There is a vital energy or life force flowing through us all, maintaining physical functions that keep us alive and healthy. Various cultures have assigned different names for this single life force; Qi, Chi, The Force. The Sanskrit term for life force is “prana.” Someone deficient in prana is is likely to become physically or mentally unwell. Vital energy may be increased and balanced through yogic breathing practices known as pranayama.
'Prana' = vital energy. 'Ayama' = 'to expand'.
Modern science has shown that regular pranayama is capable of treating asthma, stress-related disorders, anxiety and depression. Pranayama oxygenates and detoxifies the body, clearing the mind, strengthening the nervous system, balancing the two hemispheres of the brain, cleaning the aura, improving digestion, and releasing fears, insecurity, irritability, depression and other blocks.
Pranayama is an integral part of yoga. Controlled breathing creates the rhythm for asana practice, and relaxes the mind for meditation. Pranayama is the fourth limb of the spiritual yoga. The great sage, Patanjali, outlined these limbs as Yama (ethical living), Niyama (healthy living), Asana (physical exercise), Pranayama (breath exercise), Pratyahara (withdrawing one's mind from the senses), Dharana (deep concentration), Dhyana (deep meditation) and Samadhi (enlightenment).
Pranayama consists of four stages:
1. Puraka (inhalation)
2. Abhyantarakumbhaka (the mindful pause after inhalation)
3. Rechaka (exhalation)
4. Bahya Kumbhaka (the mindful pause after exhalation)
Each stage of pranayama enhances physical awareness and enforces introspection.
Being mindful of your breath is the first step. Basic breath-awareness exercises are a good place to start. Slow down for a few moments and notice the pattern of your natural breath. How deep is it? How does it sound? Can you control it?
Like asanas, there are many types of pranayama. If you're new to pranayama, it is best to learn from a guru or teacher. Once you are familiar with the form, you may continue the practice on your own, in pursuit of health, happiness and enlightenment.