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Pranayama, controlling the life current

We've talked in our previous articles about the limbs of yoga coming from Patanjali's yogic philosophy. We learned that many schools exist around yoga knowledge, and we discussed the first two limbs of Patanjali's tradition: Yama and Niyama. In this article, we will discuss the fourth limb described by Patanjali: Pranayama.

Pranayama is the fourth limb of yoga and is part of the external practices. Its general goal, like the other five first limbs, is to prepare the body and mind of the practitioner for the last steps, which will, in turn, expand the consciousness.

The specific goal of Pranayama is to gain control or retain the breath.

Meaning of Pranayama

The word Pranayama comes from the Sanskrit root of "Prana," meaning breath, and "Ayama," meaning expanding in control. Patanjali describes it in his Yoga Sutra as Tasminsati svasaprasvasayorgativichchhedah pranayamah. It can be translated as: The asana being done, Pranayama is the cessation of the movement of inhalation and exhalation. Pranayama is then understood as the cessation or retention of the breath or Prana.

It is essential here to understand that the real meaning of Prana is not limited to the breath as we generally think but is instead related to life energy. This current is constantly flowing through channels all over the body. These channels are called Nadis and are an important part of the Hatha Yoga philosophy described in a previous article. It is believed that when someone is well and balanced, the Prana flows freely through the body, passing in the seven major chakras. However, someone who is not balanced will experience physical or emotional issues.

The main Nadis (Ida, Pingala, and Sushumna) are connected to the nostrils. Accordingly, it is believed that the Prana flows in and out of the body through the breath. So, with that understanding, the practice of Pranayama allows the yogi to control the flowing of his life energy and develop his capacity to retain it.

Goal of Pranayama

So, the ultimate goal of Pranayama is to retain the breath. Gaining this control over retention of the breath allows the yogi to balance and steady the flow of Prana in his body and mind. This steadiness is mandatory to prepare for expanding the consciousness or the union sought by the regular yoga practice.

When one practices Pranayama, the length of the breath increases while the number of respiration decreases. Yogis believe that reducing the number of breaths can have beneficial mental and physical health effects and even increase the life expectancy of the people practicing it.

Practices of Pranayama

Pranayama has its importance mainly in the Hatha Yoga tradition. There are many Pranayama practices, and a beginner must be taught by an experienced teacher to progress safely through those practices. It is crucial to choose a good time and place for the procedure and to eat moderately and purify the Nadis before practicing Pranayama. The best time to do a Pranayama practice is in the morning, between 4 to 6 am, when the air is mild, slow, and fresh.

There are three different parts to the practice of Pranayama: inhalation (Puraka), retention (Kumbhaka), and exhalation (Rechaka). Each has a specific effect on the body and has its own importance.

In order to practice Pranayama, some preparatory techniques must be mastered by the beginner. The first important principle is the abdominal breath. In that breathing technique, the abdomen rises with the inhalation and falls back down with the exhalation. Once the abdominal breath is mastered and the practitioner is comfortable doing it, he can start inhaling and exhaling through only one nostril, blocking the other. Once that becomes comfortable, he can progress by inhaling through one nostril and exhaling through the other. During all those practices, the goal is to extend the length of the inhalation and exhalation, keeping them comfortable.

Once the inhalation and exhalation are done comfortably for about 20 repetitions, the yogi can introduce the retention part or Kumbhaka. There are two types of Kumbhaka: internal retention and external retention. The beginner yogi will start with the practice of internal retention and will practice it until he can breathe in a 1-1-1 ratio and hold for 12 counts. Then he will progress by adding the external retention on the same ratio.

After the yogi can comfortably inhale, internally retain, exhale, and externally retain the breath for 12 counts each, he can progress in changing the ratio. The following ratio will be 1-2-1-1, then 1-2-1-2, and finally 1-4-2-2.

Once the practitioner can safely and comfortably do these preparatory practices, he can be guided through the different techniques of Pranayama. The main practices are Nadi Sodhan, Bhramari, Ujjai, Suryabhedan, Bhastrika, Sitali, and Sitkari Pranayamas. All Pranayama practices have specific goals and precautions and follow the abovementioned ratio.

Pranayama is an essential practice in the Hatha Yoga tradition. It aims at giving the yogi better control over his Prana. Once the life current is controlled and flows freely through the body and mind, the consciousness can expand.

At Japam, we teach Pranayama as a part of our Hatha Yoga classes and through individual Pranayama-specific sessions on request. Don't hesitate to contact us or visit our website for more information on our classes.

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