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Pranayama is generally defined as breath control. Although this interpretation may seem correct in view of the practises involved, it does not convey the full meaning of the term. The word pranayama is comprised of two roots:prana plus ayama. Prana means 'vital energy' or 'life force'. It is the force which exists in all things, whether animate or inanimate. Although closely related to the air we breathe, it is more subtle than air or oxygen. Therefore, pranayama should not be considered as mere breathing exercises aimed at introducing extra oxygen into the lungs. Pranayama utilies breathing to influence the flow of prana in the nadis or energy channels of the pranayama kosha (pranamaya kosa) or energy body. The word yama means 'control' and is used to denote various rules or codes of conduct. However, this is not the word which is joined to prana to form pranayama; the correct word is ayama which has far more implications than the word yama. Ayama is defined as 'extension' or 'expansion'. Thus, the word pranayama means 'extension or expansion of the dimension of prana'. The techniques of pranayama provide the method whereby the life force can be activated and regulated in order to go beyond one's normal boundaries or limitations and attain a higher state of vibratory energy.
While there is credible evidence (mostly as anecdotes from its regular practitioners) that Pranayama helps acquire calmness of mind during its practice (like any other kinds of meditational techniques), claims of facilitated supernatural/semi-magical powers are without scientific basis. It has been shown that Kriya Yoga which includes pranayama is effective in treating a range of stress related disorders. Improved autonomic functions after daily practice of slow-breathing pranayama over three months has been reported. Buteyko breathing technique, which directly resembles pranayama, has been shown to improve symptoms of asthma. Pranayama has also been shown to reduce signs of oxidative stress. An interesting hypothesis as to the physiological mechanisms of pranayama has recently been published.
Though the Hindu philosophers starting from Patanjali have developed a whole range of arcane philosophies around Pranayama and other yogic asanas, it has never been beyond criticism. Carvaka, the ancient Indian materialist philosopher, for instance, was a stringent critic of the yogic-practitioners.[How to reference and link to summary or text]
Techniques of Pranayama
There are a number of specific breathing methods practiced as part of Pranayama, some of which are intended as standalone exercises, others are meant to be incorporated and sustained as part of a larger yogic practice. A partial list of these includes:
- Dhirga Pranayama -- "long breath", also called "three part breath" -- a cyclic breath where, with each inhalation, the lower abdomen, ribcage, and upper chest are filled in turn with air. This is meant to fill the lungs to capacity, and to provide a meditative focus on the breath cycle. Awareness of Dhirga Pranayama is typically sustained throughout a larger yogic practice (e.g. sequence of asanas).
- Ujjayi Pranayama -- "victorious breath" -- also known as "ocean breath" for the sound produced. Ujjayi breathing consists of breathing through the nose with the throat tightened so that an "ahh" sound or hissing sound is produced. This is sometimes described as "sipping air through a straw". Ujjayi breathing is intended to facilitate a meditative state, to deepen concentration on one's overall practice. Ujjayi breathing can be combined with other methods of Pranayama such as Dhirga Pranayama (above).
- Kapalabhati Pranayama -- "breath of fire" -- a series of forced exhalatations where the lungs are first emptied with a full exhalation, followed by a round of quick, forceful exhalations through the nose (as if trying to extinguish a candle). Kapalabhati breathing is meant to have an energizing, cleansing effect.
Pranayama is a way of expanding the Sukshma Prana within to which you have no direct access. Prana is a subtle invisible force. It is the life-force that pervades the body. It is the factor that connects the body and the mind, because it is connected on one side with the body and on the other side with the mind. It is the connecting link between the body and the mind. The body and the mind have no direct connection. They are connected through Prana only and this Prana is different from the breathing you have in your physical body. Prana is not Svasa. The respiratory breath that moves within your nostrils is not Prana. It is called Svasa Vayu. Svasa-Prasvasa, inhalation and exhalation, is of air. But then, why is the regulation of the inner breath and the outer breath of the nostrils given the name of Pranayama, when they do not constitute Prana, when they constitute only Svasa Vayu? The process of regulation of breath is given the name Pranayama, because this is the way to ultimately gain control over the subtle life-force that is present within as Prana.
