feels like way too much the next – respect this, and adjust accordingly. With pranayama, less is always better than too much.
Drink plenty of pure water, although not directly before practicing.
If you do pranayama incorrectly or especially if you practice beyond your capacity, you will develop a condition called lung in Tibetan, prana vayu disorder or derangement in Sanskrit. This can be very serious, even life-threatening, and can prevent future practice of pranayama if not immediately addressed. Some symptoms to watch out for:
- Frothy urine
- Tremors or shakiness
- Tightness in the chest or forehead; headache
- Irritability, discontentment
- Hyperactivity or feeling “wired” - increased heart rate
- Hysterical laughter for no apparent reason
- Loss of appetite; rapid weight loss
Here’s what we noticed from conservative, consistent, dedicated practice done correctly combined with heart opening meditations:
- Very clear-headed thinking
- Accurate gauging of food intake requirement (less than you think)
- Gradually occurring optimal body weight
- Feelings of relaxation and calmness of the body and mind
- Happy, contented states of mind
- Feelings of bliss and indescribable ecstasy
- Ability to concentrate
- Improved focus on outer tasks as well as in meditation
The sun kisses the treetops in the early morning - soft, golden light, then again in the late evening as we are finishing our first and last sessions of pranayama. All the while, the birds rejoice in the glory of it all, singing their songs. The birds teach us so much about joy. We LOVE going to bed with the sounds of the birds and then waking up with the sounds of the birds. Birds are so magnificent - the way they interface with the seen and the unseen.
Always lie down in Corpse Pose – Shavasana – after doing pranayama practice. If you are doing your pranayama in Shavasana, stay resting for several minutes after you have finished.
Always check with your health caregiver before commencing unfamiliar yogic practices. Find a competent yoga teacher who is properly trained in the techniques of the classical texts on yoga such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Avoid pranayama if you are sick.