Limb 4 – Pranayama

Pranayama – This limb generally refers to taking control of the breath

‘After mastering posture, one must practice control of the prana (pranayama) by stopping the motions of inhalation and exhalation.’ 
Prabhavananda and Isherwood (2007) page171

‘Pranayama’ is the combination of two Sanskrit words; Prana meaning life force and Ayama meaning expansion, (or Yama meaning self restraint).  Either way, Pranayama is commonly known as breath control, because the breath is generally considered to be the externalisation of prana.  However, breathing is not prana, as Swami Niranjananda says pranayama is ‘a series of techniques for controlling and expanding the dimension of prana’.

According to Swami Niranjanananda there are two aspects of nature; consciousness and prana.   In the beginning unmanifest consciousness (known as Para Brahman) contained everything necessary for creation, including prana.  The first vibration of unmanifest consciousness caused cells to divide and beings and matter to come into existence (the big bang).  Prana, the life force, pervaded everything and gave life to the universe, it gives our bodies life; it is in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and permeates everything around us.

When prana levels are low we become ill, negative thoughts start to creep into our minds and we become restless and disturbed.  However when prana levels are high, we have positive thoughts and can experience higher feelings.  It is possible to raise levels of prana by working with the breath; therefore breath and prana are intrinsically connected.

The aim of Pranayama is to enhance and guide levels of prana inside the body through control or expansion of the breath.  On a spiritual level, by working with the breath we can become aware of energy levels within the body (this is known as prana vidya); experiencing prana one can gain inner knowledge and control of the mind.

On the physical level, science has proved that air quality affects our energy levels.  When we are in the country close to nature we inhale negative ions; prana and energy levels go up, oxygen is absorbed into the bloodstream faster and we feel energised.  However, even if we are not in an environment with high negative ions, we can use the breath to generate static electricity, which converts positive ions into negative ions therefore increasing prana levels inside the body.

Prana is distributed throughout the body via the Ida and Pingala and Sushumna Nadis (pathways of pranic energy).  However, blockages in these pathways (such as negative thoughts, * samskaras * (tensions, unconscious mental patterns, accumulation of impurities) prevent prana from flowing freely and cause disease.  Pranayama techniques release blockages, allowing more prana to flow, improving quality of life and lessening the risk of disease.

From a physical point of view, pranayama is beneficial to the cardiac system; through slow deep breathing the heart is rested, the heart muscles are given a gentle massage, and circulation is improved.  Mentally, stress levels are minimised and spiritually, meditation can be achieved without stress to the heart.

Different pranayama practices have different effects, for example, Nadi Shodhana (alternative nostril breath) is a balancing pranyama and can be practised with breath retention after an inhalation and after an exhalation.  Breath retention raises the internal temperature, improving absorption of oxygen and cerebral circulation, allowing for deeper breathing, greater mental awareness and leading to a point of intense stillness and ultimately Samadhi (enlightenment).

During Bhastrika Pranayama, (bellows breath) all the organs of the digestive system are massaged and toned by the movement of the diaphragm and abdominal muscles.  The muscles are strengthened providing support for the organs from the front, thus avoiding stretching the lumbar spine (useful during labour, providing the person is familiar with the practise).

Bhastrika is an activating pranayama, on a physical level it raises energy levels; stimulatings the whole pranic system, increasing vitality and detoxifying the whole system.  It also helps to balance phlegm, bile and wind, alleviates sore throats and builds resistance to coughs and colds.  On a mental level the practise reduces stress and anxiety.  Therapeutically, it is recommended for chronic depression as it induces peace tranquillity and one-pointedness.

Kapalbhati is also an activating pranayama which reverses normal breathing, invigorating the entire brain, making it not only more versatile, but also brings a state of mental clarity.  On a spiritual level, dormant areas of the brain are awakened giving subtle perception and spiritual insight.

The effect of regulated breathing also balances the endocrine system.  The blood circulation becomes very rapid and the quality of blood very rich, harmonising, purifying and neutralising the secretion of the glands.

Tranquilising Pranyama such as Bhramari (humming bee), Ujjayi, Sheetali/Sheetkari, give greater control over the nervous system and breathing process.  As the breathing becomes very slow and subtle, the frequency of brain waves and metabolic rate are reduced, inducing relaxation.  For example the vibrations of Bhramari soothe the mind and nervous system and induce a state of meditation.  The Ujjayi breath is also called the ‘psychic breath’ because it not only induces a meditative state but also leads to very subtle states of mind.  In Sheetali/Sheetkari breath is inhaled through the mouth, cooling the body, reducing mental and emotional anxiety, it encourages free flow of prana, reduces and restores equilibrium to blood pressure and induces muscular relaxation, making it a useful pranayama before sleep.

* Samskaras – According to yogic philosophy, we’re born with a karmic inheritance of mental and emotional patterns—known as samskaras—through which we cycle over and over again during our lives.
The word samskara comes from the Sanskrit sam (complete or joined together) and kara (action, cause, or doing). In addition to being generalized patterns, samskaras are individual impressions, ideas, or actions; taken together, our samskaras make up our conditioning. Repeating samskaras reinforces them, creating a groove that is difficult to resist. Samskaras can be positive—imagine the selfless acts of Mother Theresa. They can also be negative, as in the self-lacerating mental patterns that underlie low self-esteem and self-destructive relationships. The negative samskaras are what hinder our positive evolution.