Are you full of hot air? After some pranayama yoga you will be! Vital, energetically charged, purifying, health-enhancing, life-sustaining HOT AIR, that is. …
Pranayama (or pranayam, as it is sometimes written) is a very important aspect of yoga. What an understatement that is!
Let me put it this way… Pranayama is as important to yoga as white is to rice!
What is Pranayama?
This Sanskrit word comes from the roots ‘prana’, which refers to the ‘universal energy’, and ‘yama’, which means ‘to control’. So the literal definition of pranayama is the ‘control of (or holding onto) the vital force (prana)’. Sounds wonderful! … But how do we do that?
Well, this universal energy ‘prana’ is most easily managed through the breath, which makes pranayama, in effect, the practice of ‘breath control’. But to better understand this process, we really do need to first get a picture of what prana is …
Controlling the Breath
In yoga, pranayama is mostly considered ‘the control of the breath’. Though the life-force prana is everywhere, and in everything. It is also absorbed into the being in many ways. But the easiest ‘perceivable expression’ of prana, for humans anyway, is in the surrounding air.
… So it stands to reason then that the easiest way for us to act (or interact) with prana is through the breath. That’s why the yogis have developed scores of breathing techniques’, which altogether make up the science of pranayama yoga.
The great Yogamaharishi Dr. Swami Gitananda Giri responded to the question of where to start in the study of yoga by asking; “Where did life start?” The answer to both questions, he says, is “with the breath of life!” He continues:
“Yoga should start with the breath disciplines, which will later lead us to the ‘classical pranayamas’. In the beginning, pranayama is very much a case of moving air in and out of the body. [But] Pranayama yoga is actually a higher form of controlled breathing, bringing under domination the Divine Life Force, represented by the prana.”
For more on the importance of proper breathing for health, visit our page on Yoga Breathing here …
Types of Pranayama Practices
There are over 100 pranayama yoga practices mentioned throughout the Sanskrit texts. That’s enough to keep any keen student busy for quite some time! But there are various classifications of practices too, depending upon the level of the practitioner. They are:
- Yoga Pranayamas, which help to stabilize the body. They are used for cleansing and purifying the physical body and also as a means to build health and endurance.
- Samyama Pranayamas, which stimulate a ‘turning inward’. They are aids in meditation, concentration and mind control in preparation for higher states of consciousness.
- Shakti Pranayamas, which are higher practices designed to activate/arouse the kundalini force, the ‘concentrated’ prana of the Universe.
Most of the pranayama techniques you’ll likely encounter in any typical yoga class today fall under the category of ‘yoga pranayamas’. These are basically physical breathing exercises, techniques essential for cleansing and purifying the respiratory system, blood stream and organs, for toning up the nervous system and strengthening and purifying the mind.
Before one can move on to higher pranayama yoga practices, all of these things must be established. These foundational practices also serve to stabilize the body, cleanse and purify the physical structure, and help to build health and endurance… all things I’m sure most of us could use a little more of.
The Control of Prana
In the pranayama yoga techniques, as with all other yoga exercises, that the mind is the ultimate power behind the practice. In fact, it can be said that concentration of the mind is even more important in pranayama than it is with the yoga asanas. Without the appropriate use of the mind (or rather, the concentration) the techniques amount to mere physical antics.
“Where the mind goes, so will prana.”
The Mind can direct, activate, block or use prana, both for productive as well as destructive ends.
- Are you stuck in a certain career path or financial status?
- Do you continue to find yourself in the same type of relationships?
- Are you continuously burdened with health problems?
It’s your ‘mind’s’ fault… not yours! Unconsciously (which is the way it operates best) your mind keeps directing prana, that architect of manifestation, in the same destructive ways, over and over again.
In pranayama yoga we take the power of ‘mind over prana’ out of the realm of ‘unconsciousness’ and make it ‘conscious’. As we become more skilled in practice, we become better able to direct our lives in more productive and healthy ways… all through the powerful practice of pranayama.
“It is our duty as evolving beings to guard and cherish that Breath of Life as our spiritual treasure. We must deepen it, lengthen it, control it, expand it and become conscious of it and its potentiality to link us with our Highest Nature. That is the real Pranayama.”
~ Yogacharini Smt. Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani
So, are you still bored with your breathing exercises? Well, you may not be there yet, but you can see that pranayama can eventually take us to a “whole other level”!
Sure, there will always be great health benefits from just deepening, slowing and controlling the breath. But the practice of pranayama is more than ‘exercising with your nose’, so-to-speak.
Books on Pranayama
Most books on the commercial shelves today are rather errant in their presentation of pranayama. Most talk about pranayama without even talking about prana, which is strange, don’t you think?
… Some are filled with physiological and anatomical terminology with chapters of ‘mechanical breathing techniques’ without as much as a mention of the mind and mental focus.
But if you’ve been investigating yoga to some degree or another already, you’ve probably noticed that most modern yoga writers (and teachers) even neglect to mention pranayama at all, leaving the impression that pranayama is not important. I hope now that you realize it is VERY IMPORTANT!
- It is iportant to have the guidance of an experienced teacher, not only in order to gain proper instruction, but also to ensure that you are engaging techniques that are appropriate for you.
- The place that you practice pranayama should be clean, pleasant and peaceful. Ideally, we would like to practice outdoors, in a clean-air environment.
- Face north or east.
- The best position is vajra asana. Alternately, sit in a position where the spine is erect and the torso upright, and one in which you may stay for a long time without any discomfort.
- The optimum time for the practice of pranayama is mid-day (around noon), when the sun is at its highest overhead.
- In general, we don’t want to practice pranayama on a full stomach, nor on an empty one. Therefore, allow at least one hour after a normal meal for proper digestion.
- Unless otherwise directed, all breathing, both inhaling and exhaling, should be performed through the nose only!
- Proper warm-up and final relaxation are essential components of the practice of pranayama as well.