What is Pranayama?
Published: August 5, 2017
‘To be human is to be sitting on the evolutionary razor’s edge, right at the frontiers of your own potential ‘(1)
Simply, prana means breath, vitality or life force. ‘Ayama’ means extension. So pranayama is a technique that enables us to extend the breath, and thus our vitality and life-force.
In his book ‘light on Pranayama’, B.K.S. Iyengar encouraged the novice to gain an understanding of this process. However, he also recommended that the student practice yoga for at least 2 years before embarking on this work. This is because pranayama is a subtle practice, and cannot be forced. Before embarking on pranayama, we must open the mind and the body to this practice. We achieve this through the asanas (yoga poses). Iyengar believed that yoga without pranayama is simply exercise. Through asana practice the mind and the body unite and this prepares the student for pranayama.
The breath is a barometer to the emotions and this creates a feedback loop. As asana helps pranayama, the reverse is also true.
In ‘Light on Pranayama’ the student begins this subtle journey from a supine position. The limitations of the body do not prevent the exploration of the breath.
Yoga sutra 1.2 ‘yogah cittavrtti nirodhah…yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness’ (2)
Many of us find that internal chatter is a constant. But it can be silenced as we reroute the attention to the breath. This process does not happen overnight as often the chattering, projecting mind dominates. The breath can help you move into a place of quietness, even for a brief time.
So what are the benefits?
“Lose your mind and come to your senses’ (3)
It is easy to get caught up in the struggles of life. From my own experience, some time away from the routine is enough to bring hope, energy, and less stress. Pranayama can be that little break in your day.
How many people are living in near constant stress? Pranayama is a way of reducing our internal levels. Cortico-steroids are produced in the adrenal glands and the brain when we are under stress. There is a recognised link between stress and immune function as it does not work efficiently when there is stress.
Even the digestive system is affected by a change to stress levels. Dr Michael Gershon has shown that the gut is more than a tube that processes food. It contains a highly complex neural system and displays a great degree of autonomy. The Chinese have always known about this mind gut connection. Research has shown that every neurotransmitter known in the brain can also be found in the gut, including serotonin. (3)
Let the light in
Not only does Pranayama effect the nervous and digestive systems. The endocrine system is also involved by taking attention to the pineal gland. This is what the mystics refer to as the ‘third eye’. The endocrine system correlates with the chakras inviting light into and around the body. By opening up the right hemisphere of the brain, we allow the mind to become steady from which clarity, serenity and silence naturally emerge.
References: 1. The book of Neptune, Steven Forest. 2. Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, BKS Iyengar. 3. Return to the Brain of Eden, Tony Wright and Graham Gynn