The benefits of pranayama
The Practice of Pranayama, is well known and little understood. There is a lot of information out there that explains the techniques, and so enables you to engage in the mechanics of pranayama, but not so much that describes the art of it.
This is of course due in part to the relative ease of explaining mechanics over art. (There are note-worthy exceptions to this such as Iyengar’s exceptional work the ‘Light on Pranayama’, but these are few and far between.) It is possible to ‘learn’ even advanced Pranayama techniques in a few days, or even a few hours. But understanding pranayama is synonymous with understanding Yoga. In Pranayama we practice ‘relationship’ just as we do when we practice any other form of yoga. After all, the word yoga originates from Yuj, which means yoking or bringing together. All forms of yoga are essentially an act of listening and adaptation. It does not involve reaching a set point that we label completion or finished, but rather it is a practice of coming back to a sense of centre, and exploring how our relationships (in this case with the breath) can deepen that sense of centre.
Pranayama is effective on many levels, and as well as its shared traits with other yoga practices, it is particularly potent in regards to its specific effect on the body/mind energy.
How Pranayama affects energy
Pranayama is a word formed of two parts: prana- meaning energy, life force, the energy that flows from and through all the spaces in the universe and causes every thing else to ‘vibrate’; if you like the ‘primary’ energy; and, ayama- meaning expansion or extension, stretching out, and also restraint and stopping.
Energy is all around us all the time. It is moving between and within all relationships. It is in the wind and the sun. It is in the relationships that objects of mass have to objects of mass (gravity). It is in the waves on the ocean and in the sound waves that we create when we speak. There are solar rays and cosmic winds that travel through the whole solar system and in the magnetic poles that help shield us from their full intensity. Whether in a flash of lightening or the gradual growth of a barley shoot, energy is exchanged and interplayed through the universe in an infinitely complicated web of connections. Energy can be at times benevolent, like the sun’s warming rays on growing crops; or malevolent, like a bolt of lightening splitting in half an ancient oak. Like sunrays on the skin energy can cause growth or destruction, and the difference boils down to just four key factors:
With these considerations in place we can benefit from the energy drawn into the system through pranayama.
Prana - is principally drawn in through:
- Consumption - what we eat and drink
- Environmental factors - principally sunlight
- Respiration - the air we breathe
The four aids to Pranayama
Use of bandhas. Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar (B.K.S Iyengar), compares the bandhas (literally formations or energy seals) to transformers, conductors, fuses, switches and insulated wires. The implication being that raw energy needs to be insulated, isolated, regulated and directed to be able to make use of it safely.
It is essential to be aware of the potency of the practice of pranayama, which is often under-appreciated, especially by the inexperienced. This means that one should take the practices appropriate to one’s experience, and take the practices in moderation, just as one may build up a healthy tan with gradually increased exposure to the Sun.
At the beginning of a particular session, as at the beginning of ones encounter with pranayama generally, it is important to maintain a spacious relationship to practice so that your present attitude, in terms of the gunas (sattva, rajas, tamas), can be accessed [link to gunas], as this will affect your exposure levels.
To the extent that one’s nervous system is ‘up’, energy channels (nadis) in the body will be blocked, and energy that you take in during practice will build up in the remaining areas to which energy can still flow. This is not a problem as a gentle ‘lapping’ of energy against resistances in the body, like waves against chalk cliffs, will have a gradual erosive quality that can help the blockage to clear. It becomes a problem if the ratio between the time spent in practice and the experience of the practitioner is not equal, and consequently the practitioner is not sufficiently motivated to make sure that the energy does not accumulate into tension. This is avoided through muscular release, awareness of chakra (energy ‘wheels’ situated along the main energy channels along the central column of the body) movements, nadi release, and by having a deep sense of awareness of Apana (the energy responsible for the elimination of waste products from the body)*. In other words moving in as you let go.
A simple rule of thumb is to start with shorter practices and build up to longer practice sessions according to your experience of resistance lessening.
The zeal with which you practice should be the enthusiasm for connection, the commitment to listening. The practice of yoga, irrespective of the particular form, never benefits from a greedy or grasping attitude. Grasping is always disconnecting as it is concerned with attaining that which we want to have but do not have currently, which involves a reaching away from the present to the future.
Pranayama practices cover a wide range of intensities, some of which can be very strong. It is important to maintain a spacious awareness of intensity during practice. Here are some very general pointers:
- The out-breaths are less intense than the in-breaths.
- Breath retention is more intense that practicing without retention. The longer the retention the more intensity.
- Lying down to practice is less intense (than seated practise).
- Follow a common sense ordering of practice, based in part on some of the principles above: start lying down, beginning with extending the out-breath; practice retention only after mastering practices without retention; build up retentions incrementally; practice simple practices before attempting complicated ones.
- Intensity plus intensity equals more intensity, so ascertain what state you are in at the beginning of your practice to help you make your decision as to what practices to start with.
*Apana is located in the lower thorax; it has a descending quality and controls elimination. Through the use of the bandhas, particularly mula, apana is encouraged to join with prana, (which is used to refer to energy generically but also specifically as that which circulates in the chest area), on the in breath so that as the prana flows out with the exhalalation so does the apana leaving an empty state which is known as shunyata kumbhaka (also rechaka kumbhaka) or an empty pot. The yogic experience of surrender is ultimately surrender into this emptiness.
The Benefits of Pranayama
If practised in the right way, pranayama has a whole host of tremendous benefits. It is not difficult to practice in the right way; it is really just a matter of working by degrees and keeping your integrity. We do not think twice about getting in our cars, using a pair of scissors, turning on an electric light, lighting a bonfire and so on, we have an intrinsic understanding that these things can be enormously beneficial and that there is a right and a wrong way to use them. We can adopt the same attitude towards the practice of pranayama. Every activity has implicit rules that are necessary for extracting the beneficial potentials; pranayama is no exception. We can, and should in fact, on this basis put doubt to one side. Doubt is in fact perhaps the single most destructive influence on any yogic practice that we may engage with. Doubt tends to resist when we need to release, to close when we need to open, and to disengage when the one thing that guarantees our integrity and intuitive wisdom is engagement.
Let us now turn to look then at the benefits of right practice.
- Inner calm and spaciousness
- Increased zeal
- Increased immunity to illness and infection
- Increased empathy with all energy systems sentient and non sentient
- Increased libido
- Increased mental clarity
- Improved digestive function
- Improved liver function
- Improved kidney function
- Improved lung capacity
- Improved cardial health
- Improved lymphatic circulation
- Improved elimination
- The speaking voice becomes steady and effective
- The singing voice becomes sweeter and the range increases
- The mind draws inwards, and so agitation decreases
- Refined consciousness, which inspires deeper contentment (one gets more from less, as the richness of the subtleness around one becomes more apparent.