One of the most important forms of Yoga is Pranayama.
Many people in Western culture see this as breathing exercises, but in reality it is more along the lines of energy work. Prana is the energetic aspect of our being, like the electricity that keeps everything functioning in your house. Without power nothing works, so it is a vital necessity for our health and well being, and fundamental for life. The word yama in this context means 'control', so together the meaning becomes energy control. The breathing part of it is the beginning of how we learn to control the primary life force that keeps us alive. With every in-breath there is a flow of energy one way and with every out-breath a complementary flow.
Western medical science has not yet accepted that prana exists, but cannot deny that energy flows through the nervous system. In the older science of pranayama yoga we find an amazing amount of of information about energy and nervous systems. For example, 72,000 nerve terminals were known to exist thousands of years ago, while Western "medicine" did not know what a nerve terminal was 150 years ago. There is nothing theoretical or mystical about energy.
There are considered to be 4 parts to every breath we take.
Puraka: the in breath, inhalation
Kumbhaka: the held in breath, retention
Rechaka: the out-breath, exhalation
Shunyata: the held out breath
Yoga pranayamas: the Adhamas:
These are basically physical breath exercises for correcting breathing difficulties which may interfere with normal, good health and hold back the evolution of the mind. This can affect both oxygen levels physiologically, and prana flow within the nervous system and the nadis (energy pathways, through the nerves and other parts of the body). These exercises are essentially for cleaning and purifying the respiratory tract, the lungs, the blood stream and subsequently the various organs of the body; all of which are nourished by the blood. The increased level of oxygen throughout the body has an immediate detoxifying effect, and a subsequent rejuvenating effect that extends to every cell. One must be prepared to deal with the first phase of the detox because it can be a difficult period for those coming from a polluted place.
The second area to be affected by conscious deep breathing is the nervous system since it is through the nerves that the impulse for breathing must pass. This results in moving energy through areas which have often been blocked due to any traumatic experiences we have had in our lives. Notice how you will tend to hold your breath when something shocking happens, for example if someone shouts at you, but you are a sensitive child. This type of event creates a blockage in the nervous system; these events add up to create resistance to the complete breathing impulses. Consequently when we begin breathing deeply again a lot of these old events come up with their emotional content attached. In this way pranayama has psychological consequences, and they need to be dealt with.
Taking control of the breath is taking over a subconscious function, and this does open the door to the unconscious. Often that is Pandora’s box, so beware of what has been stored in the unconscious. On the other hand, this begins the control of the functional energies of the life process, and leads later on to full control of physical health, emotional stability, higher mental states and the expansion of awareness to superconscious planes. Just as it is the first thing you do when you are born into the physical body, breathing is the first thing you can do to begin a spiritual rebirth.
“God breathed life into the nostrils of Man and he became a living soul”
Swami Gitananda 1971
A rare teacher who taught pranayama from day 1.
There are few teachers who have spent the years practicing these most valuable methods of Yogic practice. My first two weeks at the ashram were spent learning how to breathe, section by section, with a variety of postures and movements designed to expand lung capacity, increase oxygen absorption and boost circulation. Once we learned how to breathe efficiently, we were taught a succession of pranayama techniques from beginners to intermediate to advanced, including plenty of practice time over the six month teacher training period. There were over 50 breathing techniques practiced; many people can not imagine that many different ways of breathing, though when you take into account the various postures used it makes sense. The reality is that this is a precise science governed by mathematical ratios which determine where the prana goes, for cleansing the nadis, for balancing each of the chakras, for charging them up, for empowerment. Most of these are based on complete deep breathing to begin with: Mahat Yoga Pranayama, then add the math ratios and various other details for a full range of effects. Many of these techniques are laid out in a progressive sequence that needs to be followed in order to be effective. In fact the order needs to be followed so as to not disturb mental equilibrium.
ADHAM PRANAYMA; abdominal breathing. In this form of breathing the air is channeled into the inferior or lower lobes of the lungs, causing the abdomen to bulge out like a balloon when air is blown into it. The diaphragm muscle is used in this motion, moving it down onto the digestive organs during inhalation and moving it back up into the chest during exhalation. When the air is expelled the abdomen is pulled in as well, the navel being drawn in towards the spine to squeeze all the air out. This movement of the diaphragm muscle in the lower section of the torso provides a massage for all the organs in the lower body area, stimulating better function of those organs, good circulation, good digestion and elimination, and healthier sexual functions. The movement of the whole abdominal area acts as a second heart pumping the blood in and out of the area, providing the motive force for circulation in the entire lower body all the way down to the toes. Many physical disorders that could occur below the rib cage can be prevented through this form of breathing, and can be healed when this simple breathing is done in combination with various asanas, kriyas (movements), and proper diet. With this lower section of the body in good health the nervous system in the area becomes a better conductor and energy from the first two chakras begins to rise up to the brain for mental evolution.
MADHYAM PRANAYAMA: mid-chest breathing. Movement is controlled so that the air is channeled into the middle lobes of the lungs, the ribs moving out to the sides like an accordion and outward in all directions. This pulls the air into the middle area around the heart. Expelling the air here requires a squeezing effort that feels a bit unnatural at first but good because exhaling completely is just as important as inhaling fully, in all areas. The massaging effect is thus raised from the lower body organs to the area of the heart and the thymus gland. The thymus is in charge of our immune response system and can be easily reactivated by this type of breathing while the area around the heart can be cleared of the usual cholesterol and fatty deposits that inevitably lead to heart trouble. The circulation of lymph through the body is carried on partly by movement and pulsation of the heart and arteries, but mostly by the expansion and contraction of the mid-chest area. There is also a slight massaging effect on the upper digestive organs like stomach, liver, gall bladder and pancreas with this breathing. When the area has been de-toxified energy begins to move up from the nerve plexus associated with the third and fourth chakras.
ADHYAM PRANAYAMA: upper breathing. The air is drawn into the uppermost section of the lungs, up into the clavicular lobes. This is accomplished by raising the whole chest area upwards, as if the neck is sinking down into the chest. Particular care must be taken not to raise the shoulders or tense them up during inhalation. When expelling the air it feels like the chest and shoulders are dropping down and the neck is sticking out; a certain amount of downward pressure must be exerted to actually get all the air out. Obviously this breathing will be most beneficial to the higher body region, from the upper lungs to the top of the head. The pulsation of the lungs here provides an extra boost to the circulation in the clavicular area, affecting the neck with the thyroid and parathyroid glands, and continuing up through the voice box, tongue, mouth and entire head area. The brain itself is the most energized and highly stimulated organ when this breathing is performed, something to be remembered when doing any form of intellectual work. Disorders in the head (headaches, etc.) can be alleviated through proper breathing in this area, and once things have been detoxified the energy flow from the breath will open the fifth and sixth chakras.
Some of the breathing muscles involved in the three parts of breathing, with a picture of the lungs.