Pranayama – The Practice
The breath is the most vital process of the body. It influences the activities of each, and every cell. And, most importantly, it is intimately linked with the performance of the brain. Human beings breathe about 15 times per minute, or 21,600 times per day. Respiration fuels the burning of oxygen, and glucose, producing energy to power every muscular contraction, glandular secretion, and mental process.
The breath is intimately linked to all aspects of human experience. Most people breathe incorrectly, using only a small part of their lung capacity. The breathing is then generally shallow”, depriving the body of oxygen, and the prana essential to its good health. The first five practices given in this section are preparatory techniques which introduce correct breathing habits.
In addition, they help focus the awareness on the breathing process which is otherwise normally ignored. Practitioners develop sensitivity to the respiratory process, and retrain the muscles of the pulmonary cavity, enhancing their vital capacity, and preparing them for pranayama.
Rhythmic, deep, and slow respiration sublimates, and is stimulated by calm, content, states of mind. Irregular breathing disrupts the rhythms of the brain, and leads to physical, emotional, and mental blocks. These in turn, lead to inner conflicts, imbalances, personality disorders, destructive lifestyles, and disease. Pranayama establishes regular breathing patterns, breaking this negative cycle, and reversing the process.
It does so by taking control of the breath, and re-establishing the natural, relaxed rhythms of the body, and mind. Although breathing is mainly an unconscious process, conscious control of it may be taken at any time. Consequently, it forms a bridge between the conscious, and unconscious areas of the mind. Through the practice of pranayama, the energy trapped in neurotic, unconscious mental patterns may be released for use in more creative, and joyful activity.
Breathing and life span…. In addition to influencing the quality of life, the length, or quantity of life is also dictated by the rhythm of the respiration. The ancient yogis, and rishis studied nature in great detail. They noticed that animals with a slow breath rate such as pythons, elephants, and tortoises have long life spans. Whereas, those with a fast breathing rate. such as birds, dogs, and rabbits, live for only a few years.
From this observation they realized the importance of slow breathing for increasing the human lifespan. Those who breathe in short, quick gasps are likely to have a shorter life span than those who breathe slowly, and deeply. On the physical level, this is because the respiration is directly related to the heart. A slow breathing rate keeps the heart stronger, and better nourished, and contributes to a longer life.
Deep breathing also increases the absorption of energy by the pranamaya kosha, enhancing dynamism, vitality, and general wellbeing. Pranayama and the spiritual aspirant Pranayama practices, establish a healthy body by removing blockages in the pranamaya kosha, enabling an increased absorption of prana. The spiritual seeker, however. also requires tranquility of mind as an essential prelude to spiritual practice.
To this end, many pranayama techniques utilize kumbhaka, or breath retention, to establish control over the flow of prana, calming the mind, and controlling the thought process. Once the mind has been stilled, and prana flows freely in the nadis, and chakras, the doorway to the evolution of consciousness opens, leading the aspirant into higher dimensions of spiritual experience.
In The Science of Pranayama, Swami Sivananda writes, “There is an intimate connection between the breath, nerve currents, and control of the inner prana, or vital forces. Prana becomes visible on the physical plane as motion, and action, and on the mental plane as thought. Pranayama is the means by which a yogi tries to realize within his individual body, the whole cosmic nature, and attempts to attain perfection by attaining all the powers of the universe.”