What is Pranayama

True meaning and purpose of Pranayama

The meaning of Pranayama : ‘Pranayama’ literally means ‘to expand Prana’ (vital force). In the 49th Sutra of Sadhanapada of Patanjala Yogasutra, the great Rishi Patanjali has defined Pranayama as a process in which respiration is interrupted and Prana, that is, the vital force is controlled and regulated. According to some, Prana means air. But this is a wrong and misleading interpretation. Prana means something more than air. Prana, in fact, is the vital power which is the force motivating every element of the earth and which is the origin of the force of thought. There is a deep affinity between Prana and mental force, between mental force and intellect, between intellect and soul, and between soul and God. Thus, the purpose of Pranayama is to inspire, motivate, regulate and balance the vital force (Prana) pervading in the body. This is the reason why Pranayama is considered one of the efficacious means of attaining Yoga.

The importance of Pranayama : Much importance has been attached to Pranayama in Yoga Shastras. According to Vyasabhashya, there is no ‘tapa’ (penance), greater than Pranayama. It cleanses the body and knowledge is manifested. Manu says, ‘Just as gold and other metals melted in fire become pure so also the sense organs of the body get rid of impurities by Pranayama.’

Pranayama is the fourth and very important stage of Ashtanga Yoga shown by Patanjali. Yoga without Pranayama is not Yoga at all. That is why Pranayama is called the soul of Yoga. Bathing is necessary for purifying the body. Similarly, Pranayama is essential for purifying the mind.

What are the advantages of Pranayama

(1) Pranayama keeps the body fit and healthy. It reduces excessive fat.
(2) One can live a long life through Pranayama. Pranayama improves the power of memory and eliminates mental disorders.
(3) Pranayama tones up the stomach, the liver, the bladder, the small and the large intestines and the digestive system.
(4 ) Pranayama purifies tubular channels and removes sluggishness from the body.
(5) Pranayama kindles gastric fire, the body becomes healthy and the inner voice begins to be heard.
(6) The constant practice of Pranayama strengthens the nervous system. The mind becomes calm and capable of concentration.
(7) The constant practice of Pranayama rouses spiritual power. It gives spiritual joy, spiritual light and mental peace.

How should one practice Pranayama

For the effective and proper study of Pranayama, an aspirant should strictly follow the following hints :


(1) Pranayama should be practised in a clean, airy place. It should be practised in complete solitude.
(2) The best time for practice is the early morning. If this time is unsuitable, one may practise it in the evening.
(3) Pranayama is best done sitting on the floor. The postures suitable are Padmasana or Siddhasana. If one experiences difficulty in sitting in these postures for a longer time, one can select any convenient posture to sit steadily in an erect posture.
(4) The tubular channels should be cleansed before practising Pranayama. For this, first practise asanas.
(5) Pranayama should be performed at a chosen time regularly on an empty stomach. A small cup of milk, if taken at the interval of ten minutes, will serve as a good tonic.
(6) Do not practise Pranayama if you feel exhausted. The aspirant should feel fresh and active after the practice of Pranayama.
(7) Do not take bath immediately after the practice of Prahayama. Rest for half an hour before taking bath.
(8) According to Patanjali, one should inhale and exhale slowly and rhythmically during the practice of Pranayama. Rhythmic and slow breathing makes the mind steady and calm.
(9) A beginner of Pranayama should practise inhaling and exhaling only for a few days. The ratio of inhaling
(puraka) and exhaling (rechaka) should respectively be 1: 2. This means thatthe time spent in exhaling should be twice the time spent in inhaling.
(10) The time for retention of. the breath (kumbhaka) should be increased gradually. In the first week, it should be for four seconds only; in the second, it should be for eight seconds and in the third, it should be for twelve seconds. In this way, one can gradually increase the time of retention of breath to one’s utmost capacity.
(11) While inhaling, retaining the breath and exhaling, one must not experience any feeling of suffocation or strenuous effort.
(12) Maintain the ratio of 1 : 4 : 2 for inhaling, retention of breath and exhaling respectively. Inhale till you speak one Omkara. Retain the breath till you finish four Omkaras and exhale with two Omkaras. The following week the ratio should be 2 : 8 : 4, in the third week it should be 3 : 12 : 6 and so on. The limit is 16 : 64 : 32. Make the use of the fingers of the left hand for counting ‘Om’. After some practice, counting becomes unnecessary. Habit will, of its own accord, maintain the proper ratio of puraka, kumbhaka and rechaka i.e., inhaling, retention of breath and exhaling.
(13) Do not get disturbed if a few mistakes are committed in the early stage. Do not give up the practice. How to maintain the ratio of puraka, kumbhaka and rechaka will be learnt automatically. Common sense, intuition and the spiritual voice will guide one to the path of accomplishment.
(14) Surya Bhedana and Ujjayi should be practised in winter only. Sitakari and Shitali should be practised in summer only. Bhastrika may be practised round the year.

