Pranayama, loosely translated, means breathing techniques; and, is one of the eight limbs of yoga that sage, Patanjali, explains in the Yoga Sutras, written circa 150 BC.
Pranayama is comprised of two root words: prana (vital energy or life force) and ayama (extension or expansion). Pranayama, therefore, means to extend the vital energy.
Pranayama provides a way to activate the life force and expand it beyond one’s normal limitations to attain a higher state of vibration.
Pranayama can be described as a method of voluntary hypoventilation, due to a series of breath retentions, known as kumbhaka, which allows us to normalize our breathing by normalizing the oxygen supplied to brain cells.
Slow, rhythmic and diaphragmatic breath is fundamental to balancing overall well-being. Four additional reasons to practice pranayama are:
- Practicing pranayama, along with asana (postures), mudra (positions or gestures which represent the psyche), and bandha (locks for channeling energy), results in a potent means of restoring and maintaining physical and mental health.
- Practicing pranayama regularly, along with asana, shatkarma (cleansing practices), meditation and yoga nidra (yogic sleep), releases muscular knots which can occur anywhere in the body. For example, cervical spondylitis is tightness of the neck, which is relieved with the consistent steady practice of pranayama. Muscle knots such as these may lead to reduced mobility due to muscle stiffness. The pain or soreness experienced may linger for quite a while unless intervention – such as massage, marma point therapy, acupressure, chiropractic adjustment – is taken.
- Practicing pranayama eliminates anger and cools down a heated brain. Heated brain conditions are observed in cases of fever, headache, migraines, worry, anxiety, unexplained/irrational fear.
- Pranayama practice is also known to relieve sore throat and tonsillitis, and has the added benefit of improving the quality and tone of one’s voice.
When learning these ancient yogic practices, begin with siting in a comfortable, seated position on the floor. If sitting on the floor in a cross-legged position is not attainable, sit in a chair with an up-right back.
Close the eyes and bring the awareness inside. Observe the thoughts with non-attachment. Observe a slow, rhythmic and diaphragmatic breath (breath into the diaphragm, place the palm on the belly and feel it expand into your palm and relax underneath your palm). Inhale and the exhale through the nostrils.
This steady, rhythmic breathing pattern is important for activating the frontal cortex, and bringing the nervous system under the parasympathetic tone (rest and relaxation); as well as bringing awareness inside the body and disconnecting from external sensory stimulations of the environment.
There are eight types of pranayama practices discussed in Hatha Yoga Pradipika to control one’s breathing. Which I will discuss further in future posts.
“When the breath wanders [i.e., is irregular] the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed, the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.”
— Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Written by Mimi Adeogba, DN, Ph.D.