Yoga has become the latest trend among the health conscious in our modern society, and you can find a yoga studio even in remote villages across the globe. Now when I say yoga, I refer to what most of us think of when hearing the word, that is, pseudo-acrobatic postures (or asanas) and deep stretching exercises. This is all good…but often an element that is intrinsic to the practice of the true yogis is left out of the equation: Pranayama.
What Is Pranayama?
You might be asking yourself, what is so special about pranayama practice? Why did the ancient yogis believe that pranayama was the key to a long and healthy life?
In order to understand the concept, let´s first take a look at the definition of the word. “Prana” means life force or vital energy. It is the energy that lies within all beings and things, alive or not. “Ayama”, refers to extension or expansion. Combining these notions, we get pranayama; expansion of the vital energy, which also can be defined as activating and retaining our vital force in order to improve our health and well-being as well as lengthen our life span. In pranayama we work on extending our life energy through a series of controlled breathing exercises that work on our physical, mental and especially our energy being.
Breathing influences all the functions in our body and is the most vital process in our organism. The ancient yogis spent a lot of time studying nature in great detail, and they discovered that animals with a slow breath rate lived the longest, while animals with a fast breathing rate had a short life span. Hence, they drew the conclusion that rhythmic, deep and slow breathing generates a calm mind and a longer life span, while irregular, fast breathing leads to physical and mental blocks and a shorter life. So they developed a practice to activate and retain the prana in order to improve the vital functions and increase life span.
The Pranic Body
In order to get a better idea of how the prana or life force acts within our body, let´s take a look at what the yogis mean with a pranic body.
According to yogic physiology, we humans are made of 5 dimensions:
- Annamaya kosha: the material body
- Manomaya kosha: the mental body
- Pranamaya kosha: the vital energy body (or bioplasmic body)
- Vijnanmaya kosha: the higher mental body
- Anandamaya kosha: the bliss body
The practice of pranayama has an impact on all of these dimensions or bodies, but works especially on the pranamaya or energy body, as the name suggests.
The pranic energy body, in turn, is made up of 5 major areas:
- Prana: the energy flow in the thoracic region, provides energy for the heart and respiratory organs, governs the intake of air.
- Apana: the energy flow in the lower abdomen, provides energy for the large intestine, kidneys and genitals, governs the expulsion of air and waste.
- Samana: the energy flow between the heart and navel, provides energy for the digestive system and is responsible for transformation. Physical level: assimilation and distribution of nutrients. Spiritual level: Kundalini and expansion of consciousness.
- Udana: the energy flow of the head and neck, provides energy for the sensory organs, harmonizes and activates the limbs, responsible for responding to the outside world.
- Vyana: the energy flow around the entire body, acts as a reserve force for each of the energy dimensions.
So as you can see, the vital energy influences our entire body and carries out specific functions that secure a correct functioning of our physical, mental and and energy bodies.
Our lifestyle, diet and thoughts greatly affect our pranic body. A lack of energy in a certain energy dimension, leads to a devitalization of the organs it governs and to different disorders and diseases. Through the practice of pranayama we can reverse this weakening process by revitalizing our entire pranic body.
How To Practice Pranayama?
It is important to keep in mind that as pranayama exercises are all about controlling and altering our breathing, which is such a vital function, the best thing is to start out with a teacher that can guide you through the basics. This way you make sure that you don´t strain yourself and that you are getting the most out of it!
Pranayama should be practiced after the asanas (yoga postures) and before meditation. If you only have time for pranayama that´s also perfect! Traditionally, the yogis practiced asanas and pranayama as a preparation for meditation, so this is why the session is outlined in this order.
Try to do your pranayama exercises either early in the morning, or after sunset, and on an empty stomach (to avoid placing pressure on your lungs and diaphragm). It is a good idea to always try to practice at the same time, in the same place, as regularity will increase the effectiveness of the exercises. Usually pranayama is done in a meditation position (lotus or crossed legged), but if you find this uncomfortable you can also sit on a chair, as the most important thing is to keep a straight back and neck to allow the free flow of air.
So…now that you got the basics, the next step is to try it out and explore the innumerable benefits that come from a regular pranayama practice. It only takes you 10-30 minutes a day, and it´s easy and free!
I will be posting some simple pranayama exercises here in the next weeks, so stay tuned for some more…
Sending you positive energy and vitality,
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