Important guidelines regarding Pranayama 

It is necessary for an aspirant to understand and grasp certain important items related to Pranayama. These important items are as follows :

(1) The technique of Pranayama
( 2) Puraka (Inhaling), Kumbhaka (Retention of the breath) and Rechaka (Exhaling)
( 3) Nadis-the Ida, the Pingala and the Sushumna (4) Mula Bandha, Jalandhar Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha
(5) Nadishuddhi
(6) Kapalabhati
A brief explanation of these important aspects of Pranayama has been given below :

(1) The technique of Pranayama :
The left and right nostrils are to be closed for the practice of Pranayama. This is done mostly with the right hand. The right thumb is used to close the right nostril and the third and the fourth fingers are used to close the left nostril. When the holding of the nostrils is not required, keep the hands on the knees. For practising Pranayama, try to attain the posture of Padmasana, Siddhasana, Swastikasana and Sukhasana.

(2) Puraka, Kumbhaka and Rechaka
The meanings of these three important components of
Pranayama are as are given below : Puraka means to inhale.
Kumbhaka means to retain the breath. Rechaka means to exhale.
Antarika Kumbhaka means retention following inhalation. Bahya Kumbhaka means restraint after exhalation. If Kumbhaka is taken with Rechaka and Puraka, it is known as ‘Sahita Kumbhaka’, if it is taken without Rechaka and Puraka, it is known as ‘ Kevala Kumbhaka’. One should practise Sahita Kumbhaka until Kevala Kumbhaka is accomplished.
(3) Ida, Pingala and Sushumna :

Energy or lifeforce flows through these three Nadis (tubular channels). Their deities are the Moon, the Sun and the Fire respectively. The Ida starts from the left nostril, the Pingala from the right nostril and the Sushumna where both the nostrils meet. Hence the Sushumna is considered to be the ‘central channel’ (MadhyaNadi). The Ida (left) and the Pingala (right) change their sound hourly.

The Ida is also called the nadi of the Moon. It is cool and has an element of ‘Tamas’. It regulates human thoughts.

The Pingala is also called the nadi of the sun. It is warm and has an element of ‘Rajas’. It regulates energy or lifeforce in human body.

The Sushumna is also called the Brahmanadi. Of all nadis, the Sushumna is the most important. In some books, it has been named as ‘Saraswati’ or ‘Shanti’ nadi. This nadi is neither warm nor cool but it is moderate. This nadi imparts wisdom and knowledge. It helps an aspirant in his spiritual progress.

From the physical point of view, the co-ordination of these three nadis gives health, strength, mental peace and
long life.

(4) Moola Bandha, Jalandhara Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha :

These three’ Bandhas’ are chiefly performed during the practice of Pranayama. The techniques and the advantages of these three Bandhas have been given below :

MOOLA BANDHA

Technique:

Press the lower abdominal muscle with the right heel and place the left heel at the root of the genitals. Contract the anal sphincter muscle upwards to the spine and feel the sensation that ‘ apana vayu’ is drawn up. The exercise can be done
replacing the left leg for the right one.

What is Pranayama

Advantages :

(1) This ‘ Bandha’ enables the aspirant to accomplish accuracy in Pranayama.
(2) The practice of this Bandha helps to maintain celibacy.
(3) It kindles gastric fire, eliminates constipation and nourishes virility.
(4) It awakens the Kundalini.
(5) The aspirant of this Bandha enjoys youth for a very
long time.

JALANDHARA BANDHA

Technique : Assume the sitting posture. Contract the neck and the throat (glottis) and bring the head low. Press the chin firmly against the chest.Jalandhar Bandha is practised at the end of inhalation and in the beginning of retention of breath. At the end of Puraka or inhalation, it becomes ‘Antarika Kum
bhaka’ and at the end of exhalation, it becomes ‘ Bahya Kumbhaka’. A beginner should first achieve proficiency in Pranayama before practising this ‘Bandha’.

