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What is Pranayama and Why is it so Important in Yoga?

Yogic practices of pranayama have been known in India for over 4,000 years.  A huge part of Yoga is to learn the art of breath control, or pranayama, which is seen as the life force behind our physical body and the gateway into our internal psyche as well as a way in which to meditate and ultimately connect to the universe and to the Divine being; or our higher selves.

 

The Upanishads tell the following story. Once all the deities that reside in the body – air, fire, water, earth, ether, speech and mind – had an argument. Each claimed that it was superior to all others, declaring, “I sustain this perishable body.” Prana was listening to this debate, and ultimately said to them, “Do not delude yourself. It is I, having divided myself into five parts, who supports and sustains this body.” The deities did not believe him. Indignantly, Prana began to withdraw from the body. Instantly, all the other deities found themselves withdrawing too. When Prana again settled in the body, the deities found that they had assumed their respective places. Convinced of Prana’s superiority, all now paid obeisance to Prana.

The word prana is a combination of two syllables, pra and na. Prana denotes constancy, it is a force in constant motion.  Prana is the vital life force and pranayama is the process by which the internal pranic store is increased. Pranayama is comprised of the words prana and ayama, which means pranic capacity or length.  It is not merely breath control, but a technique through which the quantity of prana in the body is activated to a higher frequency.

Pranayama is practiced in order to understand and control the pranic process in the body.  Breathing is a direct means of absorbing prana and the manner in which we breath sets off pranic vibrations which influence our entire being.

When prana moves, chitta(the mental force) moves.  When prana is without movement, chitta is without movement.  By this (steadiness of prana) the yogi attains steadiness and should thus restrain the vayu (air)

Prana and mind are linked.  Fluctuation of one means fluctuation of the other.  When either the mind or prana becomes balanced the other is steadied.

 

The breath being the medium of pranayama, the system is based on the three stages of respiration: inhalation (pooraka), retention (kumbhaka) and exhalation (rechaka). By permuting and directing these three stages, the different practices of pranayama are obtained. Technically speaking, pranayama is actually only retention. Maharshi Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras state (2:49):

 

When you retain the breath you are stopping nervous impulses in different parts of the body and harmonizing the brain wave patterns.  Inhalation and exhalation are methods of inducing retention. Retention is the key because it allows a longer period for the assimilation of prana, just as it allows more time for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the cells. As the breath is also intimately connected with various functions and organs of the body as well as the mind, by controlling the breath we also influence all these dimensions.

At the pranic level, in their initial stages the practices of pranayama clear up the nadis, energy pathways in the body.

 

Benefits of Pranayama:

  1. Pranayama techniques are beneficial in treating a range of stress related disorder.
  2. Pranayama improves the autonomic functions.
  3. It helps relieving the symptoms of asthma.
  4. It reduces the signs of oxidative stress in the body.
  5. Practicing pranayama everyday can assist in steady mind, strong will power and sound judgment.
  6. Regular pranayama can extend life and enhance ones perception of life.
  7. Number of studies show that pranayama causes change in the cardio respiratory system including lowering of blood pressure
  8. Certain pranayama are excellent for weight loss.

Types of Pranayama

  • Anulom Vilom
  • Ujjayi Breathing
  • Shitali and shitkari
  • Bhastrika
  • Surya Bhedana
  • Nadi Shodna
  • Kapal Bhatti
  • Brahmari

 

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