Quite other than this physical sheath which consists of food and interior to it is the energy sheath that consists of breath. This is encased in the physical sheath and has the same form. The one is filed with the other. This first has the likeness of a human being, and because it has the likeness of a human, the second follows it and itself takes on the likeness of a human. Through this vital sheath the senses perform their office. From this humans and beasts derive their life. For breath is the life of beings and so is called “the life of all.” —Taittriya Upanishad, 11.2
Yoga is a world-renowned and ancient science of human development and spiritual unfolding. The word Yoga literally means “to yoke, bind, or unite.” Yoga masters have given a great deal of attention to pranayama as both a healing and spiritual practice because of its benefits. Pranayama literally translated means restraint or control (ayama) of the life-force (prana). By controlling the breath, the Yoga practitioner is able to control the prana—not only within, but also without. This leads the student toward mastery of the body and mind, as well as higher states of spiritual evolution.
Yoga science was systematized approximately 5,000 years ago by a sage named Patanjali and is available in a text called, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The Sutras consist of 196 aphorisms which are divided into four chapters.
These aphorisms elaborate an eight-limb system of development for stilling the mind and realizing the Self. These stages are:
(a) yama or moral observances;
(b) niyama or rules for self-purification;
(c) asana or physical postures;
(d) pranayama or breath regulation;
(e) pratyahara or discipline of the senses;
(f) dharana or concentration;
(g) dhyana or meditation; and
(h) samadhi or absolute tranquility.
According to the Yoga Sutras, the Light within is covered by a veil of mental darkness. The benefit of pranayama is that it removes this veil, and the mind becomes clear and fit for concentration. 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.
Basic Theory: Prana—The Vital Life Force
Prana is the vital force that makes up the entire cosmos; it is the Parashakti or cosmic power. When we breathe, in addition to the oxygen, we also take in a lot of prana. The oxygen gets diffused in the lungs and then gets into the bloodstream, while the prana goes throughout the body. It enters into every area—physical, vital, and mental. Every cell of our body vibrates with new life. You get prana from food, from the sun, and from the air you breathe. You can live for many weeks without food, days without water, minutes without air, but not even for a fraction of a second without prana.
Pranayama is the regulation of the prana, or life force. Breath is the external manifestation of the prana. By regulating the breath, we can gain mastery over the prana within and without. When we gain mastery over the prana, we have mastery over the inner nature, too, because it is the prana that creates all the movements in an individual-physical and mental. We try to control the inner nature, because it is the nature’s movement that causes a lot of disturbance in the system and makes it impossible for the Light within to shine in its true, original way. The body is the microcosm and the universe outside is the macrocosm. So by the regular practice of pranayama, we are able not only to control and direct the prana that functions within us, but the universal prana as well.
With proper pranayama we begin to use the entire lungs. We can take in much more than our normal quota of oxygen and prana. It can be measured in laboratory tests. In a normal breath, we inhale five hundred cubic centimeters of air, and then breathe out the same. After an exhalation, the lungs are almost empty, but still there is residual air in the lungs. After we breathe out our normal five hundred cubic centimeters, if we pull the abdomen in slightly, we can exhale some more air, which has been measured as sixteen hundred cubic centimeters.
After this type of full exhalation, if we begin to inhale, we first breathe in the air that we squeezed out (i.e., sixteen hundred cubic centimeters). Then we inhale our normal five hundred. Then after that, we can inhale some additional air. If we inhale more deeply, we can take in another sixteen hundred cubic centimeters. So after a complete squeezing out on the exhalation, we can inhale thirty-seven hundred cubic centimeters. Instead of our usual five hundred cubic centimeters—more than seven times as much as in a normal breath. In every breath we can take in seven times more air, more oxygen, and more prana if we do the pranayama regularly.
