The concept of Prana as vital energy which sustains life and the entire universe has been known since ancient times. Many cultures give it different names like Yin-Yang or Chi.
In yoga, there are several approaches to the definition of Prana and Pranayama.
The difference is the one between Prana as universal energy and Prana as individual energy used to support the body. Yoga and Ayurveda believe our bodies are the representation of the whole universe, and the same forces apply to us.
Based on this belief, we can say Prana is universal energy adapted to the needs of any living being. Prana moves through our bodies using certain channels called Nadis, and it is regulated and stored in specific points called chakras. Basically, chakras are spots in our body where many Nadis meet. This network has a specific route we cannot see because it is in a subtle form.
If we take a view from a medical context, Nadis can be mapped where nerve fibers, solar plexus, and glands of the body are. Or at least pretty close. This means Prana also controls our bodily functions.
How It Works
In yogic literature, it is oxygen the body uses as fuel. Yama means control. In this context, Prana + Yama means to control prana through breath. Our breathing patterns, we affect the stability of prana. It also means our psycho-physiological level will also be affected. Just imagine you are stressed or angry. You will notice your breath is shallow and short. Whereas when you are calmed, your breath is long and deep.
We can control oxygen and prana through inhalation, exhalation, and retention of breath. By practicing different combinations and styles of breath, we can influence the body and mind, creating health and balance necessary for advanced meditation practices.
Pranayama techniques must be practiced perfectly. Some are powerful, and the erroneous practice can make us sick. On the other hand, performing the exercises correctly gives us extraordinary strength and health.
In Pranayama, as in asanas, finding an adequate location, getting the best nutrition, and achieving an optimal mental condition are necessary for success. The goal is to guide the prana through Sushumna (the crown chakra) and awaken Kundalini, the inner power which is dormant.
General Benefits of Pranayama
- Increases lung capacity
- Reduces stress and improves balance and mental peace
- Strengthens respiratory muscles
- Improves gas exchange in the body (this means we get oxygen to our cells, exhale more carbon dioxide, alkalinizing our organs and fortifying our immune system)
- Improves concentration
- Creates parasympathetic predominance that helps regulate blood pressure, gastrointestinal activity, and endocrine secretion.
Most Practiced Pranayama Exercises
Translated as “Being victorious,” Ujjayi is the inhalation of air through the nose with the contraction of the glottis of the neck. Air is exhaled softly through the throat contraction. The feeling is the same as when we fog a mirror. It should sound like an ocean wave. Ujjayi can be performed in almost any posture and it is used to calm our heartbeat when we exert ourselves. It is used to relax the body.
Translated as “Forehead Purification”. Kapalabhati is the fast and forceful exhalation of all the air we have in our lungs. Exhalation should come from the abdomen. When done correctly, you can see your abdomen contracting and raising with every exhalation. The body will take in all the air it needs by itself. It should be performed at least a dozen times in a row, followed by three long deep breaths to rest.