“Control of breath is Pranayama”. “Prana” is breath or vital energy in the body. On subtle levels the energy responsible for life or life force is represented by prana, and, “ayama” means control. One can achieve healthy body and mind by controlling the rhythms of pranic energy with pranayama. Patanjali, in his text of Yoga Sutras mentioned pranayama as means of attaining higher states of awareness; he mentions the holding of breath as important practice of reaching Samadhi. Hatha Yoga also talks about 8 types of pranayama which will make the body and mind healthy. Prana, Apana, Vyan, Udana and Samana are the five types of prana responsible for various pranic activities in the body. Out of these Prana and Apana are most important. Prana is upward flowing and Apana is downward flowing. Practice of Pranayama achieves the balance in the activities of these pranas, which results in healthy body and mind.
Preparation for Pranayama
People have similar attraction to Pranayama as they have to Yogasanas. The process of Pranayama is concerned with the breathing, the indicator of life. And therefore, if it is done wrongly, it may do harm to the person. This fear dissuades many from taking up Pranayama. It is a truth that there are many yogasana teachers available but very few teachers are available who correctly and scientifically teach pranayama. Thus this is the second reason for its unpopularity. But it does not mean that it is such a difficult process, that it cannot be done by a common man. On the contrary, if it is learnt and practiced under an expert’s guidance, one learns soon and experiences the wonderful and even unimaginable benefits.
It is necessary to understand the process of breathing before examining the exercises of breathing. Inhaling and exhaling are the activities chiefly involved in the process of breathing. In Yogashastra inhaling is called “Puraka” and exhaling is called “Rechaka”. These two activities continue non-stop right from the birth to the death of a person. The state when these two activities are made to halt is given the name “Kumbhaka” in Yoga Studies. The halt after “Puraka” or inhaling is called “Abhyanatara Kumbhaka” and after “Rechaka” or exhaling is called “Bahya Kumbhaka”.
Best time to practice Pranayama
Pranayama or breathing exercise can be a great way to start your day. Early morning is the best time to practice pranayama, especially outside where you can find fresh air. It is always recommended to do breathing exercises on an empty stomach.
To do pranayama sit in a comfortable cross legged position on a yoga mat. Make sure your head, neck and chest are in a straight line and keep your spine stretched. Pranayama should not be performed within an hour of eating (minimum 2 hours gap should be maintained) or sexual activity without at least an hour gap.
Who should not be doing Pranayama
Pranayama should be practiced with care and it would be better to do advanced pranayama under a proper guidance of a teacher.
- Pranayama is not recommended during menstruation and pregnancy
- Anyone with any form of heart condition, particularly if they have a recent history of heart attack (but recent studies and research by pranayama scholars have found that in the case of blockages of arteries in heart, anuloma-viloma (or, alternate nostril breathing) has been found helpful. It should be done slowly and in relaxed manner and not fast). People with low blood pressure must practice pranayama under the guidance of a teacher
- Avoid if you have fever, bronchitis, or pneumonia
- Anyone going through radiation or chemo therapy
- But in recent times, some yogis in India like Baba Ramdev propagate that even people having cancer can feel relaxed if they continuously do a 30-minute cycle of kapalbhati and anulom-vilom pranayama each.
- Not recommended for anyone going through psychological condition, sadness, grief, trauma, anger, anxiety, depression or suicidal feelings
Benefits of Pranayama
Benefits of pranayama are both tangible and intangible. God has provided prana, the supreme source of power free of cost to all human beings. Proper utilization of this free source of energy can make remarkable changes to our health, vitality and self-confidence. We cannot simply equate prana with oxygen present in the air, the air we breathe is also filled with vital energy known as prana.
All benefits of pranayama cannot be written down but there are lot of subtle changes like mental peace and clarity of thought that occur in our mind.
Reduced breathing rate
Yogic breathing can train you to breathe more slowly and more deeply. The breathing rate can be reduced to 5 – 6 breaths a minute from about 15 breaths a minute. This amounts to reducing the breathing rate by one-third. Reducing breathing rate leads to:
- As more oxygen is pumped into the body system even with less number of breaths, slowing down of the heart rate occurs. Follow the ration of 1:2 for inhalation:exhalation
- Reduced wear and tear of internal organs
- Lowering of blood pressure, relaxation of body tensions and quieter nerves
Pranayama practice increases life
The longevity of life depends on your breathing rate as per the yoga philosophy. The life span of person can increase by lowering the breath rate. For example, a tortoise takes four to five breaths in a minute and lives up to 200 years or more.
Blood circulation improves
The freshly oxygenated blood (due to inhalation) travels from lungs to the heart due to pranayama. The heart pumps it via arteries and blood vessels to every part of the body, where in turn it seeps into every tissue and cell. Due to this process, more oxygen / prana or cosmic energy reaches all parts of the body and also improves the blood circulation in the entire body.
Pranayama for a healthy heart
In our body, the heart is the most industrious organ. The heart beats 100,000 times a day. Non-stop all your life it is pumping blood day in and day out. The health of your heart determines your life expectancy and quality of life in old age. More oxygen in the blood means more oxygen to muscles of the heart.
Benefits of pranayama for functioning of the body organs
- Better functioning of autonomic system improves the working of lungs, heart, diaphragm, abdomen, intestines, kidneys and pancreas
- Diseases pertaining to digestive organs are cured and digestive system is improved
- Lethargy / fatigue due to general irritability vanishes
- Pranayama strengthens the immune system since by the practice of pranayama all body organs get more oxygen, toxins are removed from the body, therefore the start of various diseases is prevented.
Better mental health
- Continuous pranayama practice provides freedom from negative and harmful mental conditions like anger, depression, lasciviousness, greed for money, arrogance, etc.
- Pranayama prepares the mind for meditation as it controls the fluctuations of mind. You will start experiencing lightness of body, feeling of inner peace, better sleep, better memory and better concentration whereby improving the spiritual powers / skills, with the continuous practice of pranayama
Better breathing improves quality of life in old age
Lung tissues tend to grow less and less elastic and lung capacity decreases as a person with sedentary lifestyle reaches middle age. Pranayama can help to reduce the effects of following old age problems:
- Loss of vitality
- Accumulation of uric acid in the blood stream which often leads to frequent joint pains and discomfort
- Backaches, headaches, rheumatism, stiffening muscles and joints
- Proper circulation of blood is impeded by a sluggish diaphragm or hardening arteries
Without any delay it is recommended to start learning pranayama from an experienced yoga teacher who teaches pranayama in order to experience the immense benefits of pranayama. Only through experience one can realize the immense benefits of yoga breathing. Establish a daily routine of yoga breathing exercises.