The sanskrit term, pranayama, consists of two root words: prana (vital energy or life force) and ayama (extension or expansion). Pranayama, therefore, means to extend the vital energy. In everyday terms, it is the practice of controlling the breath, which is the source of our prana.
More specifically, pranayama is the practice of voluntary hypoventilation (slowing down the breath) by using breath retention (kumbhaka), which teaches us to normalize the oxygen supplied to brain cells by normalizing our breathing. Research has found that slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing increases healthy vagal tone, which in turn activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and relaxation.
FOUR REASONS TO PRACTICE
Slow, rhythmic and diaphragmatic breath is fundamental to balancing overall well-being. Need more reasons why you should up your pranayama practice? I’ll give you four:
- Restores and maintains physical and mental health. Add asana (postures), mudra (gestures which represent the psyche), and bandha (locks for channeling energy) to balance out your whole being.
- Releases muscular knots which occur anywhere in the body. For example, muscle knots in the neck, which can lead to reduced mobility due to stiffness, can be relieved with the consistent, steady practice of pranayama, (however the pain or soreness experienced may linger unless intervention – such as massage, marma point therapy, acupressure, chiropractic adjustment – is taken). Add asana, shatkarma (cleansing practices), meditation and yoga nidra (yogic sleep) to bring about balance in the whole body.
- Eliminates anger and cools down a heated brain. Heated brain conditions are observed in cases of fever, headache, migraines, worry, anxiety, panic, unexplained/irrational fear.
- Can help relieve symptoms of sore throat and tonsillitis; and improves the quality and tone of one’s voice.
HOW TO PRACTICE PRANAYAMA
Begin by sitting in a comfortable, seated position on the floor. If sitting on the floor in a cross-legged position is not accessible to you, sit in a chair with an up-right back, or lie in a chest-elevated position.
Close the eyes and bring the awareness inside. Observe the thoughts with non-attachment. Observe the breath, coming into and flowing out from the diaphragm by placing the palm on the belly and feeling it expand into your palm and relaxing underneath your palm. Inhale and exhale through the nostrils.
This steady, rhythmic breathing pattern is important for calming the nervous system as well as bringing awareness inside the body and disconnecting from the external sensory stimulations of the environment.
“When the breath wanders [i.e., is irregular] the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed, the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.”
— Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Written by Mimi Adeogba, DN, Ph.D.
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