Pranayama is a compound term. Prana means life force or breath. Yama means extension. Therefore, pranyama is the practice of extending or amplifying ones life force.
More than simple breath-control exercises, pranayama harnesses the prana surrounding us, and by deepening and extending it, leads to a state of inner peace. Ancient yogis, with a deep understanding of the essence of prana, studied it and devised many methods and practices to master it. According to Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, pranayama enables the mind to acquire the capacity to concentrate on any given object of attention.
Benefits of Pranayama
Most of us breathe incorrectly, using only half of our lung capacity. The practices of pranayama help to manipulate our energies and re-educates the mind and body in the breathing process. When done correctly, pranayama can help release tensions and develop a relaxed state of mind. It also increases the amount of oxygen to the brain improving mental clarity, alertness and physical well being. In addition, it brings balance to the nervous system and encourages creative thinking.
When practiced along with yoga asanas, or postures, the benefits of pranayama are even more pronounced.
Various Stages of Pranayama
The following are the different aspects of pranayama:
A single inhalation is termed Puraka. This is the process of drawing in air in a smooth and continuous manner. If a person should pause one or more times during the process of a single inhaling, the process might be spoken of as a broken Puraka rather than as a series of Purakas.
Abhyantara Kumbhaka (Pause after Inhaling) Full Pause
Abhyantara Kumbhaka consists of deliberately stopping the flow of air into the lungs and then retaining that air without further movement. A beginner may experiment by using some force to keep such pause motionless.
A single exhalation is termed Rechaka. Like inhalation, it is smooth and continuous, though often the speed of exhaling is different from that of inhaling. Normally, exhaling consists merely of relaxing the tensed muscles whereas muscular energy is used for inhaling. Such relaxing forces air from the lungs as they return to a relaxed condition. At times, muscular effort may be used for exhalation. Air can be forced out with muscular effort when you control the abdominal muscles.
Bahya Kumbhaka (Pause after Exhaling) Empty Pause
Bahya Kumbhaka consists of deliberately pausing after the exhale. This empty pause completes the cycle which terminates as the pause ends and a new inhalation begins.
Pranayama techniques exist that focus on each of the four stages or aspects mentioned above. Puraka or inhalation techniques are about regular and controlled inhalation. It also involves regulating the entire breathing process and reducing the number of inhalations per minute. Rechaka or exhalation exercises teach slow and ordered breathing and also involve regulating the number of inhalations and exhalations per minute. Breath retention exercises are about converting both exhalation and inhalation into retention and storing the retained breath in various internal organs for various lengths of time.
A Few Types of Pranayama
The complete breath is the most basic form of pranayama. It involves the entire respiratory system and functions to expand the lungs so as to take in more air than the amounts inhaled by common shallow breathing. In the complete breath, the shoulders, collarbones and ribs are all lifted and the abdomen and diaphragm are also extended. Lungs are at the fullest capacity, breath is at its deepest.
The yoga complete breath is the basic technique of all the different types of yoga breathing, and therefore should be mastered before learning the specific breathing exercises. It is done during pranayama breathing exercises or meditation, not during asana practice. During asana practice, breath should be even and steady, pushing out slightly on an inhale and letting the stomach rest in its original position when you exhale.
Ujjayi breathing is a common form of yogic breathing which consists of drawing air in through both nostrils with the glottis, or back of the throat held partially closed. This partial closure of the throat produces a sound like that of ocean waves, it is continuous and unbroken. Inhale and exhale are both performed through the nose and both lengthened.
Alternate nostril breathing is a dynamic form of pranayama that yogis believe cleans and rejuvenates the vital channel of energy.
With this exercise, the breath flows through only one nostril at a time. The logic behind this exercise is that normal breathing does alternate from one nostril to the other at various times during the day. In a healthy person the breath will alternate between nostrils about every two hours. Because most of us are not in optimum health, this time period varies considerably between people and further reduces our vitality. According to the yogis, when the breath continues to flow in one nostril for more than two hours, as it does with most of us, it will have an adverse effect on our health. If the right nostril is involved, the result is mental and nervous disturbance. If the left nostril is involved, the result is chronic fatigue and reduced brain function. The longer the flow of breath in one nostril, the more serious the illness will be.
- Close the right nostril with your right thumb and inhale through the left nostril. Do this to the count of four seconds.
- Immediately close the left nostril with your right ring finger and little finger, and at the same time remove your thumb from the right nostril, and exhale through this nostril. Do this to the count of eight seconds. This completes a half round.
- Inhale through the right nostril to the count of four seconds. Close the right nostril with your right thumb and exhale through the left nostril to the count of eight seconds. This completes one full round.
Start by doing three rounds, adding one per week until you are doing seven rounds.
Alternate nostril breathing should not be practiced if you have a cold or if your nasal passages are blocked in any way.
Kapalabhati is a breathing technique used specifically for cleansing. In Kapalabhati breathing, the breath is deliberately much faster than normal. The abdominal muscles and diaphragm are used, not the chest. Quick exhales through the nose are short and rapid and the lungs are used as a pump, creating the pressure necessary to expel the air and any particulate material from the air passages. If a lot of mucus exists in the air passages or there is feel tension and blockages in the chest, it is often helpful to breathe quickly in this manner.
Body Gestures & Mental Attitude to use during Pranayama
Mudra is a Sanskrit word that translates to "attitude" or "symbolic gesture". There are many mudras associated with yoga, meditation and pranayama. A few are described here.
Vishnu Mudra (hand gesture of Lord Vishnu). This is one of the hand gestures discussed above in the alternate nostril breathing. In this mudra the right hand is used as it is associated with giving while the left is associated with receiving. The thumb and fingers rest lightly just above the nostrils so very little movement is needed to close each side during practice.
Chin Mudra (psychic gesture of knowledge). This mudra is used in seated meditation or seated pranayama such as ujjayi. The hands rest on knees or thighs facing down, thereby being grounding. The middle finger symbolizes sattva, (purity, wisdom and true understanding) the ring finger rajas, (action, passion and movement) and the little finger tamas, (inertia, lethargy and darkness). Classically the yogi is meant to transcend these states, progressing from darkness into light and from ignorance to wisdom.
Jnana Mudra (psychic gesture of consciousness). In Jnana mudra the hands are placed on the knees in seated meditation with the palms facing up, thereby being uplifting. In both Chin and Jnana mudra the connection made by the thumb and index figure is said to create a kind of circuit, re-circulating the body's vital energy.
Aadi Mudra (gesture of primal nature). This mudra is made by curling the fingers around the thumb making a very light fist. It positively influences breathing due to its soothing influence on the mind. Aadi mudra can be very useful in savasana at the end of asana practice to quiet the nervous system.
Brahma Mudra (gesture of all-pervading consciousness). This mudra is done and the fingers wrapped around the thumbs and the knuckles of both hands pressed together. The hands are then lightly pressed against the pubic bone. Brahma mudra helps to stimulate a full breath in pranayama practice.
Bhairava and Bhairavi Mudra (fierce or terrible gesture, Shiva and Shakti) When the right hand is placed on top it is the Shiva aspect, Bhairava. When the left is on top it is Bhairavi, the Shakti aspect; consciousness and manifestation.
Any of these mudras can be done during meditation or pranayama, bringing conscious awareness to specific areas of the body helps direct the prana