In The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, one of the essential texts for serious yoga students, the Eight-Limb path is prescribed as an approach to relieve the human experience of suffering. The first two limbs are known as The Yamas and Niyamas. The third limb is asana, or posture. These and all of the limbs will be explored in further blogs. The fourth limb is pranayama, which we explore here.
Pranayama is a Sanskrit word consisting of two words, prana and yama.
Let’s take the first word. Pran or prana translates as life force energy.
Prana is everywhere. Prana is abundant in the four elements of air, sun, water and earth. Regarding air, sun and water, you can just imagine examples of the importance of receiving regular doses of these elements for vitality. One that most of use can relate to is the rejuvenating effect of just breathing in fresh air at the beach. The elements of air, sun, and water are all there in abundance on a summer day. In “the old days”, sending someone to the seashore was sometimes the what the doctor ordered to help someone heal or at least feel better.
We receive prana from the earth through the food we eat. Of course, in our time, there are some food that have very little prana. Generally the more processed a food is the less prana it has. Some prana gets lost in each process along the way. As a cook, one of my favorite examples is tomatoes. You can tell which tomatoes have a lot of prana and which ones don’t. The ones that don’t are mealy. The ones that have a lot of prana have a juicy flesh. I would guess that the juicy ones get more sun.
Yama is translated as “yoke,” as in harness, as in harness that horse and take a ride. In this case, pranayama, translates as harnessing the life force energy of prana. In yoga practice, there are a number of breathing practices.
Generally, pranayama (plural and singular) are breathing practices that help the body in its quest for homeostasis.
The Essential Pranayama Exercises
- Dirgha – The complete yogic breath; the three-part breath
- Ujjayi – The ocean sounding breath
- Kapalabhati – The mind-clearing breath (as named by Tom Gillette) or commonly translated as the skull polishing breath
- Kumbhaka – Breath held in or out without tension
- Nadi Shodhana – The sweet breath; balancing the brain breath
The effects of any of these practices can be:
- Drawing attention inward, creating introversion
- Focusing the mind’s attention
- Developing discrimination, wisdom, enhanced judgement
The Physical Pranayama Benefits:
- Develops and maintains full lung capacity; utilizing your full lung capacity takes in seven times the amount of breath that shallow breathing does
- Full breathing (Dirgha pranayama) keeps lungs elastic, stimulates the metabolism, reduces tension and anxiety
- Strengthens digestion and improves assimilation and elimination
- Nourishes the blood (by stimulating digestion)
- Cleanses the blood (by increasing production of nitric oxide)
- Equalizes body temperature
- Exercises internal organs and muscles
- Brightens the complexion
- Supports vital, regenerating systems helping to reduce the tendency for disease
Other cumulative benefits with regular practice can be:
- Stimulates the flow of energy
- Vitalizes the body’s regenerative capacity
- Calms the heart
- Encourages an inward focus that supports a meditative state
- Increases self-knowledge and insight
- Aids in the development of witness consciousness, neutral noticing
- Increases awareness of energy expenditures of various actions and thoughts and thus enhances conscious choice
- Develops discrimination
- Increases awareness of and sensitivity to the subtler energies
- Reduces susceptibility to minor illnesses such as colds and coughs as well as more serious illnesses such as bronchitis and asthma
- Improves vitality and reduces fatigue
- Increases mental clarity and improves thinking ability
- Aids in reducing high blood pressure