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Yogic art of breathing: what is Pranayama and the magic of practicing it

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What is Pranayama? Pranayama is the only way to find stillness in both body and mind and achieve a higher state of awareness. If this sounds interesting, these yogic breathing techniques are something that you might want to try out.

What is Pranayama? It is the only way to find stillness in both body and mind and achieve a higher state of awareness. If this sounds interesting, these yogic breathing techniques are something that you might want to try out.

Pranayama has explained very well in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which states: ‘Breath is the key to ultimate emancipation”. Nothing more true. Through the practice of Pranayama, we increase the life energy lying within anything in nature. Prana, or vital force, is activated and expanded to obtain a higher state of vibratory energy and awareness.

But let’s start from the beginning. To understand better what is Pranayama, a quick reference to the Vedas, the ancient Hindu sacred scriptures (I will be short, don’t close the page).

According to the Vedas, all sufferings must be removed from life through practical actions or Kriyas. The human mind is the cause of all suffering. It tends to hold on to things, to desire too much, and if it can’t get what it wants, then it becomes angry, envy, jealous, creating stress, diseases, and depression. So, great news, if we train our minds, we can achieve freedom and be free from suffering!

Too simple to say, too much hard to do! If you’re wondering how the mind has trained, well, the answer is only one: with the practice of Pranayama.

When I first was asked what Pranayama is, my answer was “control of the breath”. I then learned that it is more than that.

What is Pranayama?

Very often, I heard people referring to Pranayama as “breathing exercise’ ; it is not entirely true. The practice of Pranayama is the art and science of yogic breathing. The supreme tool to reach a higher state of vibratory frequencies, to be one with the self and the universal soul.

Pranayama has generally been defined as “breath control/training” or “expansion of the prana’. It consists of two words: Prana and Ayama.

Prana means vital force, and it is the life force, the bio-energy that lies within anything alive in nature. Without Prana, there is no life.

Ayama means expansion, extension, training, control.

So, Pranayama is not only a breathing exercise, but it is a more subtle level. It is the way to influence and expand the life force in the energy channels of our body (nadis), to achieve the highest quality of life.

What is Pranayama has elegantly stated by BKS Iyengar, who said: ‘we can abide in stillness in both body and mind and merge with the great mystery”.

Have you ever felt a strong feeling when someone enters a room or crosses your path on the street? Well, that means that their life force is at a very high frequency. Prana creates an aura around the body that flows through thousands – 72,000 – of subtle energy channels called nadis and energy centers called chakras. The way Prana flows through nadis and chakras defines our state of mind. Through the practice of Pranayama, we can heal our minds but also our physical bodies. Because Prana is absorbed and expanded with each inhalation, and it reaches each cell of the body, oxygenating them and increasing their life energy.

Pranayama and the yoga sutras of Patanjali

When it comes to yoga, we might think that it is just about Warriors and Down Dog, or inversions, but it is more than that.

Have you ever heard about Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga? Patanjali was the sage who brought order into the ancient yoga philosophy system and described the eight limbs of yoga. He defined Pranayama as the fourth stage of yoga, just after Yamas, Niyamas, and Asana.

He wrote that we must build strength in the body and stability in the nervous system through yoga asanas (poses) before attempting Pranayama.

Patanjali said that: Pranayama removes unwanted thoughts and memories, social or individual conditionings, which are obstacles to self-realization. “The real aim of yoga is not to perform asana but to progress in a path to Samadhi”.

That is why the practice of yoga is not only physical activity, but it is also a spiritual practice.

Pranayama or breathing exercise?

Pranayama is very often confused with breathing exercises.

Let me go a little bit deeper into this. As we have seen, Pranayama is a spiritual practice and the main aim is to purify our nadis (energy channels) and increase Prana (vital energy). Pranayama techniques provide the method to regulate and expand our life force to attain a higher state of frequency and consciousness.

