Pranayama is the fourth of the eight limbs of yoga, as outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. Pranayama as yogic breathing is the science of controlling the breath. In this yogic practice, you learn to control measure and even direct your breath. It works on the principle that when the inspired breath is neutralized by the expired breath, the body attains perfect relaxation and the body activities get balanced.
Pranayama goes hand in glove with the asanas and all forms of yogic meditations as it helps in controlling all the impulses and vital energies. When a yogi learns the correct pattern of rhythmic, deep, slow breathing, he strengthens the respiratory system, soothes his nervous system and controls his emotions. Pranayama helps yogis to prepare for the higher forms of meditation.
A popular form of pranayama is Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), which works on filling the complete lung with air which is envisioned by expanding the rib cage, abdomen and upper chest. While exhaling you need to envision that your lungs are becoming completely empty, pulling at the abdomen to empty the lungs.
Try using these cues while teaching Nadi Shodhana: Placing the right hand in front of the face, curling the pointer and middle fingers in, take a deep cleansing breath in and out. Closing the right nostril off with the thumb, take a deep breath through the left nostril; then close the left nostril with your little and ring fingers. As you press your little and ring fingers in to close off the left nostril, at the same time, release the thumb to open the right nostril. Exhale slowly through the right nostril. Keep the right nostril open and inhale slowly. Close the right nostril as you open the left nostril and exhale slowly. This is 1 breath cycle.
The breath is an involuntary function, so why is Pranayama so important?
In today’s fast life, where you often don’t have any time for yourself, there are a plethora of stresses and you may feel pressure from everywhere – work, finances, spouse, kids, friends, parents, lack of time and more. In such situations, you forget to breathe properly and the respiration becomes shallow and fast. This causes only a small fraction of the lungs to be utilized resulting in inadequate supply of oxygen to the body cells effecting into various diseases like heart problems, fatigue, sleep disorders, irritability and even more serious emotional disturbances. When you start practicing systemic and deep breathing exercises known as Pranayama, you reenergize the body.
Pranayama has different stages, as outlined below.
1. Arambha or the stage of commencement wherein the disciple’s curiosity in Pranayama is aroused.
2. Ghata or the stage when the three sariras namely the casual, gross and subtle get merged to cloak the soul.
3. Parichay or the stage in which the disciple experiences the true form of Pranayama.
4. Nispatti or the stage in which the disciple transcends his physical body and enters the mental and the spiritual plane on the way to unite with Supreme.
Pranayama offers the disciple or yogi many physical as well as emotional and spiritual benefits like:
1. Through Pranayama one learns to increase the lungs capacities resulting in proper supply of oxygen to the body cells.
2. It helps in reducing the various toxins and the wastes that get accumulated in the body and thus acquiring diseases.
3. It aids in proper digestion and thus helps in proper body metabolism.
4. You develop good concentration and focus. Pranayama helps you to relax and attain peace of mind.
5. It helps in better self-control and helps you handle tempers and the reactions in a much better way.
The other major benefits are at the spiritual level, wherein by controlling the various desires and emotions, we can achieve spiritual harmony. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (3:1-3:3) tells us, “Through these practices and processes of pranayama the mind acquires or develops the fitness, qualification, or capability for concentration (dharana), which is the sixth rung.”