Pranayama is thought as breath control technique but actually it’s much broader than just that. The word “Pranayama” is comprised of two root words –
Pranayama is Prana + yama; where Prana is the vital energy and yama means to control.
Pranamaya is Prana + ayama; where Prana is the vital energy and ayama means expansion.
In a way both of them are right. Pranayama is the science of understanding, controlling and there by expanding the dimension of prana.
The pranayama techniques provide the method whereby the Prana can be activated, regulated in order to go beyond one’s normal limitations and attain a higher state of awareness. Therefore, pranayama should not be considered as mere breathing exercises aimed at increasing the vital lung capacity. It rather utilises breathing to influence the flow of Prana in the Nadis / subtle energy channels of Pranamaya Kosha / energy body.
4 aspects of Pranayama:
In the pranayama practices there are 4 important aspects of breathing which are utilised. They are as follows –
- Pooraka – Inhalation
- Antar khumbaka – retention of breath after inhalation
- Rechaka – Exhalation
- Bahir khumbaka – retention of breath after exhalation
There is another 5th aspect also called Kevala Khumbaka – which is automatic sessation of breath which occurs during advanced stages of pranayama / during higher states of meditation.
In Pranayama practices more emphasis is given to Pooraka and Rechaka at the begining to strengthen the lungs and balance the nervous system and gradually Kumbaka is introduced.
According to the yogic philosophy; we are not just the body but are comprised of five sheaths / pancha kosha, which account for the different dimensions of human existence. They are –
- Annamaya kosha / food or physical sheath
- Manomaya kosha / mind or mental sheath
- Pranamaya kosha / vital energy or bioplasmic sheath
- Vijnanamaya kosha / intellect or higher mental sheath
- Anandamaya kosha / transcendental or bliss sheath
The practice of Pranayama works mainly with the Pranamaya kosha. The pranamaya kosha is made up of five major pranas known as pancha pranas. They are –
- Prana – In this context it does not refer to the cosmic Prana but rather to one flow of energy which governs thoracic area (btw larynx & top of the diaphragm. It is associated with the heart, respiratory organs together with the muscles and nerves that activate them. It is the force by which breath is drawn in.
- Apana – governs the abdomen, below the navel region, large intestine, kidneys, anus and genitals. It is concerned with expulsion of waste from the body and is the force which expels breath.
- Samana – Located between heart and navel. It activates and controls the digestive system – the liver, intestines, pancreas & stomach and their secretions. It is concerned with assimilation and distribution of nutrients.
- Udana – governs the neck and head, activating all the sensory organs – eyes, ears, nose, tongue & skin. It also harmonises and activates the limbs and all their associated muscles, ligaments, nerves and joints. It is responsible for erect posture of the body, sensory awareness and the ability to respond to the outside world.
- Vyana – pervades the whole body, regulating and controlling all movements and coordinating other pranas.
In addition to pancha pranas there are 5 minor pranas / upapranas
- Naga – responsible for belching & hiccups
- Koorma – responsible for blinking eyes
- Krikala – generates hunger & thirst, sneezing & coughing
- Devadatta – induces sleep and yawning
- Dhananjaya – lingers after death and upon its departure decay and decomposition of the body begins to happen.
Prana & Lifestyle
Physical activities such as exercise, work, sleep, intake of food and sexual relations all affect the distribution and flow of Prana in the body.
Mental activities such as emotions, thought and imagination affect the Prana even more.
Irregularities in lifestyle, dietary indiscretions and stress deplete and obstruct Pranic flow. Depletion of energy in a particular Prana leads to devitalisation of the organs and limbs it governs and ultimately to disease or metabolic dysfunction.
The Pranayama techniques reverse this process, energizing and balancing the different Pranas within the Pranamaya Kosha.
In addition to influencing the quality of life, the lifespan is also dictated by the rythm of respiration. The ancient yogis and rishis studied nature in great detail – they observed that animals with a slow breath rate such as – pythons, elephants & tortoise had a long life span whereas those with a fast breath rate like birds, dogs and rabbits had a short lifespan. They realised the importance of slow harmonious breathing for increasing vitality!
References – Satyananda, S. (1996). Asana pranayama mudra bandha. Bihar: Yoga Publications Trust.
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