Pranayama the yogi's art of breathing - Guy Powiecki
Pranayama is a profound practice. It has a whole host of health benefits and is probably one of the most effective tools there is for holistic health. It works primarily on the nervous system, and through that, it has an influence on pretty much every other system in the body. It can improve your digestion, give you a slower and more even heartbeat, bring greater mental calm, give you more energy, help you deal with the effects of stress, improve your cardiovascular fitness, improve the health of all your organs and much more.
However, pranayama did not start as a practice for health. It began as a practice for bringing prana - our life force - into balance and then channeling it. Prana means “life-breath or life force," and ayama means “control, extend, expand or elongate.” For the ancient yogis, it was all about pranayama, this was the central part of their practice. They experienced that this was where the real juice was. That pranayama was the most effective tool for bringing about the profound energetic shift that they were seeking, allowing them to pursue subtler and subtler spiritual states.
In modern yoga, postural practice (asana) has become the dominant form. Even becoming synonymous with yoga itself. But in premodern India, it was pranayama that was the defining practice of physical yoga. Breath-control has been central to the practice of yoga since the earliest descriptions of yogic techniques. Pranayama is mentioned by name as one of the two types of dhyana (meditation) in the Mahabharata (one of the great ancient epics of India). It is one of the eight limbs of yoga in the Patanjali Yoga Sutras. In the fifth century CE when India’s most excellent poet Kalidasa described Siva in meditation, he devoted a verse of poetry to his mastery of breath-control. The Hathapradipika, one of the principal texts of Hatha Yoga, says that it is through breath-retention that Hatha is mastered (2.75).
Mahabharata is believed to be written by Sage Veda Vyasa but in reality, it was narrated by him and written by Lord Ganesha.
Hatha is often translated as effort or force. Forceful, powerful techniques were used on the body. Another interpretation is that the “Ha” part means sun and the “tha” part means moon. The purpose is to bring these two parts of an individual into balance. The more active, stimulating, Male sun energy and the more calming, nourishing Feminine moon energy. Hatha yoga became defined in textual sources around the 13th Century. Including cleansing techniques (kriyas), non-seated postures (asanas), sophisticated methods of breath-control (pranayama) and physical means of manipulating the vital energy (mudras). Although many of these techniques were existing in some form for around 1000-2000 years before. One defining feature of Hatha yoga is the use of physical practices in preparation for sense withdrawal (pratyahara), concentration (Dharana) and meditation (dhyana) techniques. Initially, we are doing various things with and to our body that are supposed to have a corresponding psychological and energetic effect. But the end goal is deeper meditative states.
In modern yoga, yoga is understood within an anatomical and biological framework and is related to regarding health benefits. This can obscure traditional visions of the body and has led to a reframing of the intended purposes of the techniques themselves. In premodern yoga, the body was understood in a more esoteric way, as a complex of energy centers (chakras), energy channels (nadis) and various energies (prana, vayu, kundalini, etc.). Some of these esoteric anatomies were to be, and some of it was to be controlled and manipulated by the various practices. Pranayama was of central importance and seen as the most effective way of working with these internal energies and centers.
Again, in modern yoga, Hatha is often presented as a particular style or type of class, usually slower and softer than some of the more dynamic varieties. Strictly speaking, all of the modern yoga varieties are very much still Hatha Yoga. Any Yoga which uses the body and physical practice is Hatha. There has been a transmutation of terms and indeed some confusion in the transmission of ancient words to the modern setting.
So the question becomes...
If we are all doing Hatha yoga in the modern setting, why have we forgotten what its ultimate purpose is? Why are we not practicing the technique within it that used to be the central part of the practice and seen as the most effective for psychological, energetic and spiritual transformation - pranayama? Pranayama is starting to gain some popularity and is often added to the end or beginning of a regular yoga class. This is good but often it is not profoundly understood, and all too often it is taught simplistically without a genuine appreciation of what it really it is.
Although it appears that we are working with the breath, in actual effect we are working with prana, our life force. For most people, our awareness is not yet subtle enough that we can sense, let alone control prana. So how to manipulate it? Well, this is the lucky thing, there is a corresponding relationship between the breath and between prana, how one is directed influences how the other is directed. This chain of causality goes; further, the Hathapradipika describes how citta (the mind) and prana are like two fish swimming together, how one moves, the other follows. So by training our breath, we are actually training our minds.