Benefits of Pranayama
During pranayama we are literally drinking in gallons and gallons of vitality and immunity. We supercharge the blood with extra oxygen. When we retain the breath, we literally inject more oxygen into the bloodstream. Oxygen is life, so that means we are enriching our blood with the life-force. And not only do we take in more oxygen, but along with the air we take in more prana. Every cell of the body vibrates with new life. At that point no virus can even think of coming near. As soon as it comes near, we burn it out. That is the beauty of pranayama. Oxygen is a great panacea; prana is the best tonic-the best medicine for all kinds of poisons and viruses. Proper breathing can heal!
Pranayama also purifies the nervous system and eliminates toxins from the body and blood. It produces lightness of body, alertness of mind, good appetite, proper digestion and sound sleep. It helps in curing asthma and other respiratory disorders. With proper breathing, we can eliminate excess mucous which causes most hay fever and sinus discomfort. Pranayama can be used to bring heat to the body when it is cold or to cool it off when there is too much heat. We can exhilarate the blood circulation and stimulate the entire body quickly.
The quickest way to regenerate forces during the work day is through proper relaxation and deep breathing. Pranayama will even help improve athletic performance, because it charges the body with extra energy and builds stamina and endurance. it can help vocalists, because it expands the chest and lung capacity.
For those who wish to lose weight, pranayama can help reduce physical food consumption. You won’t feel like overeating, because you get all the nourishment you need from the prana itself. For those who are trying to stop smoking, pranayama is the ideal practice. It helps eliminate toxins from the system, reduces the craving for nicotine, and revitalizes the lungs and body by the increased intake of oxygen.
The Yoga Energy System
The Yogic science also discusses the flow of prana in relation to the human nervous system and its relationship to another system of subtle nerve centers known as naadis and chakras. These naadis and centers are central to the process of human transformation and enlightenment. Naadis are channels or tubes through which blood, water, vital fluids, etc. flow in the physical body. They also have their counterpart in the other koshas and carry pranic and other vital energies.
Siva Samhita, the ancient scripture of Swara Yoga speaks of 350,000 naadis. Of these naadis, 14 are noted as the most important. The nervous system can be compared to a huge power generating center. The brain and spinal cord can be seen as the generating station. The nerves and naadis carry the electricity throughout the body. If there is a good flow of electricity (i.e., energy or prana) and if the wires conducting the electricity are all strong, sturdy, and in good shape, everything runs well. But if there is not adequate flow of energy or if the wires leading from the generator are damaged or there are loose connections, then the power system does not function optimally. Through Yoga practice, particularly pranayama, the naadis and nerve centers are purified, stimulated and the energy channeled to optimal output and functioning.
The Five Koshas
Yoga texts describe five bodies or sheaths through which the human being functions. These are known as koshas and include the body of physical elements, the vital body, the mental body, the intellectual body, and the bliss body. Yoga practice leads the student from the grosser levels (i.e., physical body) up through the more subtle levels until bliss is reached. When working with the breath, it is the pranamaya kosha (i.e., vital body) that we are handling. When we learn to regulate the prana and make it function the way we want, then we go to the manomaya kosha and regulate the mind or the thoughts.
Pranic Healing and Visualization
Adepts and highly evolved yogis have observed that the breath reflects the condition of the mind and it is a very accurate gauge of one’s mental state. When agitated, for example, our breathing will be very shallow and quick. In the face of fear we often breathe heavily or even hold the breath. When sad or depressed, there will be a deep, sighing breath. It was discovered that by changing the breathing patterns, the mind was also affected and changed.
We can direct your prana with our thoughts. The breath and the mind are so intertwined that wherever one goes, the other follows. By sending our thoughts to an affected area, we send our prana. That is the secret behind self-healing.
When you do the deep breathing, feel that you are inhaling a lot of prana, a lot of vital energy. Hold your breath for a few seconds, while thinking that the prana is going directly to the place that aches and is building it up by removing the dead or diseased cells and tension. Then when you exhale, feel that you are throwing out all of the illness. You can feel that with the inhalation fresh energy comes in, and with the exhalation the collected toxins are thrown out. By doing this, you may be able to cure many of the aches and pains in the body, as well as long-standing illnesses. Prana has that power.
