What is Pranayama?

Pranayama is the Science of Breathing, sometimes referred to as “Yogic breathing”. It literally means “extension of the life force/energy”. Prana is everywhere… it’s unseen and invisible yet permeates all of life. Just look at your plants, the budding of flowers, the falling of leaves, sunrises and sunsets, animals and the very essence of what keeps a human being alive – the breath.

Often we breathe without awareness… we are not even conscious of our breath or its rhythm let alone the effect it has on our energy and wellbeing. As you are reading this text, you may slowly become aware of your breath or notice how perhaps sometimes you take a deep breath in, or sigh … while at other times, especially when stressed or anxious, your breathing pattern will become short and labored.

In Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine, the pulse is used to assess wellness in the body. Our prana, or life force, can indicate and help inform us about the state of our body and wellbeing. It is said that when prana flows freely around the body, we are in a state of wellbeing. Alternatively, when prana is blocked or we have an uneven breath, there may be illness or dis-ease in the body or our mind is unsettled in some way. In addition, although prana does have an effect on the body, it’s also important to note that it is working with our “subtle energy body”. During Yoga exercises or in meditation, we often enter different states of consciousness, accessing different levels of our being. Prana effects our energy levels and our state of consciousness.

Elements of Our Breath:

In Yoga, the first step is to become conscious of the breath. We start by noticing the rhythm between the inhale and the exhale. Then we slowly bring the breath into an equal movement or flow, in the same way we might imagine a wave moving in and out.

Breathing can be broken down as follows:

  • Inhale (or puraka). Taking a deep breath in, you are expanding the lungs, literally breathing in fresh prana and energy. This is puraka.
  • Exhale (or rechaka). As you exhale or let go of the breath, you feel a natural relaxation and a softening in the body. This is rechaka.
  • Retaining (or kumbhaka). As we inhale and exhale, we begin to a notice a very small gap of stillness, between the inhale and exhale. This pause or “gap” in the breathing cycle is essentially what kumbhaka is. With kumbhaka however, we consciously retain our breath and thereby extend this “gap”. We do this by utilizing our bandhas (energy locks) and therefore allowing the prana to stay circulating inside the body. This brings a great sense of stillness and peace, ultimately leading to a state of Samadhi. As we practice Yoga, we can rest our awareness or attention here – to that which is the silent background to our Yoga practice.

Types of Pranayama?

We can also do specific exercises to direct the flow of the breath. These are known as Yogic breathing exercises or “Pranayama”.  The following is a brief overview:

  • Ujjayi breathing – otherwise known as the “victorious breath”, Ujjayi is the breathing used in Ashtanga Yoga or Vinyasa Flow yoga. We keep the lips sealed and draw the breath in through the back of the throat. This brings numerous benefits to the body. You can read more about this wonderful breath here.
  • Kapalabhati breathing – or the “skull shining breath”, known to clear the cobwebs of our mind. This is a very energizing breath, best performed in the morning or before practice. We forcefully exhale air/energy out both nostrils and at the same time, we draw the belly in and “pump” the belly. This has the effect of expelling toxins and impurities (literally releasing old or stale energy) while at the same time toning our abdominal muscles. It’s also a very useful exercise for clearing our sinuses. When practiced regularly, you will notice considerable difference in energy levels, often leading to less sleep being required.
  • Nadi Shodhana –  or Alternate Nostril Breathing. This is a very relaxing breathing exercise where we become aware of the flow of the breath between the left and right nostril. It is stated that the right nostril links to the left side of the brain and the left nostril to the right side of the brain. When our prana or energy is in balance, we breath equally through both nostrils. This breathing exercise therefore aids in balancing the left and right sides of the brain.

Benefits:

Through these Pranayama exercises, we can experience numerous benefits:

  • Over time we can extend the breath and expand our consciousness. It is said that when we extend the breath, we can potentially extend our life force.
  • As we breathe more deeply, we need to take fewer breaths and the quality of our breathing is vastly improved.
  • The more prana or energy we have flowing through our being, the lighter we will feel in our body and the more energy we will have.
  • As the breath is able to flow and move freely, it naturally creates more space in the body – allowing the body to move with grace and playfulness through Yoga asanas.
  • In a way we also become less interested in the body and more aware of the flow of energy.

For more information or to book a session with Kristina, please contact her directly.

Please note: Always seek the advice of an experienced Yoga teacher before undertaking these exercises. It should not be underestimated the effect these exercises may have on your energy and wellbeing. It is important to honour your energy body and exercise your wisdom by respecting these ancient treasures of Pranayama.

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