Simultaneously with the practice of Asanas, there should be effort towards the regulation of the Prana. So, Asana and Pranayama go together. There is an intimate relation between the activity of the physical body and that of the Prana. The Prana is the total energy which pervades the entire physical system and acts as a medium between the body and mind. The Prana is subtler than the body but grosser than the mind. The Prana can act but cannot think. The Prana is not merely the breath. The breathing process,-inhalation, exhalation and retention-does not constitute the Prana by itself, but is an indication that the Prana is working. We cannot see the Prana; it is not any physical object. But we can infer its existence by the processes of respiration. Air is taken in and thrown out by a particular action of the Prana. Some hold that there are many Pranas and others think it is one. The Prana is really a single energy, but appears to be diverse when viewed from the standpoints of its different functions. When we breathe out, the Prana operates in one of its functional forms. When we breathe in, the Apana functions. The ingoing breath is the effect of the activity of the Apana. The centre of the Prana is in the heart, that of the Apana in the anus.
There is a third kind of function called Samana, the equalising force. Its centre is the navel. It digests food by creating fire in the body and it also equalises the remaining functions in the system. The fourth function of the Prana is called Udana.. Its seat is in the throat. It prompts speech and, on death, separates the system of the Prana from the body. The fifth function is called Vyana, a force which pervades the whole body and maintains the continuity of the circulation of blood throughout the system.
This fivefold function of the Prana is its principal form. It has also many other functions such as belching, opening and closing of the eyelids, causing hunger, yawning and nourishing the body. When it does these five secondary functions, it goes by the names of Naga, Kurma, Krikara, Devadatta and Dhananjaya, respectively. The essence of the Prana is activity. It is the Prana that makes the heart beat, the lungs function and the stomach secrete juices. Hence, neither breathing nor lung-function ceases till death. The Prana never goes to sleep, just as the heart never stops beating. The Prana is regarded as the watchman of the body.
However, the practice of pranayama techniques is not trivial and Kason mentions circumstances where pranayama techniques might disrupt the balance of a person's life. These cautions are also made in traditional hindu literature, as illustrated by the following excerpt from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali:
The real achievement of Pranayama is directly linked with the physical and mental activity of our, daily routine. Only when a perfect order is achieved in the routine of mundane life can we expect perfect mastery over breath and vital pulsations. It is always dangerous to attempt it - by beginning with the control of breath. Trying to control the breath without a control of our daily movements and reactions to others will produce dangerous turmoil in the constitution. Any experiment with the breath results in a stimulation of the energy centres on the etheric plane. When the physical and emotional stuff is not sufficiently purified beforehand then the turmoil causes stormy activity of the emotions. This results in great strain to the nerves and the vascular system. A total or partial wreck of the physical vehicle by paralysis, insanity or senility of mind may be the result of attempting Pranayama beginning with the control of breath before achieving the control of other activities.
A practical way of practising Pranayama should always be rightly discriminated, by the increase of ease and absence of discomfort at every step. For the various methods of Puraka, Kumbhaka and Rechaka described by various teachers and prescribed in the name of 'esoteric breaths' the present author is no way responsible.
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- Pranayama by Swami Ramdev Maharaj
- Pranayama and Yogic Breathing Guide
- Online Video Pranayama Classes
- Research and Educational site offering instruction in Hatha and Raja yogic pranayama
- The Secret Gift of Our Own Breath
- Pranayama - Online video & audio depicting yoga breathing exercises
- Meditation of the Death Defiers - Pranayama
- Pranayama — Chapter from the book Ecology of Human Being in Multidimensional Space by Dr Vladimir Antonov.
- Detailed lesson on Spinal Breathing Pranayama
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