Advantages :

(1) Prana (Energy) begins to flow in its proper channel by the practice of this ‘Bandha’.
(2) This Bandha sublimates Kundalini Shakti.
(3) This Bandha closes the Ida and the Pingala’nadis’.

UDDIYANA BANDHA

What is Pranayama

Technique : This Bandha can be practised in either standing posture or sitting posture. In the standing posture, place the hands slightly above the knees. Bend the body slightly forward. Keep the legs apart. Exhale with full force. Now contract the abdomen and pull it upwards and backwards to the spine with the force of the navel and the diaphragm. The diaphragm will be pulled up and the abdominal wall will be pushed up to the back. This Bandha is practised after ‘ Kumbhaka’ and before ‘ Rechaka’.

Advantages :

(1) One who practises Uddiyana Bandha
regularly attains eternal youth.
(2) This ‘Bandha’ helps in preserving celibacy. ( 3) It awakens Kundalini Shakti.
(4) The constant practice of this Bandha makes the
body vigorous and healthy.

Note :

(1) All these three ‘ Bandhas’ should be practi sed first with the help of either Siddhasana or Padmasana.
(2) When the~e three Bandhas are practised simulta neously, they are called ‘Tribandha’.

(5) Nadi Shuddhi or Anuloma-Viloma Pranayama Pranayama:

Pranayama can be best performed after the purification of the tubular channels. Pranayama which is performed for the purification of tubular channels is called ‘Anuloma-Viloma, Pranayama. A beginner should begin practising Pranayama with Anuloma-Viloma Pranayama. Anuloma-Viloma Pranayama being very simple, a beginner can practise it with great ease and comfort.
Technique : Sit in either Padmasana or Siddhasana. Close the right nostril with the right thumb and inhale deeply through the left nostril. Then close both the nostrils, and practise ‘Antarika Kumbhaka’ (holding air in the lungs) for some time. Then close the left nostril and slowly exhale through the right nostril. Then close the left nostril and inhale through the right nostril. Close both the nostrils. Then slowly exhale through the left nostril. This is one cycle or round of Nadi Shuddhi Pranayama. Practise three or four rounds every day and gradually increase the number of rounds. When you master this practice, follow the set rhythm in ratio of 1: 2 : 2 for this exercise which means four seconds for inhalation, eight seconds for retention of breath and eight seconds for exhalation. After a long practice, proceed to 1 : 4 : 2 which means if inhalation takes five seconds, retention of breath should be for twenty seconds and exhalation should take ten seconds.

Advantages :

(1) This is considered to be the best
variation of Pranayama. It cures the diseases of the lungs.
(2) It helps blood to get a large supply of oxygen with
the result that blood is well purified.

Note : A person with abnormal blood pressure should not attempt Kumbhaka. They should practise Puraka and Rechaka only. They should gradually begin practising Kumbhaka only after their blood pressure is normal.

(6) Kapalabhati :

In Sanskrit, Kapala means ‘skull’ and ‘Bhati’ means ‘to shine’. Thus, Kapalabhati is an exercise the practice of which imparts glow to the skull. It is one of the six purification exercises known to Hatha Yoga. Kapalabhati qualifies as aspirant for Bhastrika Pranayama.

Technique : Sit in either the Padmasana or the Siddh asana position. Place the hands on the knees. Lower the eyes. Inhale and exhale quickly and forcefully like the bellows of a blacksmith. This exercise should be done with full force so
that the body perspires.
In Kapalabhati, Kumbhaka is not practised. Rechaka plays a significant part in this exercise. This is a very potent exercise. During the practice of Kapalabhati, the cells, the nerves and the muscles get a violent tremor.
Start with one exhalation in a second. Then gradually increase the speed to get two exhalations in a second. In the beginning, complete one cycle of ten exhalations. Then gradually increase the cycles.

Advantages :

(1) Kapalabhati clears the skull, the respiratory system and the nasal cavities.
(2) As Kapalabhati eliminates the cough accumulated in the wind-pipe, asthma is cured.
(3) This exercise supplies plenty of oxygen to the air-cases (alveoli) in the lungs preventing viruses like the tuberculous bacilli from doing any damage to them.
(4) It draws out a large quantity of carbon dioxide from the body and thus purifies blood.
(5) It tones up the heart and activates the respiratory system, the circulatory system and the digestive system.

