The Gurus of Vedic times placed great importance on pranayama and advocated its practice in order to unleash the hidden potential energy known as the Kundalini Shakti. In the Prasnopanishad we find the following statement: “All that exists in all the three worlds is under the governance of prana (life force).”
It is said in the Shiva-Svarodaya, “The prana verily is one’s greatest friend, companion and there is no greater kinsman than the life force.” In the Yoga-Vashistha, Sage Vashistha says that when the energy of the life force is restricted, the mind dissolves, like a shadow of a thing, when the thing is absent.
The systematic practice of Yoga, as codified by Maharishi Patanjali, places pranayama as the fourth limb or anga of Ashtanga Yoga. He puts it above yama-niyama and asana and says that one must practice yama-niyama and try to master asana in order to be able to practice pranayama. He defines pranayama as, “The regulation of the movements of inhalation
He also states that by the practice of pranayama, the darkness that hides the light of wisdom is destroyed. He goes on to advise us that our mind attains fitness for the samyama practices (of dharana, dhyana and samadhi) through perfection in pranayama.
Patanjali has said that pranayama is regulated by place, time and number, meaning that at various times in our Yoga sadhana, different pranayamas are required to be practiced in order to attain the ultimate spiritual goal of moksha (liberation).
Rishi Gheranda stresses moderation in diet for pranayama sadhana and says, “Half the stomach should be filled with food, one quarter with water and the other quarter left empty for practice of pranayama.”
Rishi Gheranda also advises that pranayama should be practiced facing either east or north and that the nadis must be purified by either samanu (using the bija mantras) or nirmanu (using shat karmas) methods before pranayama.
In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Swatmarama says, “Disturbed breath leads to a disturbed mind, hence, cultivate a steady and quiet breath in order to control the mind and prolong the life.” He also says, “The lord of the senses is the mind, the lord of the mind is the breath; the master of breath is the nervous system; quietness of the nerves and concentration depend solely on the steady, smooth and rhythmic sound of the inhalation and exhalation.” He warns us that, though pranayama can cure all diseases, it may cause a multitude of problems if performed wrongly.
Views of Eminent Yoga Masters
Yogamaharishi Dr. Swami Gitananda Giri has said that prana needs water and moves over water. This explains why ancient yogis lived near the water bodies. He used to stress the importance of proper diet and pure lifestyle in pranayama sadhana. If the mind is concentrated on higher positive thoughts, then the pranic forces will be powerful and manifestation of these thoughts will be even greater.
Sri BKS Iyengar in his book, Light on Pranayama says, “Pranayama has taught me to be punctual and disciplined despite hardships.” In his book, Light on Yoga he explains the following interesting analogy: “The mind is like a chariot drawn by two horses that are prana and vasana (desires). The chariot moves in the direction of the stronger force and so if the breath prevails, the desires are controlled, senses held in check and the mind is stilled. On the other hand if desire prevails, breath is in disarray and the mind is agitated and troubled.”
Sri I. K. Taimni in his book, The Science of Yoga says, “Prana is the vital life force that connects matter with energy and mind with consciousness.” He claims that the chitta vrittis can be controlled through the manipulation of pranic currents using the art and science of pranayama.
He emphasizes that yama and niyama must be practiced and asana mastered before embarking on pranayama sadhana. This is because pranayama can awaken the potential energy of Kundalini and if students are not ready physically and mentally, they may suffer physical and psychological disturbances and may even go out of their minds.
Sri Swami Satchidanandaji taught that, “Even if you miss doing the Yoga postures occasionally, don’t miss the breathing practices. Prana is the best tonic. Simple breathing can heal. Prana is the vital force that makes up the entire cosmos; it is the Parashakti or cosmic power. While pranayama helps improve physical health and well-being, that is a secondary benefit; the main benefit is control of the waves of the mind through regulation of the prana.”
Swami Rama claims that for Hatha Yogis, pranayama is the final way of liberation. He says, “For the Raja Yogis, pranayama is an important step to awaken the sushumna leading to the state of deep dhyana and ultimately the arousal of Kundalini Shakti.”
Pranayama has immense therapeutic potential in a wide range of psychosomatic disorders and can be used either as a monotherapy or in combination with asanas and other aspects of Yoga. Importance must also be placed on right diet and right attitude while practicing pranayama, as the body needs raw materials such as vitamins, minerals and water to heal itself through pranayama.
According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, when the nerves are purified by pranayama the body becomes slender and lustrous, gastric fire increases, inner sounds are heard and excellent health is attained.
Memory, intelligence and creativity are enhanced through the practice of pranayama. This is of great value in children as it helps them to realize and actualize their inherent potential in all walks of life. Yogic breathing, through a single nostril, also increases spatial scores, speed of mental processing and dexterity of the tasks. Mukha bhastrika improves the speed of reaction and this is useful in mentally challenged children who have a delayed reaction time.
Pranayama produces an improvement of neural function at both central and peripheral levels of the nervous system and also produces a balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic aspects of the autonomic nervous system. This homeostatic samatvam (balance) is of use to combat stress disorders that are the scourge of our modern times.
Pranayamas such as nadi suddhi and nadi shodhana are important for cleansing the nervous system and it
is said that nadi suddhi can cleanse all the 72,000 nadis. Just as water, when run in opposite directions, cleanses the water pipe, the process of breathing in the opposite nostrils leads to turbulence and cleansing of the nervous system.
Right nostril breathing influences the left brain while left nostril breathing the right brain function. Right brain is the creative, artistic, intuitive aspect whereas left brain the analytical and calculating aspect of our personalities.