You can create your own imagery. Choose whatever feels comfortable. Visualization is a form of meditation, because whatever you visualize, your entire mind will focus on. You can achieve tremendous things with visualization. As you do your pranayama practice you can visualize light or energy. It can be energy from the sun, the stars, the moon, the ocean or from God. The energy can be in the form of light or air or cool water. Feel that you are inhaling energy or light, and feel that flooding into your system. Feel the healing vibrations—healing energy flowing in and through your body and mind as you breathe deeply.
You can visualize light or energy in the form of streams of water or the ocean, flowing in and out cleansing every part of the system. Feel the water come in through your head as you inhale, and then visualize the energy going directly to the needed areas. As you exhale see the toxins or any negativity all being collected and washing out. See the water washing in and washing out. See light and prana being infused and your entire system built up. Then as you exhale, imagine that all the unwanted things are being flushed out. As you inhale and exhale, your entire system is being charged with new energy.
Another visualization you can try is to imagine a divine being, your favorite saint or your own Higher Self. Visualize the image of that divine being standing in front of you, blessing you. From their palms, energy is pouring toward you. As you inhale, draw in that energy and allow that divine blessing to infiltrate every cell of your system, and then while you exhale feel gratitude and thankfulness. Feel the flow of divine energy throughout your system. Feel you are surrounded by all the great saints and sages; they are gazing at you and showering their energy and blessing upon you. Take this in through your breathing.
You can also combine your breathing with the silent repetition of your mantra or any holy name. As you inhale, you can repeat the entire mantra and exhale the same. Or you can divide the mantra between the inhalation and exhalation. For example, you can repeat OM as you inhale and Shanti as you exhale. When you repeat the mantra, feel that it has a lot of beautiful vibrations that are resonating within you and producing tremendously healing sound vibrations in you. Imagine that just as sound waves are used to clean jewels, the sound vibrations of the mantra are cleansing the body and mind. You can try repeating the affirmation: “These holy vibrations are flowing through me and are transforming me.”
You may choose whatever visualization is most appealing to you and utilize that in your regular practice of pranayama. Align yourself with the Cosmic Energy, the prana, the Cosmic Consciousness and allow yourself to be filled and revitalized as you drink in literally gallons and gallons and gallons of vitality. Prana is a tonic, an elixir that builds up your physical, mental, and spiritual strength.
A capable healer can even send his or her prana to another person. By storing it up in the system, one can pass it on to someone in need. A person who really lives a beautiful life, who is fit and healthy, could accumulate a lot of vital energy. And by thinking, by seeing, he or she can pass that prana to others.
Pranayama can be a master key in unlocking the gateway to the subtle realm of self-healing, mastery of the mind, and spiritual unfolding.
Even as you take more prana in, please save and store it by regulating your life. Prana is wasted in many ways. The more movement in the body and mind, the more prana you lose. If you talk too much, without any purpose, you waste a lot of prana. By overeating you waste a lot of prana. Anything that you overdo or overindulge in results in wastage of prana.
The ancient yogis carefully measured how much prana is used by the different activities and determined that the maximum amount is expended by unlimited sex. For this reason, sexual moderation is very important. If you are moderate in sexual activities and in all areas of your life, your energy will not be depleted and vitality will be preserved.
There is no better health tonic than Yoga asanas and pranayama. Remember: Health is your birthright, not disease; strength is your heritage, not weakness; courage, not fear; bliss, not sorrow; peace, not restlessness; knowledge, not ignorance.
May you attain this birthright, this divine heritage, to shine as fully developed Yogis. May the great science of pranayama bring you radiant health, balanced mind and a dedicated life filled with all divine energy, so you may serve the entire creation with peace and joy, love and light. OM Shanthi Shanthi Shanthi.
Source: The Breath of Life CD by Sri Swami Satchidananda.