Pranayama is a combination of physical exercise and meditation which brings immense good to the body and mind.
Below is an explaination to its meaningful practice.
We may live for many weeks without food and for days without water or sleep. But without breathing, life will cease within minutes. We know this very well but most of us are unaware of the importance of proper breathing. Normally, people use only a fraction of their full breathing capacity. Stress, poor posture, long hours of sitting in office and bad habits – all these factors affect our proper breathing. Improper breathing creates an imbalance in the oxygen/carbon dioxide ratio, which results in hyperventilation and dizziness. If the brain does not get adequate supply of oxygen, it will result in the degradation of all vital organs in the body.
Brain requires more oxygen than any other organ and lack of oxygen results in mental sluggishness, negative thoughts and depression. People in their old age always face this problem. They often become vague and senile because of inadequate oxygen supply to the brain. Poor oxygen supply affects other parts of the body also. Proper oxygen supply allows the body to metabolise food efficiently and to rid itself of all the noxious by-products of metabolism, especially carbon dioxide. What is wrong with our breathing is it is too shallow and quick. The increasing stress of modern life and the resultant negative emotional states affect the rate of breathing. The result is oxygen starvation and a toxic build-up.
The ancient yogis realised the vital importance of proper breathing thousands of years ago. Hatha Yoga Pradeepika says thus: ‘As long as there is breath in the body there is life. When breath departs, life also departs. Therefore regulate the breath.’ The yogic art of breathing is called ‘Pranayama’ (controlled intake and outflow of breath). Prana is usually translated as breath, though this is only one of its many manifestations in the human body. “He who knows Prana knows Vedas,” say the Upanisads. Prana is the sum total of all energies manifest in the universe. It is the sum total of all the forces in nature. Prana is not air itself but the subtle life-giving element extracted from air. The more life-force you have in your body, the more “alive” you are; the less life-force, the less “life”. Life-force is present in all forms of nourishment but it is accessible and most constant in the air.
The ancient sages knew that all bodily functions are performed by five types of vital energy (Five Pranas). And according to Yogis, Prana, mind and breath are very closely connected. It is Prana that makes the lungs capable of breathing and when we breathe in, we are receiving the cosmic Prana, which energises the whole body. The practice of Pranayama regulates the flow of Prana throughout the body. It also regulates the thoughts of the practitioner and bestows him with a calm mind.
An average person takes around 500 cubic centimetres of air during normal inhalation. But in deep breathing, the intake of air is increased up to 3000 cubic centimeters, about six times greater! With the practice of Pranayama, the respiratory system functions at its best and as a result, the circulatory system also functions more effectively. And the resultant better detoxification opens the doorway to good health.
With Pranayama, one gets training for full utilisation of all lobes of the lungs and to normalise the breathing rate. One learns how to make the breathing uniform, continuous and rhythmic. The following are some basic practices for those who wish to learn Pranayama. These can be practiced even by aged persons.
Sit comfortably in a crosslegged position on the floor or lie flat on your back in the corpse pose. You can place one hand on the abdomen to feel it rising and falling. Relax your mind and body. Inhale slowly and deeply through the nose, feeling your abdomen expand and rise while keeping the chest still. As you exhale, feel the abdomen sink down. When you inhale, expand the abdomen and contract it when you exhale. Practise this exercise for ten cycles (one inhalation and one exhalation equals one cycle).
Benefit: Breathing slowly and deeply brings air to the lowest part of your lungs and exercises your diaphragm which can greatly enhance breathing capacity. It relaxes mind and body, massages internal organs, calms emotions and induces good sleep.
Rib Cage Breathing
Sit comfortably in a crosslegged position on the floor or lie flat on your back in Savasana. Hands may be relaxed by the sides or you can place the hands on the sides of the ribs to feel them expanding and contracting. Gently contract the abdomen. Inhale slowly through the nose into your rib cage. Do not pull the breath deep into your lungs, but keep it focused between your ribs. Feel the ribs expand outward and the chest open as you breathe in. As you exhale, feel the ribs contract inward. Repeat five times.
Sit comfortably in a crosslegged position on the floor or lie flat on your back in the corpse pose. Place one hand on the abdomen and the other on the rib cage to check your breathing. Inhale slowly through the nose, feel the abdomen expand first, then the rib cage, and finally feel the air filling the upper chest. Your abdomen will automatically be drawn in as the ribs move out and chest expands. Slowly exhale, emptying the lungs from top to bottom. Keep body without jerks. Try to make inhalation and exhalation uniform. Do not hold your breath in between. Inhalation is done from the bottom up and exhalation from the top down. Repeat five times.
Benefit: This is the technique you can use most often to combat the tensions and stress in your life. You can use it anywhere, anytime to calm your mind and body. Use this technique to center yourself before your meditation and before asana practice to make them even more effective.
Those who wish to learn Pranayama should approach an authentic teacher. All these ancient practices have deeper significance and meaning than we could imagine. Proper practice of Pranayama with Yoga asanas can give you wonderful results but at the same time if done wrongly can lead to long-lasting adverse effects in your body. Pranayama comes as the fourth stage in the Ashtanga Yoga, where the previous ones require a complete control of body and mind. In Pranayama one is dealing with the basic energy of the self and to master that one has miles and miles to go.Benefit: Relaxes the mind and body and strengthens the lungs.