VARIETIES OF PRANAYAMA

Pranayama has many variations depending upon the type of Kumbhaka. According to Yogashastra, the following are the eight principal Kumbhakas :
(1) Surya Bhedana, (2) Ujjayi, (3) Sitakari, (4) Shitali, (5) Bhastrika, (6) Bhramari, (7) Moorchchha and (8) Plavini.

Each of the eight varieties of Pranayama has been described below with its technique and advantages so that an aspirant can make the best study of it.

1. Surya Bhedana

‘Surya Bhedana’ means piercing the Pingala nadi. The chief object of Pranayama is to rouse the Pingala nadi. The Surya Bhedana exercise stimulates that part of the brain which contains Purusha Shakti i.e., the lifeforce (vital force). The practice of Surya Bhedana produces heat in the body. Therefore, this exercise is more beneficial during winter.

Technique : Sit in the Padmasana or the Siddhasana position. Close the eyes. Close the left nostril with the little finger of the right hand. Inhale deeply through the right nostril. Then close the right nostril with the right thumb. Rest the chin in the notch between the collar bone just above the breast bone. (This is Jalandhara Bandha.) Now practise Kumbhaka (Retention of breath). Gradually, increase the time for Kumbhaka. Then close the right nostril with the thumb and exhale slowly through the left nostril. Repeat this exercise in the same order.

Advantages :

(1) The constant practice of this Prana
yama purifies the mind and cures intestinal diseases.
(2) This Pranayama cures rheumatism and the diseases
related to ‘vata’ (windiness). Moreover, it is the best remedy
for blood impurities, skin diseases and leucoderma.
(3) It rouses ‘Kundalini Shakti’ which kindles gastric
f i re.
(4) It invigorates the liver and bile is produced in a sufficient quantity.

Note : Unhealthy persons should practise this Pranayama in winter and in monsoon sitting under the light rays of the rising sun or in the moderate rays of the setting sun in
the evening.

2. Ujjayi

Heat is created in the body with the practice of ‘Ujjayi’ Pranayama. So it is advisable to practise it in winter.
Technique : Sit in the position of Padmasana or Siddhasana. Close the mouth. Contract the lower part of the tongue and the glottis and inhale rapidly and deeplythrough both the nostrils and fill the lungs up to the brim. Then practise
Kumbhaka for as much time as possible. Then close the right nostril with the right thumb and slowly exhale through the left nostril. While inhaling, expand the thoracic cage. This makes a faint sobbing sound as the glottis is half-closed.

Advantages :

(1) This Pranayama reduces the heat of the head and cures asthma, tuberculosis and other diseases of the lungs.
(2) It kindles the gastric fire and activates the digestive system, the respiratory system and the nervous system.

3. Sitakari

The practice of Sitakari has a cooling effect on the body and hence it is beneficial to practise it in summer. Sitakari Pranayama immediately quenches thirst.

Technique : Sit in the position of Padmasana or Siddhasana. Let the tip of the tongue touch the palate. The middle part of the tongue should touch the lips. Draw the air in through the mouth with a sibilant sound (si … si … si …). Hold the breath for as much time as possible. Then exhale through
the nostrils.

Advantages :

(1) Sitakari Pranayama relieves one of
hunger, thirst, sluggishness and drowsiness.
(2) It eliminates harshness of the gland known as Rudragranthi.
(3) This Pranayama prevents bile from increasing.
(4) The constant practice of this Pranayama increases the physical strength and elevates the mental power of the
aspirant.

4. Shitali

This Pranayama is very much beneficial in the spring and in summer seasons. This Pranayama cools the body and the mind. There is not much difference between Sitakari Pranayama and Shitali Pranayama. One should practise this Pranayama for fifteen to twenty minutes daily in the morning.

Technique : Sit in the position of Padmasana, Siddhasana or Vajrasana. Protrude the tongue out and curl it like a pipe. Breathe with a sibilant sound (si … si … si) to fill the lungs completely. Hold the breath for as much time as possible. Then slowly exhale through both the nostrils.

Advantages :

(1) This Pranayama purifies blood relieving the body of toxic elements accumulated in it.
(2) This Pranayama cures diseases like tumour, enlargement of the spleen, skin diseases, fever, indigestion and constipation.
(3) This Pranayama quenches (relieves) thirst.
(4) The poison of a scorpion or snake has no effect on a
regular practitioner of this Pranayama.
(5) This Pranayama is beneficial to persons having hot
temperament.
(6) This Pranayama prevents flatulence, splenomegaly, excess of bile and cures leprosy.

