Category: Eight Limbs of Yoga
Pranayama is the fourth limb of Raja yoga (a.k.a. Ashtanga or classical yoga). It is a Sanskrit word that means “measuring, control, and directing of the breath.” The word pranayama can be broken down into two parts. Prana refers to the infinite in everything, the universal life force, respiration and power. Ayama means to increase, prolong, stretch or extend. Pranayama is considered a very important process by people who practice yoga as it is the most vital means of absorbing prana into the body.
In meditative and tantric traditions, it is known that by certain forms of breathing, you can establish certain relations with the supply of prana and you may draw on it the energy that you need. Because of this, not only will you be able to strengthen all parts of your body, but you may also activate the latent faculties of your brain. If you can master the science of storing away prana, either consciously or unconsciously, you will radiate vitality and strength, which can be felt by those coming in contact with you. You may also impart this strength to others to give them increased vitality and health.
Here's a list of other benefits that can be attained by practicing pranayama:
- Thought projection
- Forming an aura
- Recharging yourself
- Recharging and healing others
- Charging water
- Acquiring mental qualities
- Acquiring physical qualities
- Controlling your emotions
- Transmutation of the reproductive energy
- Brain stimulation
- Soul consciousness
Important Elements In The Study/Practice Of Pranayama
In the study and practice of pranayama, it is important for you to learn about the Pranamaya Kosha or “air apparent sheath” and the Pancha Vayu or "five winds."
The human body is said to be composed of five different koshas or "sheaths." Pranamaya kosha is the sheath of “breath” (prana), which manifests itself in the elements of air and ether. Its main function is to support and energize the subtle body. The energy that flows within this sheath is channeled into five different winds called Pancha Vayu (prana, apana, samana, udana, vyana). As long as this vital principle exists in you, your life continues. Otherwise, we should call the undertaker.
The Pancha Vayu (Five Winds):
- Prana – Prana is our "life force" or "energy" that flows through the channels or nadis in our electromagnetic body (referred to as chi in martial arts). It comes into the body from the food we eat, the air we breathe, as well as radiation from the earth and heavens.
- Apana – Apana means "down breath." Metaphorically, apana means "not yet taken or drunk", i.e. the fresh air for inhalation. It is one of the vital airs which move in the sphere of the lower abdomen. The flow of apana is downwards and out and its energy nourishes the organs of digestion, reproduction and elimination.
- Samana - Samana means "equal" or "same". Samana is the energy situated between the navel and diaphragm which is responsible for bringing nourishment and balance to all parts of the body.
- Udana - Udana is located in the head region as well as the limbs, between the shoulders and the fingertips, and from the hips down to the toes. It is associated with the motor and sensory nervous system.
- Vyana - Vyana pervades the whole body and distributes the vital energies throughout the body; on it depend the circulation of the blood and the distribution of the essential part of the food eaten and digested throughout the body.
List of Pranayama Exercises
The following are some of the most common pranayama breathing techniques practiced by people who follow the path of yoga. Although these exercises are considered safe by many yoga teachers, it is important that you stay completely aware of the sensations in your body whenever you are practicing them. If you experience discomfort or feel light-headed while practicing any of these exercises, take a break, then resume only when you feel comfortable again.
Bhastrika (Bellows Breath)
|Description||Bhastrika pranayama is a technique that aims to keep the inhalation cycle equal to exhalation while making sure the breath becomes deeper and longer. This is done by inhaling forcefully through both the nostrils, filling the lungs instead of the diaphragm with air. Once the lungs are filled with air, you exhale with great force making hissing sound.|
|Purpose||This exercise is used to energize and cleanse the body of impurities. It is usually not recommended that you perform Bhastrika close to bedtime as you may have difficulty falling asleep.|
|Benefits||Bhastrika helps in improving digestion and metabolism. Aside from creating the experience of feeling energized and invigorated, it also helps in clearing one’s mind.|
Bhramari (Humming Bee)
|Description||Bhramari pranayama is often referred to as the Humming Bee, due to the sound made while practicing it. According to Satyananda Saraswati, although it is considered a pranayama technique, it is actually a meditational practice. It is not directly related to controlling prana, as are other forms of pranayama (Kundalini Tantra, 2002). This exercise is performed by inhaling through both nostrils. As you exhale, you create a sound in the throat similar to chanting of Om. The sound should be deep, steady and smooth.|
|Purpose||Bhramari is said to stimulate both the heart chakra and ajna chakra. By producing the humming sound and tracing it towards its source, you can actually raise your consciousness into higher levels of awareness.|
|Benefits||Bhramari develops deep mental and emotional relaxation and is extremely effective in cardiac disorders.|
Kapalabhati (Skull Shining Breath)
|Description||Kapalabhati pranayama is a technique that involves short and strong forceful exhalations while inhalation happens automatically. The word kapalbhati is made up of two words, kapal meaning “skull” and bhati meaning “shining” or “illuminating.” You sit comfortably in an upright posture, forcefully expel all the air from your lungs, and then allow them to fill passively. The primary movement is from your diaphragm.|