How to increase Prana? Through the control of the breath, that has been regulated by the Pranayama breathing method. There are four main aspects of the Pranayama process:

Puraka – Inhalation

Rechaka – Exhalation

Kumbaka (Antar or Bahir) – Breath retention (after inhalation or after exhalation)

What differs the practice of Pranayama from breathing exercises is kumbaka. Retention of the breath, in fact, is fundamental to practice Pranayama in the traditional way, following the ancient sacred books’ teachings. Without retention of the breath, Pranayama doesn’t happen but you are practicing breathing exercises, which still is good but the effects are different.

Pranayama is a progressive and personal practice, and adaptable to everybody, but the process of kumbaka must be gradual, in order to have proper control over inhalation and exhalation; but also to strengthen the lungs, balance the nervous system and the pranic system.

Pranayama and Kriyas

According to yogic ancient scriptures, prior to the practice of Pranayama, the practitioners must follow the Kriyas, or cleansing actions.

Yoga kriyas, or Sat Kriyas, aim to purify the body and nadis before the practice itself. They are:

  • Jala Neti – nasal passages cleansing
  • Dhauti – digestive tract cleansing
  • Vasti – colon cleansing
  • Tratak – eyes cleansing
  • Nauli – purification of intestinal/abdominal region
  • Kapalabhati – cleanse of the brain’s frontal cortex
  • Anulom Vilom – purification of the nadis

Apart from Jala neti, anulom vilom, and kapalabhati, the other techniques are advanced, so an expert yoga teacher is highly advisable if you want to proceed gradually and safely.

Once cleansed and purified the body, the practitioner can proceed to the yogic breathing practice and understand what is Pranayama in fact.

These are the main Pranayama techniques:

  • Surya Bedhana
  • Chandra Bedhana
  • Bastrika
  • Sitali
  • Sitkari
  • Bhramari

Also, Kapalabhati and Nadi Sodhana can be practiced with retention of the breath, so considered as Pranayama.

The practice of expansion of the prana is done sitting in a comfortable position, possibly under the guidance of a teacher.

Benefits of Pranayama

The practice of Pranayama has incredible proven effects on overall health.

The most important benefits of Pranayama are:

  • Improved Breathing – As breathing indicates life, Pranayama helps to improve breathing and increases lung capacity.
  • Relief from stress and anxiety – Pranayama affects the parasympathetic nervous system and allows us to be grounded and at peace.
  • Immune Booster – As the whole body gets more oxygen and energy, toxins are removed and cells rejuvenated, increasing T-cells productions – those who fight diseases.
  • Cardiovascular Health – Helps to improve blood circulation
  • Mental Sharpness – Improves focus, decision making, concentration and it helps to react calmly when adverse situations happen.
  • Digestion – Improves the digestive system thanks to abdominal muscle stimulation.
  • Anti-Aging effects – It provides oxygenation of the body tissues and cells, which is fundamental for glowing skin.

Now that you know what is Pranayama, let’s spend a few words about the precautions for the practice of yogic breathing.

First of all, don’t be in a rush! Take time to look for the guidance of an expert teacher who can guide you with a Pranayama class, at least to start. In Pranayama practice, slow but steady progress is essential.

In case of any cardiac problem, consult your doctor before starting.

If you are pregnant, don’t retain the breath after exhalation and don’t practice Pranayama where there is abdominal contraction.

Always practice with an empty stomach and practice asanas before Pranayama.

Don’t breathe through the mouth – apart from one specific type of Pranayama – and most importantly, respect your limits. Be gentle with you and begin with a few weeks of Anulom Vilom to get used with the breathing, and to purify the energy channels.

If Pranayama is properly practiced, the self we are looking for becomes reality. The negativity and the obscure are removed and we will be able to alleviate all the imbalances that are obstacles for our psycho-physical wellbeing.

If you want to learn more about Pranayama and breathing techniques, visit our yoga school for the free tutorials, or to book a private lesson with me at Yoganda Yoga School.

Namaste and… remember to breathe!

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