Pranayama - The ancient Yogic practice of intentional, mindful and controlled breathing
Updated: Dec 25, 2020
“The Fundamental basis of whatever is, was and will be” is how Prana is described in one of the oldest Vedic texts on Indian medicine.
‘Prana’ in Sanskrit translates into life force and ‘Ayama’ is control, lengthening or extension.
Prana in Yoga is the vital force that circulates within us and also forms our aura or energetic body within and around us.
As human beings, we breathe about 23,000 breaths on an average per day.
Although it is an autonomic function of our body, it is one we can control, through different techniques.
This is where the powerful practice of Pranayama comes in.
Let’s dive a little deeper into this ancient practice and find out how a regular Pranayama practice can benefit us.
Patanjali, the Sage who is said to have compiled and put together the 196 Yoga Sutras (aphorisms/ verses) described Pranayama as a means to achieve higher states of awareness.
Come to think of it, any meditative practice aims at bringing the practitioner into the present moment. Meditation can be simply explained as awareness.
What then could be an effective way of bringing the attention into the here and the now? The breath.
We cannot breathe a past breath, neither can we breathe a future breath any sooner.
The present breath is all we have.
Tuning out of the auto-pilot mode and the thousands of racing thoughts that run through the mind and tuning into the breath is a powerful tool to anchor ourselves into the now and re-connect not only to the present but also to our body.
Taking a few minutes everyday to practice mindful breathing helps us put the oh-so-busy and distracted mind in the backseat and allow the subconscious mind to come take the wheel and guide us into observing things from a much quieter and calmer place.
Pranamaya is essentially the practice of mindfully and intentionally altering our normal breathing pattern using different techniques.
Regular mindfulness practices strongly correlate with reduced gray matter and and activity in the part of the brain that produces stress/fear responses, the amygdala.
There are many other key areas in the brain associated with wellbeing that are nourished through mindfulness exercises thus improving concentration, memory and attention span.
Time to dive a little deeper, shall we ?
In Yoga, the breath is more than just a physiological function. It is what sets everything else in motion. Pranayama is the expansion of life force within the body. According to Ayurveda disease starts in our energetic body before it manifests in the physical form.
A free and fluid flow of Prana is important to keep the body alive and healthy.
Yogic practices aim at promoting and sustaining an unbroken flow of prana through the 72,000 nadis of the body.
Nadis are subtle energy channels in the body that intersect to form Chakras (wheels or centers of energy).
When the flow of prana through the Nadis is restricted / blocked / broken / interrupted / jerky, certain parts of the body experience discomfort that can then go on to becoming bigger problems and diseases / illnesses.
On the other hand, when the flow of Prana is smooth and balanced, good health and clarity of mind follow..
Yes, you read that right, the quality of the flow of Prana has an effect on one’s state of mind.
A poor flow of Prana can therefore be the culprit of increased worries, depression, fears, tensions, conflicts and negative thoughts.
Yogic breathing practices are therefore extremely powerful tools to keep illness (in the body and the mind) at bay or to restore balance in times of energy fluctuations.
And the best part is that it is a tool that no one can take away from you.
Some of the Pranayama techniques are:
Kapalabhati - (energising breath work) also a “Kriya” or cleansing technique in Hatha yoga used for detoxification of the body and the mind.
Nadi Shodhana (balancing breathwork) - helps restores a balance in Ida and Pingala Nadis, the 2 energy channels flowing on either side of the central channel of energy (which flowsthrough the spine).
Bhramari Pranayama - (relaxing breathwork) involves making a humming sound, the vibrations of which deeply relax the nervous system and activate and stimulate the pineal and pituitary glands therefore improving sleep and restoring hormonal balance.
A quick note-worthy piece of information before we close this write up is that Pranayama is part of Patanjali’s 8 fold system of Yoga. It follows “Asana” (physical postures) and is followed by “Pratyahara” (withdrawal of sense). Pratyahara in turn is followed by Dhyana (meditation).
In simple words, Pranayama is a vital step in any meditative practice.
In today’s world, there is no doubt that we are ultra stimulated by the exterior world, through the senses which can develop cravings.
A regular Pranayama practice enables us to turn our attention inwardly and hone our ability to be and notice. Just be, and notice, sensations and thoughts without having to entertain wherever the mind goes and without desires.
Breathing is a gift that we can take for granted sometimes. It is a tool that we can use to create more ease and comfort in our lives.
Taking a few minutes every single day to honor our breath and practice some Yoga breathing techniques can promote health, enliven the body and the mind and enhance an overall feeling of wellbeing.
These are just a few reasons to invite a regular Pranayama practice into your daily self care routine.
Please note that because Pranayama deals with the subtle life force within us, it must be practiced with great awareness and care.
If you are still new to the practice, come join us at the Mindful Life Practice Community for a weekly Breathwork class to learn and practice Pranayama techniques. We would love to have you with us!
On this note, I leave you with a quote by Sri B.K.S Iyengar
“As a fire blazes brightly when the covering of ash over it is scattered by the wind, the divine fire within the body shines in all its majesty when the ashes of desire are scattered by the practice of pranayama.”
Join Pooja every Tuesday at 4:30pm Abu Dhabi / 12:30pm UK / 7:30am Toronto for a Guided Pranayama / Breathwork Practice. In addition to her brand new class which will combine two of the pillars of Yoga: Pranayama and Yoga Asana, or Postures - making it a truly wholesome experience on the mat. This class is at 5pm EST.
Check out the schedule below to book your spot.