Think of a depressed, stressed or irate person, do you associate a particular type of breathing with these mood and mind states? Most likely you will, and the breath you would imagine is usually shallow and quick with a poor exhale. Now, think of a carefree, happy baby, they have this expansive, relaxed belly breath. It is quite easy to find examples of where we can clearly see that our psychological state influences the way that we breathe, reasonably apparent when you think about it. In ordinary life, our respiration is affected by our emotions and actions. Depending on what our emotional state and level of physical activity are, the respiratory centers in the brain receive controlling signals of neural and hormonal nature and control the rate and depth of respiratory movements.
So now what if we were to reverse this process….
If we voluntarily control our breathing in a particular way, it has a corresponding psychological effect within the brain. If we breathe in a very calm and relaxed style, it can make the brain experience a similar state.
“Voluntary changes in the pattern of breath can account for 40% of the variance in feelings of anger, fear, joy, and sadness.”
This is the beauty of working with our breath, it can have such profound and extensive effects on how we feel and even behave like people. This is Hatha yoga - we work with and manipulate our bodies to have psychological effects and with time spiritual growth.
Stress has become increasingly common and widespread. This is another example of the interrelationship and feedback effects between body and mind. Chronic stress has a whole host of negative consequences - physiological, behavioral, psychological, social, spiritual and functional. It can be truly debilitating. Stress works primarily through overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system. This is often called the fight or flight mechanism and for most of our evolution was our response to physical threats. The problem now is with constant underlying background stress we get stuck in this negative feedback loop. The calming part of the nervous system is called the parasympathetic nervous system and is often called the rest and digest mechanism. We need both, and we need them in balance. For most people in modern society, unfortunately, there is an overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system leading to a fast heartbeat, fast breathing, high blood pressure, poor digestion, weakened immune system, poor sleep, irritability, and emotional, habitual responses. All of this combined becomes very damaging over the long term.
The good news is that pranayama is one of the most useful things you can do to strengthen your parasympathetic nervous system. It is primarily concerned with bringing the body, the mind, and the nervous system into balance. This balance and health of the organism is a prerequisite for the deeper energetic shifts that can take place with prolonged pranayama practice. When we start with pranayama one of the first things we must do is work on calm and relaxation, bringing ourselves to a state of peace. Once this has been stabilized, we can begin to work with the more energizing and activating pranayamas.
Pranayama consists of cleansing, preparatory exercises and the pranayamas themselves, the various different breaths, the preparatory techniques are primarily concerned with the parts of the body where we hold a lot of our emotional history and that have a tendency to become tense or rigid, such as the stomach, neck, face, jaw. We work on releasing these areas, letting go of emotional history and allowing the free flow of energy.
The pranayamas themselves generally all follow a similar template with small differences in the flow and direction of the breath. Depending on the nostril we use, and the direction of the breath creates different effects. The right nostril is more stimulating towards the sympathetic nervous system, while the left nostril is more stimulating to the parasympathetic nervous system. In an average healthy individual, there is actually one nostril that is dominant at any one time, this will change roughly every 90 minutes or so. The ancient yogis were aware of this and began to manipulate the relationship. The exhale is more stimulating to the parasympathetic, while the inhale is more stimulating to the sympathetic. These are some of the primary relationships we work with, gradually developing a more extended, softer breath.
We always use an exhalation that is double the length of inhalation. With time we start to introduce breath retention (kumbhaka) and the use of the Bandhas. But first, it is essential to building a strong, stable foundation, preparing our house before we really switch the electrics on. We breathe every moment of our lives, but very few of us are conscious of our breaths or are aware of what is a healthy, natural breath or what are negative breathing patterns. Pranayama helps undo all of this, putting us in contact with this most vital of our own processes.
I would like to finish this article with a rather lengthy quote from Swami Kuvalayananda, the teacher of my teacher.
“Pranayama introduces high pressures both in the central canal of the spinal cord and the ventricles of the brain. These pressures centrally stimulate the whole nervous system. The human consciousness begins to be, and supersensuous perceptions begin to be possible. Worlds subtler and still subtler begin to be opened out in proportion to the consciousness itself getting more and more refined, till at last the individual consciousness merges into the cosmic and the individual becomes one with the Infinite.”
This is inspiring stuff but for pranayama to really start working it takes repeated practice over an extended period of time. We are trying to have profound effects on the very core of our being. So what are you waiting for? Make haste and practice!
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