Pranayama is a significant part of yoga and involves specific breathing techniques and exercises. The word Pranayama has been derived from two Sanskrit words, “Prana” and “Ayama”, where “Prana” means “life force” or “life energy” and “Ayama” means “control of”. So then, the term Pranayama communicates to us control and expansion of prana. Pranayama is the fourth of the eight limbs of yoga, the structural framework of yoga practice as laid down by Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutras.
“Prana” is spoken of, as the culmination of all energy manifested in the universe. Basically, the force or energy which sustains life. It also encompasses the hidden forces that govern various universal phenomenon like light, heat, magnetism etc.
The prana within us is expressed by our breath, that is outside of us. We can regulate the prana within by taking control of our breath. The atmosphere and the cosmos all about us are abundantly full of prana. When we learn to breathe deeply, correctly and mindfully we ingest more vast doses of this dynamic energy. Slowing and controlling the breath helps steady the mind. A troubled or overactive mind can be brought to a state of calmness. Mastering the mind enables us to strengthen our will.
So, when we speak of Pranayama, it does not merely involve breathing techniques and exercises. It is, in fact, the art and science of mindful living. The breath is the core of what we think, how we act and what we truly are. It is the window to the deepest layers of our mind. Pranayama helps us to access the depth of our mind and expand our horizons to harmonize with the ever-expanding universe.
The basic philosophy of the practice of Pranayama is that the flow of life in and out of us is governed by the breath. So, regulating the breath through Pranayama molds our inner being keeping us in a state of balance.
What is Pranayama composed of?
Pranayama encompasses working consciously with the breath. It has three components to it namely controlled inhalation, ( in Sanskrit ‘Puraka’)controlled exhalation ( in Sanskrit ‘Rechaka’ ) and holding of the breath, ( in Sanskrit ‘Kumbhaka’ ) The process of putting all three components into practice is called “Sahita”.
Breathing is a process that alternates between inhalation and exhalation. This takes place in cycles when we take in oxygen to the lungs during inhalation and release out stale noxious gasses during exhalation. The brief gap in between that lasts a few seconds is where respiration takes place. We respire about fifteen times a minute and the instance of respiration takes about four seconds.
So, how does breathing in Pranayama differ? The first thing to remember is exhaling heavy and inhaling light. Slow breathing accompanied with longer exhalation ensures better control over breath and enhances mental and physical relaxation. Have you heard your yoga teacher say, “Take care of the exhalation and inhalation will take care of itself”? It is a common perception that inhalation is more important, but that is not the case.
Pranayama stresses upon “letting go” during an exhale. When you are breathing out, you are releasing and letting go. It takes the least effort. While exhaling long and heavy, give yourself completely to your breath and relax just like you do at the end of a hard day’s work.
When you inhale deeply, you lighten up your mind. Pranayama utilizes this set of simple ideas. These contending forces of inhalation and exhalation work together to bring out the compound effect in Pranayama.
The second aspect in Pranayama is awareness or mindfulness When we take deep long breaths, we are aware of breathing in and breathing out. We focus Just on the breathing ,which keeps us rooted in the present moment and we begin to realize – “THIS” moment is all encompassing. This present moment is all we have and is most important. We have kept away from worrying or fretting over past and future. We feel relaxed and light which enhances circulation of blood and oxygen.
Moving forward, we will discuss a few Pranayama practices.
Ujjayi means victorious breath and is also known as ocean breath, as this style of “husky” breathing sounds like the ocean breeze. It is quite common during asana practices, notably in ashtanga and vinyasa yoga classes. Ujjayi pranayama cools down the head. It can prove beneficial to people who suffer from asthma, snoring, thyroid problems pulmonary diseases and heart conditions.
How to do it:
- Sit comfortably in Sukhasana, simple cross legs position. Relax your body and keep your spine erect.
- Close your mouth. Inhale deeply through both the nostrils in a smooth flow till the lung fills up with air to their maximum capacity.
- Hold your breath for a second. Contract the back of your throat as if you are about to whisper and exhale slowly through the nostrils.
- The sound made during exhalation is going to be like an ocean wave or the ocean breeze or a gentle rush of air.
- The feeling is like we’re breathing out through our throat. The sound of the breath is husky.
- While exhaling, you will feel the air on the roof of the mouth.
- Repeat up to 20 times. You can practice this even while walking or standing at any time of the day.
Anulom Vilom Pranayama
Also known as alternate nostril breathing, this pranayama is a relaxing breathing technique, that balances the left and right hemispheres of the brain. It also helps release stress and fatigue, opening clogged energy channels in the body. It balances all opposing forces within and brings us to a place to deep balance.
How to do it:
- Get comfortable in Padmasana, The Lotus Position or then in simple cross legs posture. Close your eyes and rest your left hand on the left knee. If you are left handed do the opposite.
- Press the right nostril closed with the right thumb. Inhale very slowly from the left nostril to fill your lungs to their maximum capacity.
- Close both nostrils briefly, closing off the left nostril with the last two fingers of your right hand. Hold the breath till it’s comfortable approximately 5 to 15 seconds.
- Remove the thumb from the right nostril and exhale as long as you can, squeezing your abdomen inwards.
- Inhale in a similar way through the right nostril, expanding abdomen then chest, hold the breath briefly again by closing both nostrils and then slowly release the fingers from the left nostril and exhale nice and long.
- This is one round of the Pranayama and it is best if you start with 5 rounds as a beginner.
- With practice, increase it to 10 to 20 rounds in a sitting.
The best time for this pranayama is early in the morning before having your breakfast. Or then any time when your food is digested. All breathing exercises should be done when our stomach is empty ie food should be digested.
This pranayama gets its name because the breath sounds like a buzzing bee on the exhalation. If we want to de-stress ourselves instantly, this pranayama proves very beneficial. Bhramari Pranayama helps get rid of anxiety and is best for anger management and for people suffering from high blood pressure.
How to do it:
- Sit in a quiet place in Padmasana or any other comfortable posture.
- Close your eyes and relax.
- Place both your index fingers in your ears to close them.
- Breathe in deeply, filling your lungs to the maximum. Press your chin to your chest in “Chin Mudra” position and hold the breath for 5 seconds.
- Raise the head and exhale nice and long while keeping your ears shut, mouth closed and making a humming sound resembling that of a buzzing bee. A continuous ‘Mmmmmmmmmm…..’
- The sound vibrations will swirl around in the brain. Keep your eyes closed and feel like the sound is easing all the head and brain nerves.
- Repeat the same process 6 to 7 times.
Breathing is an automatic process but we can anytime interfere and voluntarily control it. Pranayama allows us to direct the breath under the purview of our will. This is a rejuvenating process that seems ordinary and mundane but it has a profound effect on the mind and body. Conscious breathing in Pranayamas puts us on the path of stability and healing.
Practitioners of Hatha Yoga have believed since long that “Prana Tattva” is above the Manas Tattva, or the mind element, as Prana is active even when the mind is not, for instance, when we are asleep. Since prana is considered more fundamental than the mind, should we not give it due consideration ? Don’t ignore this fact. Let’s all resolve to do active breathing exercises on a regular basis. Pranayama shows us the way !