This is a two-part series to explain the importance and benefits of Pranayama. In the first part Let’s discuss the concept and meaning of pranayama as defined in Hatha Yoga and Patanjali Yog Sutra. In the next part of this blog, the techniques and benefits of each technique are discussed in the detail.
It should be noted that Pranayama is not deep breathing similarly retaining the breath once only as long as one can do so is not the way of Pranayama. Prana Means the vital force, Ayama is the lengthening or widening through control. When breathing is controlled so as to retain the prana, it is Pranayama.
The ultimate aim of Pranayama is to be able to retain the breath. There are three types of Pranayama, namely, Puraka (inhalation), Rechaka (exhalation) and Kumbhaka (retention) are of two types, Antaranga (internal) and Bahiranga (external).
Tatah Ksiyate prakashavaranam”
Thereby the covering of light disappears.
Tatah Ksiyate prakashavaranam”
Thereby the covering of light disappears.
It is said in Patanjali Yoga Sutra that by the practice of Pranayama the psychic centers are activated and as a result of that, the covering of knowledge is removed. Prakasha here means the psychic centers. The psychic centers are usually covered or veiled due to sensory experiences. The luminosity of these subtler vehicles is limited or covered by the physical matter of the brain.
In pranayama practices breath is considered as the vehicle which harmonizes, activates and liberates psychic and vital energies in the body.
Removal of covering by Pranayama means removal of the covering physical matter over the psychic faculty. It means that when you have practiced Pranayama something happens in you by which the psychic energies are released from the veil or control or obstruction of the physical mechanisms of the brain. Energy is released even when you switch on the light or switch on the fan. Pranayama creates a similar condition in the brain by which the inherent psychic faculties are released.
In the tradition of Hatha Yoga, practices of pranayama should only be started once the body is released from dross and energy channels are free from blockages through the practices of Shatkarma (cleansing techniques), Asana (Hatha yoga pose) and Yogic diet. Pranayama is more than simple breathing exercises and it must be practiced systematically and under the proper guidance.
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 internal pranic store is increased. Pranayama is comprised of two words Prana & Ayama. Which means Pranic capacity or length: It is not merely breath control but a technique through which quantity of Prana in the body is activated in a higher frequency.
In yogic terminology, it is said that whatever is manifest is the sthoola rupa or gross form of the subtle, cosmic energy, known as prana. In yoga and tantra, there is an eternal truth: the basis of existence depends on the two forces, Shiva & Shakti, consciousness and energy, ultimately they are not two forces but one; Shakti or prana is the creative and dynamic aspect of consciousness or Shiva. The purpose of hatha yoga is the realize Shiva or consciousness by means of Shakti or Prana.
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 breathe sets off Pranic Vibration 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)’. II/2 Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Prana and mind are intricately linked. Fluctuation of one means fluctuation of others. When either the mind or the prana becomes balanced the other is steadied. Hatha yoga says, control the Prana and the mind is automatically controlled, whereas Raja Yoga says, control the mind Prana gets controlled. These are two approached of yoga. The mind is equated with a wild monkey, jumping here and there. Because of this inborn tendency, it is very difficult to hold it still. Hatha yoga says let the mind be concentrate on the automatic body functions and vital energy and mind will become quite by itself.
When the nervous impulses steady and rhythmic, the brain functions are regulated and the brain waves become rhythmic. The breathing process is directly connected to the brain and central nervous system. It also has some connection with the Hypothalamus, the brain center, which controls emotional responses. The Hypothalamus is responsible for translating perception into the cognitive experience. Erratic breathing sends erratic impulses to this center and thus creates disturbed responses.
There are also certain areas of nasal mucous membrane which are connected to the visceral organs. When impulses coming from the nose are rhythmic the visceral organs, particularly those connected to the coccygeal plexus, respond in the same manner, rhythmically. Being disturbed, these organs again send irregular impulses to the brain and cause more disharmony and imbalance. This cycle is continuous.
By becoming aware of the nature of breath and by restraining it, the whole system is controlled. When you retain the breath you are stopping nervous impulses in different parts of the body & harmonizing the brain wave patterns. In Pranayama, it is the duration of breath retention which has to be increased. The longer the breath is held the greater the gap between nerve impulses and their responses in the brain. When retention is held for a prolonged period mental agitation is curtailed.
Actually, Patanjali defines Pranayama as the gap between inhalation and exhalation. Pranayama is usually considered to be the controlled inhalation and exhalation combined with retention. However, technically speaking it is the only retention. Inhalation/exhalation are methods of inducing retention. Retention is most important because it allows a longer period for as it allows more time for the exchange of gases in the cells. I.e. oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Patanjali further says that retention of breath after expiration removes the hindrance to yoga. In Hatha Yoga, Yoga is the union of the two poles of energy within us, known as Ida (the mental or psychic force) and Pingala (the vital force). In mundane awareness, these poles are separate from each other. In transcendental awareness, these poles come closest together and during retention, the poles come closest together. Breath retention must be developed in order to stop the fluctuation of the brain and mind so that more expansive types of experience can develop.
When you go further into yoga, there comes a time when you must have some control of the mind so you can dive deeper within yourself. When you try to practice mantra or meditation, the fluctuating mental waves create a barrier between you and the object you are trying to focus your awareness on.
In the next part of this blog, learn about the Types of Pranayama and Their Benefits.
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Sushant is Meditation & Philosophy Teacher and Academic Director at Rishikesh Yogis. Sushant carries long years of experience teaching practical as well as philosophical aspects of Kundalini yoga, Kriya yoga, Hatha Yoga and Tantra philosophy.