Meditation

The Art of Pranayama: How to Master Your Breath and Life Energy

What comes to your mind when you hear the word Pranayama? Something to do with breath? Maybe some breathing exercises, like Anulom-vilom or Kapalabhati?

If you have even the slightest interest in meditation, spirituality, or even just a healthy lifestyle, chances are you have at least a basic idea about Pranayama. Today, one can find numerous explanations and practical guides detailing its how’s and what’s, do’s and don’ts. But not unlike an ancient relic, the core essence of Pranayama has been buried under a thick layer of confusion and superficial applications. And the result – a world that is using so much of it and yet, so less of it!

A Set of Breathing Exercises? 

Introduced by Maharshi Patanjali in his Yog Sutras, Pranayama is the fourth limb of Ashtanga Yoga, an eightfold path that paves the way for a human being to reach the state of Samadhi, or the experience of one’s true Self. Thus, Pranayama is a means to attain that supreme state of harmony. But can a set of breathing exercises really lead to such a profound goal? 

Prana doesn’t mean breath. Therefore, Pranayama doesn’t equate to breathing exercises. Prana simply means life energy, and one of the primary ways to accumulate it is through our breathing. In that sense, Pranayama does include various breathing practices, but they are not the be-all, end-all of this discipline of Yoga.

What is Pranayama?

The term Pranayama is derived from two Sanskrit roots: Prana and Ayama. Ayama stands for dimensions. There are three dimensions of Prana that a seeker must work on in order to cultivate balance and wellness in body and mind, a prerequisite to walk the path towards Self-realisation. These three dimensions are – expansion (Vistaar), rhythm (Niyaman), and control (Niyantran). Thus, Pranayama is a system of techniques aimed to enhance these three dimensions of our vital life energy. 

In his Yog Sutras, Saint Patanjali has introduced three major techniques of Pranayama:

  1. Rechak, or Bahya Vritti, involves breath exhalation.
  1. Purak, or Abhyantar Vritti, deals with breath inhalation.
  1. Kumbhak, or Stambh Vritti, is the mindful retention of breath after inhalation or exhalation.

There are 3 more factors that can be used as dials for different variations of each of these 3 techniques:

  • Desh refers to the region of the body being included in the practice.
  • Kaal is the time duration for which the breathing technique is exercised.
  • Sankhya indicates the number of rounds or repetitions of the technique being practiced.

For instance, a specific Pranayama practice might be one in which a seeker inhales breath till their stomach region (Desh), for a count of five (Kaal), and repeats this for a total of ten times (Sankhya). Given that each practice can itself be either protracted (Deergh) or brief (Sookshma), we get a total of 18 possible variations of Pranayama.

Keval Kumbhak – The Ultimate Aim 

Expansion, rhythm, and control of our Prana are definitely the core components of Pranayama. But a seeker of the ultimate experience of Self should not stop just there. 

Prana travels along energy channels called Nadis. While there are said to be 72,000 of these channels in our vital air sheath, Pranayama tends to focus on three primary nadis: Ida, Pingala and Sushumna, corresponding with the left, right and central line of the body respectively.

Pranayama, Ida, Pingla, Illustration, 7 Chakras

Negative experiences in life, past impressions, and relentless materialistic desires can cause our Prana to start to dissipate from Ida and Pingala. This causes us to experience fatigue, lethargy and lack of direction. This may be experienced as a general feeling of low energy, but can also be the root cause of physical or mental diseases.

But Yogic techniques like SwaRaj Kriya work on restoring our energy by moving it inwards from Ida and Pingala, collecting it in Sushumna, and raising it upwards through energy centres (also known as Chakras). This restoration and upward movement of energy is referred to as Keval Kumbhak, a crucial phenomenon not just for our physical and mental well-being, but also for our spiritual evolution on the path towards Self-realisation.

Don’t Waste Pranayama on Physical Health Alone

These days, Pranayama practices are being packaged and marketed only for their physical benefits. Due to excessive body consciousness and focus on physical well-being, Pranayama has become synonymous with breathing exercises for treating physical ailments like high blood pressure, diabetes, etc.  

Certainly, the physical benefits of Pranayama are too many to count. But using it merely for that is a bad deal indeed. How smart would it be to buy a Mercedes and use it only to travel to the local grocery store two blocks from your house? Besides, a person with a healthy body but an ill mind cannot live a happy life. Happiness requires holistic growth – physical, mental, intellectual, and spiritual. And our Yogis have devised this invaluable tool of Pranayama to help us attain exactly that.


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3 Comments

  1. Difficult to understand but by doing practice as your guided way maybe easier. 🙏🙏

  2. Youtube link

  3. I like it very much including Prana Kriya which I would like to learn thanks. Bhagwant Rai.
    Fremont, California

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