Pranayama has been known in India for over 4000 years. Even though words such as ‘yoga‘ and ‘asana’ have become household terms, the essence and depth of the practices remain unexplored for most of us.
Prana is a Sanskrit term, meaning ‘energy’ or ‘life force’.
Prana is the dynamic principle within everything, everyone is born with a certain quantum of prana, but the quantity and quality change continuously, as one goes through life. One receives prana from the environment, food, water, sun and air. Positive thoughts and yogic practices generate higher levels of prana.
The science of Pranayama was developed by evolved yogis though an intuitive and experiential understanding of prana and its influence on the human mechanism.
The breath is the main medium, in practising Pranayama. It is based on three stages of respiration: inhalation, retention, and exhalation. Retention is the key as it allows more time for the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the cells.
In the initial stages of practice, pranayama clears up the nadis, energy pathways in the body. There are over 72,000 nadis or pathways of prana in the body, and six chakras. The negative conditions we experience whether physical or mental are the cause as well as consequence of blockages of these pathways.
The subconscious mind and its relationship to the conscious mind are dealt with in pranayama by the establishment of an interface between the conscious and the subconscious minds in the area of the brain, called the reticular activating system (RAS). The RAS is the trigger for other parts of the brain. Man is able to affect the RAS through the breath only. No other function of the autonomic nervous system can be controlled by conscious human activity. Control of the brain through the RAS by means of conscious breathing is a method by which other functions of the body may be controlled, for example, heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, excretion and absorption.
Pranayama can be practiced by anyone, at any age or physical condition. It’s important to learn the practice from a qualified teacher. All diseases can be eradicated through proper practice of pranayama, improper practice can also lead to disease.
There should be no violent respirations, no extended retention beyond comfort, no forcing of the mind, breath or body.
This is the first pranayama described in the classical yogic texts. This prananyama has been shown to have significant effect on the parasympathetic nervous system. Read more here: Assessment of the effects of pranayama/alternate nostril breathing on the parasympathetic nervous system in young adults.
Nadi translates to ‘energy channel’ and shodhana means ‘to purify’. This prepares one for the practice of other pranayamas, but can also be practiced by itself. It is practiced by alternating the inhalation and exhalation between the left and right nostrils, thus influencing the two brain hemispheres. This leads to control of the oscillations of the body mind network, bringing balance and harmony throughout the system. Read more here: Pranayama and brain correlates
Bhastrika involves both rapid inhalation as well as exhalation. This helps to increase the circulation of blood in the entire body. It increases the oxygen content in the blood. The word Bhastrika means the ‘bellows ’. Just as the blacksmith blows his bellows to create heat and purify iron, Bhastrika is said to purify the mind and body.
Slow pace bhastrika pranayama (respiratory rate 6/min) improves the autonomic nervous system through enhanced activation of the parasympathetic system. Read more here: Immediate effect of slow pace bhastrika pranayama on blood pressure and heart rate.
In Sanskrit, kapal means the skull and bhati means to shine or illuminate. Some include Kapalbhati as one of the Pranayama, but in the classic yogic text it is classified under the purification techniques. Kapalbhati is a breathing technique where rapid inhalation and exhalation is done. The exhalation (rechaka) is forceful and rapid, while the inhalation (puraka) is normal. Kapalbhati purifies the nerves and the pranic channels. The Hatha Yoga Pradeepika claims that all impurities of the body can be removed by practice of Kapalbhati. It is the best practice available to oxygenate the blood. It helps to remove abdominal fat and is an excellent practice for obesity. It prepares the body and mind to take up advanced practices of Pranayama.
It is important to have a thorough knowledge of the techniques described above, before attempting them. The guidance of a qualified teacher is essential. Caution must be exercised by patients of high blood pressure, heart disease, chronic peptic ulcer, and pregnant women.
A demonstration of pranayama can be seen in this YouTube video, but again I would recommend going to a qualified practitioner.
‘Prana and Pranayama’ by Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati.