Prana is Sanskrit for vital or life force energy. It is often seen to originate from the sun and is the energy that permeates and flows throughout our entire cosmos. Yama means regulation, so Pranayama is the regulation of vital energy. This is achieved through various breath regulation exercises. Pranayama as described in the Yoga Sutras is used as a way to prepare the practitioner for meditation.
Prana, life force or vital energy, exists in the entire cosmos in both animate and inanimate objects. It has been described in most of the ancient Hindu texts known as the Upanishads and the Vedas. In the Indian science of life, Ayurveda, and the practice of Yoga, Prana is viewed as it pertains to our living beings. In our bodies, Prana presides over all physical functions, including digestion, assimilation, excretion, movement, and communication.
"Offering the inhaling breath into the exhaling breath and offering the exhaling breath into the inhaling breath, the yogi neutralizes both breaths; thus he releases prana from the heart and brings life force under his control." ~Bhagavad Gita IV: 29
One result of Pranayama is to affect communication between the mind and the body through the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is the system of nerves that send messages between the brain and the body to automatically control many bodily functions including respiratory rate, heart rate, digestion, pupillary response, urination, reflexes such as sneezing, swallowing, and vomiting, and sexual arousal. The ANS is divided into the sympathetic (fight-or-flight response) system and the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) system. The sympathetic nervous system is meant to engage when we are faced with an emergency to enable us to act quickly. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for stimulating bodily functions that occur while we are at rest, including digestion, assimilation, and elimination, and arousal. These two systems generally work opposite one another, meaning when one is active, the other one cannot activate. When we are in crisis or stressful situation, the sympathetic nervous system primes us for quick action, preventing us from relaxing. While we are in a state of deep relaxation and the parasympathetic nervous system is working, we are not as ready to make quick decisions. The sympathetic nervous system is essential to keep us ready to respond in a crisis situation. The problem is, due its nature of needing to engage quickly and readily, in many people it is often engaged too easily and stimulates us to react to situations that are not emergencies, rather than rest, contemplate and digest the information and then respond.
Because the breath is the one constant autonomic function that we can control if we choose, it is the most potent and simple tool we have to affect our inner being. Most people who have not engaged in a Yoga and Pranayama practice generally live without paying much attention to the breath. Without practice of breath awareness, most people breathe in a superficial way, literally taking shallow breaths and sometimes holding the breath without being aware of it. This shallow breathing stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and so impedes the work of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Superficial breathing also cuts our potential intake of energy short. Through our intake of breath, we take in fresh air and oxygen which supplies our blood with essential energy. Through our exhale, we exchange carbon dioxide and other waste products. Through the breath cycles we are constantly refreshing our bodies. By becoming more aware of how we breathe through the practice of Pranayama, we gradually bring a general change to the way we breathe, moving from shallow breathing to deep breathing. By engaging in formal breath regulation practices, we train our mind to pay attention to our breath, so that we begin to notice when we are not breathing as deeply as we could be, or when we are unnecessarily holding our breath. In addition to this general benefit, Pranayama can also be practiced to bring about various specific effects on the practitioner, such as increase of energy, relaxation, focusing the mind, cooling or heating the body, and balancing the subtle energy channels.
If at any point while practicing, you feel lightheaded, short of breath, or dizzy, stop the Pranayama and come back to a natural breath. Note: During pregnancy, there should be no breath retention practiced.
Pranayama should be practiced with the spine comfortably straight, either by sitting on a cushion with legs crossed or sitting in a chair. Some Pranayamas can be practiced lying down. All Pranayamas should be practiced on a mostly empty stomach, not right after eating.
One of my absolute favorite Pranayamas, and one I go to often when I need to calm and center myself, is Nadi Shodana!
Nadi is Sanskrit for the subtle energy channels that run through the body. Shodhana means clearing or purifying, so this breath can be translated to mean channel purifying, though it is also commonly and appropriately called Alternate Nostril Breathing. There are said to be thousands of subtle energy channels throughout the body. The principle one runs along the spine and is called the Sushumna Nadi. The next two most important channels run along either side of the spine. The left Nadi is called the Ida Nadi and relates to the lunar, cooling aspects, while the right Nadi is called the Pingala Nadi and corresponds to the solar, or heating aspect. These two channels correspond to the left and right nostril. Throughout the day, the energy moves back and forth between the left and right in about a 2 hour period, in a healthy body. This can be observed by placing a finger above your upper lip and exhaling to notice when one nostril is expelling more air. In an ill or sluggish body, the nasal cycle shifts more slowly. This Pranayama helps to balance this nasal cycle and so can help shorten recovery from illness.
Effects: This is one of the best Pranayamas topromote ease and relaxation and reduce stress and anxiety. It balances the left and right channels of the body and hemispheres of the brain. It is a great way to prepare for meditation or prepare you to fall asleep. It can also be used to ease the nerves after a stressful situation, or before a big test or speaking engagement.
Method: Sit comfortably with the spine erect. This Pranayama uses a mudra called Mrigi Mudra:
To take this mudra, curlyour first and second fingers of the right hand towards the base of your thumb.
For Nadi Shodhana, use the thumb to touch the right nostril, and the ring finger to touch the left nostril.
Begin by closing off the right nostril with the thumb. Inhale slowly and evenly through the left nostril. At the top of the breath, pause for a moment as you close the left nostril with the ring finger. Open the right nostril and exhale slowly and evenly out of the right nostril. Inhale through the right nostril. Pause for a moment as you close the right nostril and open the left. Exhale out the left nostril. Begin again and repeat the cycle. This breath is done in cycles of three, so that you finish by exhaling out the right nostril. If you have a cold and are too stuffed up for this Pranayama, try it by visualization only.