|Purpose||Kapalabhati is an important part of Shatkarma (sometimes known as Shatkriya), which refers to the Yogic practices involving purification of the body. This practice is intended to energize and balance the nadis and the chakras.|
|Benefits||Like Bhastrika, Kapalabhati is a cleansing and energizing technique. The process allows the organs under the skull, mainly the brain and the small brain, to be stimulated. It helps in the clearing of the cranial sinuses but has many other associated effects.|
Dirgha (Complete Breath)
|Description||Dirgha pranayama is also known as the "complete breath" or the "three part breath." It involves filling three different areas of your lungs with air. As you inhale through both nostrils, you start to fill the diaphragm and the lower chambers of your lungs with air, move up through the middle thoracic area until you reach the upper region.|
|Purpose||Dirgha is a cleansing and balancing breathing technique.|
|Benefits||Dirgha promotes proper diaphragmatic breathing, oxygenates the blood, and purges the lungs of residual carbon dioxide. It also helps in relaxing the mind and body.|
Ujjayi (Victorious Breath)
|Description||Ujjayi pranayama is known as “ocean breathing” or the “Darth Vader” breath. This is a diaphragmatic breathing just like Dirgha. Inhalation and exhalation are both done through the nose. The length and speed of the inhalations and exhalations are controlled by the diaphragm and should be equal in duration, but the process must not produce any kind of discomfort. The "ocean sound" is created by moving the glottis as air passes in and out. As the throat passage is narrowed, the passage of air creates the "ocean" sound.|
|Purpose||Ujjayi possesses a meditative quality and is typically practiced in association with Asana (yoga postures) since it helps students to stay focused while moving from one posture to the next.|
|Benefits||Ujjayi is a balancing and calming breath that helps increase oxygenation and internal body heat, regulate blood pressure, and increases mindfulness.|
Anuloma Viloma (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
|Description||Anuloma in Sanskrit means "alternate." Anuloma Viloma pranayama is one of the easier types of pranayama and is known in English as “the coming and going pranayama.” It is also known as Nadi Shodhana. This is done by sitting in any asana (yoga posture). The mouth is closed and is not used for breathing. No sound should is produced while inhaling or exhaling. The right nostril is closed with the thumb. Air is exhaled through the left nostril, and inhaled back through the same nostril. The left nostril is closed with the ring finger. Air is exhaled through the right nostril, and inhaled back through the same nostril. The process is repeated at a normal breathing rate.|
|Purpose||Anuloma Viloma is useful in quieting the mind before practicing meditation or chanting a mantra. By softening the breath through Anuloma Viloma, you invoke a state of calm inner awareness.|
|Benefits||Anuloma Viloma has a quieting effect that helps relax the nervous system. This is very helpful in reducing mental turbulence associated with anxiety, stress, and insomnia. It also balances the left and right hemispheres, which promotes clear thinking.|
Kumbhaka (Breath Retention)
|Description||Kumbhaka means “retention of breath.” This practice involves the voluntarily cessation of breath. In between inhalation and exalation is a very small gap or pause (normally in milliseconds) which we usually do not notice when breathing. Students of yoga aim to extend that pause by ceasing the breath routinely and continuously as they practice various types of breathing exercises. |
There are four types of Kumbhaka:
1. Antar Kumbhaka - Ceasing the breath only when the inhalation is complete and the lungs are filled with air. Inhalation should be slightly forceful to take more air than normal.
2. Bahya Kumbhaka - Ceasing the breath only when the exhalation is complete. Exhalation should also be slightly forceful to completely take out all the air from the lungs.
3. Sahit Kumbhaka – Ceasing the breath with after every inhalation and exhalation.
4. Kevali Kumbhaka – An extreme stage of kumbhaka wherein advanced students of yoga are able to complete suspend their breathing; meaning, no inhalation or exhalation.
|Purpose||The practice of Kumbhaka aims to control the activities of the mind and to increase the student’s ability in concentration and meditation.|
|Benefits||It is said that better concentration and control over mind is attained the more time you spend in practicing kumbhaka with pranayama exercises. Practicing kumbhaka for a long time also increases endurance of the respiratory system of an individual, which leads to better physiological and psychological well being.|
Higher Consciousness and Pranayama
People who practice pranayama are known to experience various states of higher consciousness. The oriental and esoteric philosophies also teach us that we have many faculties or spiritual powers which are at present in a dormant state, but which can be awakened through the practice of pranayama. Pranayama is very effective in achieving this because by learning how to control your breath, you will be able to bring the whole system of the body and mind under perfect control and harmony, which is basically the condition required for the manifestation of these powers.
When you practice pranayama, you should know that you are dealing exactly with energy and you are distributing this energy throughout your whole body via energy channels both subtle (the 7 chakras and nadis) and physical (the nervous system). There is more to energy than you can imagine. This energy can greatly alter your senses and the functions of the different parts of your body. Thus, when you practice pranayama, you should know exactly how to do it, when you should do it, and why you want to do it.