The process of Pranayama, or conscious breathing, can be broken down into 3 parts: Inhalation, Retention & Exhalation.
Inhalation is breathing in – it is receiving universal energy in the form of breath. In Sanskrit this is called puraka. Inhalation stimulates the system.
Retention is holding that breath for a pause to be still and appreciate the universal energy. In Sanskrit this is known as kumbhaka. Retention distributes the energy to the whole body.
Exhalation is breathing out – releasing with the breath all thoughts and emotions. The Sanskrit work for this is rechaka. Exhalation gets rid of old air and any toxins.
While the lungs are empty, pause again, in kumbhaka, and surrender the individual energy to the universal energy. Become one with the whole.
The word Prana is usually translated as “breath” – but it is so much more than that. “Prana” is the universal energy – the energy that exists everywhere, all at once. We can experience this energy as light, heat, gravity, magnetics, or electricity. It is all of these and more. Prana is also the potential energy that resides within each one of us, and in all living beings. Prana is what energizes us, moves us, motivates us and gives us life. Prana has many names, and many functions.
AYURVEDA says that Vata one of prana’s names. The functions of Vata have been explained the same way that the Yoga texts explain the functions of prana.
Patanjali, who wrote the Yoga Sutras, describes Pranayama as “the controlled intake and outflow of breath in a firmly established posture.” So pranayama is not just our usual breathing that we don’t even have to think about. It’s an art. There are techniques to use to make the respiratory organs move and expand in an intentional way. The respiratory system is seen as the key to purifying the whole body.
When the respiratory system is functioning optimally, then the circulatory system can work at its best. Bodily fluids are able to flow properly to the liver, kidneys, stomach, skin and other organs. And when the circulatory system is operating well, then the digestive system can do its job properly.
We can live without food for a few days. We could even live without water for a while. But without breath, without respiration, there is no life. When we are born, and we take our first breath of air, our life as an independent person in this world begins.
Subtle changes take place in the body when we practice pranayama. Pranayama helps the mind to concentrate, and helps us to achieve both health and longevity. As we age, the respiratory function decreases. But by practicing pranayama, we bring vitality to all the organs of the body, particularly the lungs, so we can slow down the ageing process and be healthier, longer.
Tantric texts say that the goal of Pranayama is to wake up the Shakti, or power, called kundalini. Kundalini is the divine cosmic energy in the body that lies at the base of the spine. As kundalini moves up the spine, through each of the 7 chakras, we begin to understand the oneness of all creation. We see beyond time and space and experience our divine connection with the universe. In this state we are ever-present – not thinking of regrets from the past or anticipations from the future – we are in a serene state of mind where only the “now” exists.
Here are some Recommendations for how to best practice Pranayama:
- It is best to have been practicing yoga for a while and have mastered some of the postures, or asanas, before learning pranayama. This way you will understand better muscle control and your lungs will be more prepared for the practice of pranayama. It has been said that yoga brings discipline to the body and pranayama brings discipline to the mind. It is best to practice yoga and pranayama at separate times of the day. Pranayama cannot be performed properly after strenuous exercise.
- Empty the bladder and bowels before you sit down to practice pranayama.
- Go slow and gently with your practice. Take one step at a time. Do not practice too hastily or too forcefully.
- Choose a fixed time and place for when and where you practice. Find a time where you can be quiet, away from distractions. Find a place that is clean and airy. The best time to practice is in the early morning, before sunrise if possible, when the body and brain are fresh. The next best time is after sunset, when the air is cool.
- Do not practice pranayama on a full stomach, or when you are hungry. Leave some time, about four hours or so, after you have eaten to begin your practice. Allow half an hour after pranayama to pass before eating a meal.
- Do not practice pranayama when you are angry, sick, or tired. Do not practice just before bedtime as it will keep you awake.
- Sit on a mat or blanket placed on the floor. Keep the spine straight. You can sit cross-legged, or on your shins, or with your feet together and your knees apart. Whatever position is most comfortable for you. If you have back trouble, sit in a chair with your feet on the floor.
- Yoga asanas are practiced with the eyes open. Pranayama is practiced with the eyes closed. With the eyes closed, look within and place your attention on the heart.
- When you complete your practice, rest for a while before resuming activity.
P.S. to your continued Health & Happiness