Thus, alternate nostril pranayamas help cerebral cleansing and the creation of a balanced personality. As these alternate-nostril-breathing techniques stimulate different divisions of the central and autonomic nervous systems, they have useful implications in treating psycho-physiological disorders associated with hemispheric and autonomic imbalance.
Spatial performance of males is better during right nostril breathing and verbal performance better during left nostril breathing. In females spatial performance is better during left nostril breathing. Thus many learning disabilities can be treated using pranayama.
Emotions and breath are known to have a deep relationship. Animals such as the rat and rabbit have fast breathing and so are extremely nervous, mentally unstable, emotionally restless and live only for short periods of time. In contrast, the elephant and turtle are slow, deep breathers and consequently have calmer personalities and longer lives.
Conscious, deep and regular breathing can synchronize and reinforce inherent cardiovascular rhythms and modify baroreflex sensitivity. This is
may be attained by practice of pranayamas such as ujjayi, savitri, sukha, sukha purvaka and pranava pranayamas.
Autonomic and Metabolic Function:
Right nostril breathing correlates with the activity phase of the basic rest activity cycle. It activates the sympathetic nervous system as shown by an increase in the oxygen consumption, whereas left nostril breathing decreases sympathetic activity as manifested by an increase in volar galvanic skin resistance. Surya pranayama results in correction of low blood pressure to normal levels, increased heart rate, increased skin conductance and increased body temperature. This also significantly increases metabolism and this is very useful in obesity and hypothyroidism.
Right nostril breathing significantly increases blood glucose levels, whereas left nostril breathing lowers it and this is useful in understanding the mechanism by which chandra pranayama helps the diabetic patient. Chandra pranayama produces a decrease in systolic, diastolic and mean blood pressures and this can be used as a prophylactic means to combat rises in blood pressure associated with everyday stress and strain of life.
Left nostril breathing produces a significant increase in the baseline GSR suggestive of reduced sympathetic activity to the palmer sweat glands. This helps us understand the mechanism by which chandra pranayama helps to reduce blood pressure of hypertensives. As diabetes mellitus and hypertension coexist in a vast majority of patients, chandra pranayama can be used in such patients with great benefit to reduce both blood sugar as well as blood pressure.
Yogic breathing involves improvement in oxygen consumption with better oxygen delivery, utilization and minimal energy expenditure. A higher work rate with reduced oxygen consumption per unit of work, without increase in blood lactate levels, has been reported.
There is an accompanied increase in peripheral blood flow, along with a decrease in body weight. This is beneficial to patients suffering from diminished peripheral circulation and intermittent claudication. Regular and continuous use of any muscle prevents fat deposition, increases flexibility and heightens performance.
Ujjayi with long and short kumbhaka (breath holding) may exert its effects by alterations in the skeletal muscle activity, autonomic discharge, and cerebral blood flow. This is useful in treating geriatric patients who have impaired cerebral circulation. It is also useful in treating patients who are unable to do more vigorous practices.
Breathing Disorders and Lung Function:
Kapalabhati produces an increase in the low frequency and decrease in the high frequency band of the heart rate variability spectrum indicating increased sympathetic activity. This may help asthmatic patients for whom sympathomimetic drugs are lifesaving in acute asthma.
It is also useful in stimulating depressed patients and those suffering from disorders of excessive sleep, such as narcolepsy. Lung function has been reported to improve in numerous studies after pranayama training, and the benefits include prolongation of breath holding time with increase in Forced Vital Capacity (FVC), Forced Vital Capacity in first second (FEV1), Maximum Voluntary Ventilation (MVV), Peak Expiratory Flow Rate (PEFR) and lowered respiratory rate. Patients of chronic lung diseases such as asthma, emphysema and bronchitis can derive immense benefit from these changes in lung function.
Breathing is the key to bridging the gap between body and mind and thus is of vital importance in treating psychosomatic disorders. Savitri pranayama produces a relaxant effect on the cardiovascular system and is extremely useful in hypertension, as well as coronary artery disease.
The long-term manipulation of breathing—by practicing slow deep breathing—results in the overstretching of pulmonary stretch receptors and this chronic manipulation may result in vagus blockage, thereby decreasing vagal manipulation. This also leads to a re-conditioning or re-learning of a healthy pattern of breathing with ample tidal volume and a slow rate.
Abdominal breathing is correlated with better and more profound relaxation in any schedule of relaxation. Savitri pranayama when performed in savasana produces deep relaxation and this helps alleviate the stress in many psychosomatic disorders such as hypertension, irritable bowel syndrome, peptic ulcer and asthma.
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About the Author:
Yogacharya Dr. Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani was born to the world famous Yoga team of Yogamaharishi Dr. Swami Gitananda Giri Guru Maharaj and Puduvai Kalaimamani, Yogamani, Yogacharini, Smt. Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani and has written 23 books and presented 20 DVDs on Yoga. He has had more than a hundred scientific papers, scientific abstracts and compilations on Yoga research published. Yoga for him is not just the performance of a few Asanas or Pranayamas but is a means for evolution of the human mind in to further states of consciousness and awareness.Dr. Ananda is Chairman of the International Centre for Yoga Education and Research (ICYER) an internationally acclaimed Yoga Institute established as Ananda Ashram in 1968. He is also Chairman of Yoganjali Natyalayam, a world famous Institute of Yoga, Bharat Natyam, and Carnatic Music established in Pondicherry in 1993. He is at present, Deputy Director of the Center for Yoga Therapy, Education and Research (CYTER) at MGMCRI, Sri Balaji Vidyapeeth University, Pondicherry.