Have you ever attended a Yoga class where you’ve been directed into breathing exercises, told to watch your breath or to control your breathing? If so, you have already practiced some Pranayama. If not, let your journey begin now!
What is Pranayama?
Prana means life force or energy, it is the living energy that exists in all things. Ayama means extension or expansion. Therefore, pranayama practices provide a means for activating the life force within us, expanding it’s flow and providing a means for experiencing heightened clarity and connectedness.
Our lifestyle has a significant effect on our bodies and our energy. Our patterns of work, sleep, exercise and diet all affect the level and flow of prana in our bodies. Our prana can be disturbed by having an irregular lifestyle or by resting not enough or too much. Our prana is also affected by our thoughts and emotions, and the activities of our mind. Pranayama practice can help to energise and stabailise the body.
According to ancient texts, Hatha Yoga is concerned with the unification of the Sun force, which is heating and masculine, and the Moon force, which is cooling and feminine. It is said that pranayama techniques are a powerful way to unite these energies.
Pranayama and the Nervous System
On an anatomical level, pranayama is related to our nervous system responses. Breathing is related to the autonomic nervous system which is comprised of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is often referred to as our ‘fight or flight’ response and is generally responsible for letting our body know when we are in danger. The body will react by producing a shortened, sharp breath, as well as other responses like sweating and losing bladder control. The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, helps our body to clam down after the stressor has passed.
However, because of our busy lives and constant stressors, often our sympathetic nervous system becomes active when real danger is not actually at hand. This often translates to panic, anxiety and stress. If we learn to control our breath and notice the sympathetic nervous system response we can override it by calming our breath, and therefore our body, our mind and the situation at hand.
Focusing the Mind
When practicing pranayama we must attempt to focus our mind completely on our breath and body. It is not correct to simply go through the motions of pranayama practice with out mind elsewhere. Of course, it is normal for our mind to wander at times, however, when we notice we must kindly bring it back to our breath and back to the present moment.
It is important to note that before our modern time, many practices of Yoga were handed down privately from teacher to student. Pranayama would only be engaged in once the teacher felt the student had a sufficient level of body regulation through their asana practice. Therefore, it is important to approach pranayama techniques slowly and with discretion.
To gain the benefits of Pranayama practice one needs to practice for a long time. Before altering the breath rhythm it is important to ensure you are able to breath smoothly and slowly.
Establishing smooth, slow breathing
To establish smooth, slow breathing begin with full awareness of inhale and exhale into the lower abdomen. Do not hold or force your breath, do not make the breath too noisy. Practice for 2-5 minutes, building time slowly. Rest afterwards.
Once smooth slow breathing has been established you may introduce Kumbhaka, which is breath retention after inhalation or exhalation. Focusing on inhalation, and retention after inhalation has an energising effect while focusing on exhalation and retention after exhalation has a calming effect.
When beginning Pranayama practices the following guidelines should be followed:
Breathing – Always breathe out of the nose, unless directed otherwise. Do not strain your breath, it is OK to relax, come back to normal breaths and start the practice again. It should never feel like you are drowning!
Time – Sunrise and sunset are the best times to practice
Place – Practice in a quiet room without draft or cold
Sitting – Sit with the spine straight, perhaps on a folded blanket, pillow or chair
Showering – do not shower immediately after practice, let your nervous system settle first
Eating – Do not eat within 3-4 hours of practice.
Contraindications – Avoid intense pranayama practice while menstruating
Delving into Pranayama practice can increase our energy and vitality, and help control our nervous system response. It is a step towards balancing the solar and lunar forces within our body and is a step towards peace in body, mind and heart.
Want to learn more about Pranayama, including ancient techniques and how it affects the subtle body? Grab a copy of the book 'Prana and Pranayama' by Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati.