Pranayama is not simply a technique to control our breath and induce relaxation of the mind and body. There is a great deal of activity that takes place with every breath you take. Pranayama is an ancient science that goes deeper then the science of breath. Also deals with many invisible energies working behind the scene and beyond the physical.
The word Pranayama is derived from the Sanskrit word Prana which is a combination of two Sanskrit syllables, pra and na , which is a force in constant motion, which exists in the entire universe and in every plane of existence and within you. And this force is in sync with the breath which we shall discuss later, but we can’t call it a force because prana is what manifests as force and can manifest itself into anything in the universe. So the whole purpose of pranayama is to achieve control over this force and increase the flow of prana in the physical body and thereby vitalizing mind, body and spirit.
The mind and the breath (Prana)
Say as you are reading this article your attention is drawn to every word and these words are processed by your mind and intellect. Apart from your attention, there are background noises but you don’t hear them, there are many other objects in your vision yet nothing other then the screen on which you are reading is visible. In other words the physical organs/senses are all working but you are not aware, it is willful awareness that makes you aware and the will is nothing but a another manifestation of prana.
Willful breathing = Controlled Prana (Will)
There are various processes that occur in the mind which causes us to react and behave in a certain way such as egoism, discrimination faculty etc., that makes each individual unique. Thoughts that occur in the mind stuff are called Vrttis (whirlpools), vrttis can be any kind of external or internal impression that can occur in the mind. As we can see in the following example.
“The bottom of the lake we cannot see, because its surface is covered with ripples. It is only possible when the ripples have subsided, and the water is calm, for us to catch a glimpse of the bottom. If the water is muddy, the bottom will not be seen; and if the water is agitated all the time, the bottom will not be seen. But if the water is clear, and there are no waves, we shall see the bottom. That bottom of the lake is our own true Self; the lake is the Chitta, and the waves are the Vrttis.” ~Raja Yoga by Swami Vivekananda
A thought is a manifestation of prana, in fact everything is a manifestation of prana as discussed earlier. Thus with the control of the breath comes the control over the mind.
Science of Pranayama
We breathe 24 hrs a day from the day we first breathed in life. And therefore it is the most important process in the human body. In each cycle of our breath we inhale and after a very short gap (retention) we exhale, this process continues unconsciously, but the moment we begin to breathe consciously by observing the in-going and out-going breath each cycle becomes longer and we tend to become more relaxed, so there has to be a connection between the mind and the breath and that connection is Prana.
The breath, directed by thought under the control of the will, is a vitalizing, regenerating force which you can utilize consciously for self-development; for healing many incurable diseases in your system; for healing others and for other various useful purposes ~Swami Sivananda
Whenever we breathe even at this moment, there is more flow of breath in one nostril then the other. Even though it appears as if the same amount of air flows through both the nostrils, you can try breathing with one nostril at a time and feel the difference. Now the reason to this brings us to the 3 main Nadis or energy channels : Ida, Pingala and Sushumna.
Ida is said to be in active flow when there is more flow of breath in the left nostril. It stimulates mental activities of the brain. When the right nostril is active, Pingala flows and stimulates bodily activities such as digestion etc. Sushumna usually flows for very less period of time i.e when there is equal flow of breath in both the nostrils.
Length Of Breath
With the right practice of Pranayama, the length (Angula) of natural air currents is reduced. The length of the exhaled breath is measured in angulas, a Sanskrit word which means finger width. One angula is the width of one finger. The natural length of the breath during exhalation is around 12 angulas or 9 inches. As the length of exhalation reduces we gain higher awareness and more and more potential of the brain unfolds as it starts receiving more energy. That is,
Decrease in length of exhaled breath = Progress in Pranayama = Increased amounts of prana.
The ordinary length of the air-current, when exhaled is 12 digits (9 inches). In singing, its length becomes 16 digits (1 foot). in eating it comes to 20 digits (15 inches. in sleeping 30 digits (22 1/2 inches). in copulation 36 digits (27 inches) ~Swami Sivananda
Benefits of Pranayama
Here are a few benefits of pranayama, we will discuss many more of them in detail is an another article
- Increase one’s level of pranic energy.
- Higher Concentration and Awareness.
- Purifies the body, makes it healthy and strong.
- Happiness and peace of mind.
- Strengthens the respiratory muscles and makes the lungs more elastic, resulting in a healthier process of respiration.
- Improves digestive, eliminatory and cardiac system.
Now you should have a little more clear idea on this very vast science. I’ve covered just the surface of the sea. You can read the books that I’ve mentioned below in reference for a more detailed understanding of the science of Pranayama and it’s various practices.
However, with just a few rounds of Pranayama performed with a simple breathing exercise will not help one achieve higher states of mind and the higher benefits of Pranayama. Only daily sustained and progressive practice will deepen your concentration and inner awareness. For prolonged practice of Pranayama we must be able to sit in a firm posture (Asana). A firm posture would mean that you no longer feel uncomfortable with your body. In fact you loose awareness of the body as in deep sleep but you are conscious. This leads to heightened awareness of the breath and concentration.
I shall be writing more interesting articles here on yogascript so stay tuned.