5. Bhastrika

In Sanskrit, Bhastrika means ‘bellows’. This exercise is characterized by continual exhalation of breath, producing a sound similarto a blacksmith’s bellows. It is a combination of Kapalabhati and Ujjayi, Bhastrika is the most beneficial of all the Kumbhakas.

Technique :.Sit in the position of Padmasana or Siddhasana. Keep the body, the neck and the head erect. Place the hands on the knees or on the laps. Close the mouth. Breath fast and vigorously and exhale fast and forcefully like bellows. Repeat this in quick successive jerks five to ten times. Similarly, contractand expand the lungs. While practisingthis Pranayama, there will be a sound resembling air rushing through the bellows. An aspirant should inhale and exhale continually and quickly. When one cycle of inhalation and exhalation is completed, the aspirant should take a deep breath and hold it for as much time as possible without reaching the point of exhaustion. Then exhale. This is one cycle of Bhastrika. Then breath in a normal way for some time and rest for a while. This will give some relief and prepare the aspirant for fresh cycles of Bhastrika. Practise three such cycles every morning, and if possible, practise two or three cycles in the evening. Busy persons, if unable to practise three cycles, should practise one cycle only. Even one cycle is enough for perfect health.
In winter, Bhastrika may be practised in the morning and in the evening, but in summer it should be practised only in the coolness of the morning.

Advantages :

(1) Bhastrika reduces the swelling in the throat. It kindles gastric fire and removes cough. It cures chest-ailments, asthma and tuberculosis.
(2) Bhastrika cures all the diseases caused by phlegm, windiness and bile (Kafa, Vata and Pitta).
(3) Bhastrika unlocks the mouth of the Sushumna nadi.
(4) It gives temporary warmth to the body.

6. Bhramari

The word Bhramari is derived from Bhramara which means a black bee. While practising this Pranayama, the sound produced through the nostrils resembles the buzzing of
a black bee.

Technique : Sit in the position of Padmasana or Siddhasana. Inhale and exhale quickly through the nostrils. Practise this till the body perspires. Then inhale deeply through the nostrils and hold the breath for as much time as possible. Then exhale through the nostrils. In the beginning, quick breathing stimulates blood circulation and heat of the body increases, but, in the end it is cooled down on account of perspiration and the joy experienced at this juncture is indescribable.

Advantages :

(1) The practice of Bhramari delights the mind. One begins to acquire knowledge and emancipation from passion and worldly pleasures.
(2) One who gets success in practising Kumbhaka through Bhramari successfully enters the stage of Samadhi.

Note : Fresh aspirants wil I not derive much benefit out of this Pranayama unless they practise Anuloma-Viloma Pranayama.

7. Moorchchha

An aspirant practising this Pranayama falls into a swoon and he remains in an unconscious state. Hence this Pranayama is called ‘Moorchchha’.
Technique : Sit in any comfortable position. Inhale through both the nostrils. Then practise deep Jalandhar Bandha and hold the breath. Then exhale through the nostrils.

Advantages :

(1) As the mind remains i n an unconscious state, the aspirant experiences spiritual joy.
(2) This Pranayama brings the mind in the profound state of quietude. According to Yogashastra, ‘mana’ (the mind) becomes amana that is non-existent. In other words, it is in communion with the Supreme Power.

8. Plavini

Plavini means that which makes one swim. Plavini Pranayama enables an aspirant to swim in water. Some skill is required for practising this Pranayama. The prolonged practice of this Pranayama enables the aspirant to swim in deep water for a long time. His body swims on the surface of the water like a lotus leaf.

Technique : In the beginning, this Pranayama should be practised sitting in the position of Siddhasana or Vajrasana. Then one can practise it in a standing or lying position. After assuming the sitting posture, inhale through the nostrils and hold the breath. Practise )alandhar Bandha. Jalandhar Bandha causes breath to fill the intestines and this expands them profusively. At the completion of this Pranayama, exhale through both the nostrils. If necessary, exhalation can be done through belching or Uddiyana Bandha.

Advantages :

(1) The aspirant of Plavini Pranayama can live upon only air for several days without taking food.
(2) This Pranayama stimulates blood circulation. Consequently, all the toxic elements or impurities in the body
are expelled.

Note : This Pranayama needs slow, gradual and regular practice. It should be practised under the proper guidance of one, who is proficient in Pranayama.