Pranayama = breath control
Prana = the fundamental life force/energy Ayama = to stretch, extension, prolongation. To channel and control pranayama is the conscious use of breathing as a tool to cultivate pranic energy inside the body. Breathing techniques have always been an integral part of yoga and mindfulness meditation. Therefore, when we first learn and hear about “pranayama,” we must realize that it is a subcomponent of the larger system of the eight limbs of yoga more properly called Ashtanga, which in English translates to “Eight Limbs.” Pranayama is the fourth of eight limbs of the science of yoga.
Regardless of which door one enters into the discipline of yoga, it is imperative to know that all eight branches are intimately connected and therefore work in tandem. That is to say, the body and mind are bridged and strengthened with greater control when incorporating more than one of the eight limbs of yoga into their daily life. The focus and end goal of pranayama is to learn how to channel and transport very subtle forms of pranic energy. There are purported to be well over 72,000 nadis (acupuncture junctions) in the body. All these nadis revolve around the three different parts of breathing as outlined below:
• Purak: Inhalation of breath • Rechaka: Exhalation of breath • Kumbhaka: Retention of breath
Pranayama is described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It is much more than just a mechanical respiratory exercise: It helps to obliterate and/or minimize daily stress and other psychological and neurotic conditions. When properly learning how to incorporate the many different pranayama techniques into ones daily life, it is only then that we come to learn how to master the mechanics and underpinnings of the mind or what is more commonly called chitta. Learning how to consciously change the biorhythms of the body and mind is unlike anything else. More often than not, we are learning how to rewire the circuitry and biochemistry of the brain. Pranayama helps us to change the alpha, beta, theta and delta wave lengths of the brain. It allows us to masterfully channel the subtle energy waves from one power substation to another. In many ways, the science of prana works hand in hand with what Rosicrucian philosophy calls the “Etheric Envelope.” Basically, the Etheric Envelope consists of four different grades or parts. Simplistically speaking, it is the notion of what we commonly call the invisible force ether. Its four parts consist of the first being “Chemical” ether, the second is “Life” ether, the third is “Light” ether and the fourth “Reflecting” ether. As you may have guessed, ether is not what is physical to the eye; however, neither are feelings. I think the important thing to understand is that everything in the universe has its opposite polarity, or set of complementary charges such as the charges of positive and negative poles in electricity.
So with these principles in mind, pranayama leads us into the second half of the Eight Limbs of Yoga (Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi). It helps escalate our experience by inducing the body and mind to higher states of subtle consciousness. Of the already mentioned 72,000 nadis, 40 are considered to be secondary and 7 are the major chakras of the body. It is through the gate of pranayama that we learn to experience the sublime effects of the healing chakras.
It is pranayama itself that helps to move and transport the very subtle forms of energy from within and around the body. You see, once we learn to introduce and redefine the patterns and ratios of the breath, it is unlike anything you may have ever experienced. Pranayama helps to build and maintain the bodys nervous system. Its uncanny powers allow for multiple immediate feedback loops, which ultimately help to bridge and strengthen the neurological components of the mind, body and spirit.
As Swami Rama once pointed out, there was once a Sufi scholar quoted to say “the subject of breath is the deepest of all the subjects with which mysticism or philosophy is concerned, because breath is the most important thing in life.” The first breath begins at life once outside the womb. The beginning of respiration transforms the dynamics of the circulatory and neurological systems.
Introduction and Notes on Pranayama
Here are some general guidelines to consider in the practice and instruction of pranayama:
1. Begin by clearing the nasal passages of any blockage by blowing the nose or using the neti pot (kriya technique).
2. As in asana practice, pranayama is best performed on an empty stomach.
3. Pranayamas such as Dirgha or Ujjai are most easily introduced to beginners in a reclining or supported reclining position. Bhramari should not be taught in a reclining position.
4. Initially, simply observe the dynamics of the breath without attempting to control it. Then begin to regulate gradually, leading over time into full pranayamas.
5. In seated pranayamas, it is essential that the practitioner is supported by bolsters, blankets, and any other props as necessary to achieve a straight, extended spine, so that the spinal nerves can draw prana, or energy, from the breath, rather than causing strain to the nervous system.
6. Be sure that the exhalation is smooth and even; if there is any choppiness or strain, stop the practice and return to the natural rhythm of breath.
Pranayama is the conscious use of breathing as a tool to cultivate and move pranic energy inside and around the body. Prana is the essence of life in its most subtle form. Prana is found in all things, but humankinds ability to control this flow provides an immeasurable tool for transcendence. “Prana” means the fundamental life force and “yama,” means to channel or control. The various pranayama echniques are used to channel subtle energy into the body or one might also say to bring energy into the subtle channels of the body. Yama in Vedic literature and iconography, is also the god of death, so if prana is the essence of life, the experience of breathing is the mid ground between life and death as we know it. Another explanation from the Sanskrit is that “ayama” (which means to expand) following “prana” suggests that the goal is to expand the body with vital force.
General Pranayama guidelines
1. As in asana practices, pranayama is best performed with little abdominal congestion due to meals or drinks.
2. Choose a reclining position initially for pranayama practice.
3. Do not force the breath to move or stop moving initially; simply watch what happens.
4. In seated pranayama practices, keep the spine extended.
The movement of the diaphragm places increased pressure on the internal organs. This has the following effects:
1. Acts to increase digestive homeostasis by facilitating peristalsis (normally incited by parasympathetic nervous system control), which is the wavelike movement of contractions of the intestines. Peristalsis works like a gentle pump for vascularizing the abdominal organs. It impacts the liver and helps with the removal of waste products. Also it acts on the kidneys by creating a massaging effect with the diaphragm. One role that the kidneys play is in controlling blood pressure.
2. The spleen, which is involved in the immune system function, is massaged and better able to perform its job of filtering blood, and storing lymphatic tissue and white blood cells.
3. The movement of the diaphragm supports the movement of lymphatic fluid from the lower body to the thorax where it is reabsorbed into the circulatory system. This aids in the production of immune system agents.
4. Pranayama regulates the flow of blood to the brain, which can stimulate both hemispheres of the brain creating balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Additionally, pranayama stimulates the olfactory bulb, which rests near the emotional center of the brain, and can have a quieting effect. Pranayama is effective for clearing the mind and concentrating attention mentally.
5. The full use of the lungs can prevent toxic buildup of waste materials in the bloodstream. Pranayama techniques affect the heart rate. Slow, even breathing can reduce the heart rate…. and in some cases canslow heart rate. This effect reduces the workload on the heart and makes its actions more efficient.
6. Many pranayama techniques can increase the flow of blood to the base of the lungs to remove fluids that build up there. The base of the lungs— where more alveoli are found due to gravity— do not naturally absorb as much oxygen because the gas more easily is drawn into the upper portion of the bronchial tract. Further, pranayama can increase the amount of oxygen transferred into the alveoli by extending the length of breath into the lower lobe of the lungs.
7. Pranayama affects the residual amount (functional residual capacity) of oxygen, which remains in the lungs more often than not making room for more air uptake by the alveoli.
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