Hitherto the advent of Medical Science, we as a humanity were a witness to the challenges of communicable diseases or generally called the contagious diseases. Diseases are of two forms communicable and non-communicable. With the dawn of medical science and with the assistance of state-of-the art technology, today we have been successfully able to control, manage and eliminate most of the former. The contemporary confrontation of medical science is largely with the later. This is a debate well settled among the medical lore as well. Now, to combat the new found illnesses i.e. the challenges of posed to human health in the form of Diabetes, Blood Pressure, Cancer, Nervous disorders, Skin allergies, etc. newer avenues are being researched. All the modern day research has advanced progressively, yet has come to a standstill. When I say standstill, I mean, the research findings have yielded only temporary cures that is to say that you can only manage or control theses new forms and not completely cure or eradicate the same. Moreover, the cure to many diseases come with their own set of limitations in the form of “Side-Effects”. Every medicine comes with a counter-effect. Also, in a country such as India where the poor and the middle-class form the chunk of the population, the doors to medicine is either costly to open or is closed.
In this background we see Yoga as a divine form of medicine for all ailments and in all situations (although it is wrong to limit Yoga just for its medical purposes). Being more specific, asanas too may come with a set of limitations, but pranayama being an integral part of yoga is a boon to the masses. In during the time of illness, pregnancy, fatigue, etc. Pranayama may be practiced (for specific benefits and limitations it is best to learn Pranayama from a learned tutor).
Before even touching upon what Pranayama actual means, let me at the outset clear all the misconceptions. Pranayama is not just “breathing exercise”. In fact, it will not be wrong to classify it as blasphemy to term Pranayama as “Breathing Exercise”. To be precise, breathing is the basis of all asanas, pranayamas, and meditative techniques. It is hard to imagine Yoga as a whole without its basis in the ‘breathing techniques’. Say for example in Surya Namaskar, in each step you focus on breathing viz. Inhalation (पूरक), Exhalation (रॆचक), and Retention/Holding of breath (कुंभक). Breathing is sine-quo-non to Yoga in its entirety and not just ‘Pranayama’.
What then is this Pranayama? What does the word denote/signify? Let us in a traditional way move first to its etymology. The word Prana means ‘Vital Force’ & not ‘breath’ or ‘air’. Prana is the ‘Vital Force’ that sustains the being or our very existence. So Pranayama means that which stretches, expands, or enhances the vital force in our body. There are five major “Pranas” or “Vital forces” in our body:
|Sl.No.||Prana – Constitution||Functions|
|1.||प्राण : prANa||Controls the facial activities|
|2.||अपान : apAna||Excretory & reproductive functions|
|3.||व्यान : vyAna||sense of touch, sweat, & peripheral activities|
|4.||उदान : udAna||vomiting, belching, etc.|
|5.||समान : samAna||Respiratory functions & the functioning of the heart.|
To control and to channelize the ‘Vital Forces’ of our body i.e. Prana is the essential focus of ‘Pranayama’.
In the Taittiriya Upanishad Rishi Bhrigu illuminates Sage Varuna on the various layers of our personality or our being as such. Therein comes 5 layers of our consciousness.
Prana is also the 2nd layer among the 5 layers of our consciousness –
1. Annamaya Kosha
2. Pranamaya Kosha
3. Manomaya Kosha
4. Vijnanamaya Kosha
5. Anadamaya Kosha
Here in the words of Bhagawan Shri Krishna through this shloka from the Bhagavad Gita let us understand the meaning of ‘Pranayama’.
अपाने जुह्वति प्राणं प्राणेऽपानं तथापरे |
प्राणापानगती रुद्ध्वा प्राणायामपरायणा: || 29||
अपरे नियताहारा: प्राणान्प्राणेषु जुह्वति |
सर्वेऽप्येते यज्ञविदो यज्ञक्षपितकल्मषा: || 30||
apāne juhvati prāṇaṁ prāṇe ’pānaṁ tathāpare
prāṇāpāna-gatī ruddhvā prāṇāyāma-parāyaṇāḥ
apare niyatāhārāḥ prāṇān prāṇeṣhu juhvati
sarve’pyete yajña-vido yajña-kṣhapita-kalmaṣhāḥ
Translation: – Still others offer as sacrifice the outgoing breath in the incoming breath, while some offer the incoming breath into the outgoing breath. Some arduously practice prāṇāyāma and restrain the incoming and outgoing breaths, purely absorbed in the regulation of the life-energy. Yet others curtail their food intake and offer the breath into the life-energy as sacrifice. All these knowers of sacrifice are cleansed of their impurities as a result of such performances.
This is the essence: –Prāṇa is not exactly breath; it is a subtle life force energy that pervades the breath and varieties of animate and inanimate objects. People perform these various kinds of austerities for the purpose of purification. It is desire for gratification of the senses and the mind which leads to the heart becoming impure. The aim of all these austerities is to curtail the natural propensity of the senses and mind to seek pleasure in material objects. When these austerities are performed as a sacrifice to the Supreme, they result in the purification of the heart (as mentioned before, the word “heart” is often used to refer to the internal machinery of the mind and intellect).
To keep the mind calm, the make the heart pure, and to maintain a good health and for all material and spiritual benefits what we need is nothing but ‘Pranayama’. This is evidenced by a charming shloka speaking on the ‘mahima’ or the greatness of Pranayama.
This shloka is chanted before the practice of pranayama: –
ॐ प्राणस्यॆदं वशे सर्वं त्रिदिवॆ यत् प्रतिष्ठितं ।
मातॆव पुत्रान् रक्षस्व श्रीश्च प्रज्नाश्च विदॆहिन इति ॥
prANasyEdam vaShe sarvam tridive yath pratishtitam
mAtheva putran rakshasva shrEscha pranjnAshcha videhi na ithi
Meaning: – With the help of ‘Prana’ – the ‘vital force’ we can conquer all that is in existence in this three worlds. May that prana, protect us like the mother who protects her child; may that prana grant us wealth (knowledge) & wisdom (intellect).
Pranayama also helps stabilise or harmonise the flow of prana along the two nadis in our body ‘Ida’ & ‘Pingala’ (Nadis are the nerval nodes on the body considering a very rudimentary form of its meaning). The Ida & Pingala display itself along the left & right of the sushumna nadi or the spinal column respectively.
The Various Pranayamas in vogue are:-
1. Nadi Shodhana: Cleansing of the nerve plexus.
2. Brahmara or Brahmari: King Bee / Queen Bee pranayama
3. Cooling pranayama: Sheetali, Sheetakari, & Sadantha.
4. Ujjayi: Performed in the throat.
5. Vibhagiya Pranayama: Sectional Breathing.
6. Samavrutti Pranayama, etc.
Note: Kapala Bhati is not a ‘Pranayama’, it is a ‘Kriya’ (There is a distinguishable difference between the two).
Here is a very short list of benefits of pranayamas: –
1. Relaxes & calms down the mind.
2. Helpful for cardiac & diabetic patients.
3. Improves memory & concentration.
4. Enhances the flow of oxygenated blood.
5. Increases the lung capacity & intake of breath.
6. Ignites the sushumna nadi – helpful for spiritual process.
There are no specific limitations. However, it is advisable to practice pranayama under strict guidance of a yoga practitioner or teacher as wrong practice may pose a threat of adverse health issues.
May the Prana that sustains our body, bless us with good health;
May the Prana that fills our lives, grant us sound mind and wisdom;
May the prana the hand book to the either world, bestow a pure heart;
May the ‘Life Force’ light the way of our lives to a superior being.