Pranayama Today

Prana is a Sanskrit word that loosely translates as life force.  When we breathe we bring this life force into the body.  Prana can also enter the body through other means such as food or water, but it is primarily through the breath that it infuses us with life energy.

When one embarks on developing a pranayama practice it might feel like stepping off into unknown territory.  In this day and age yoga has become a generic term usually referring to the asana’s or postures that are so widely recognized and publicized everywhere you look.  However, the yogi’s of ancient times…the ones who lived in the caves and forests and dedicated their lives to this path also trained themselves in various other techniques to reach those blissful states of higher consciousness.  Pranayama, or restraining of the breath, was one of those other practices.

In actuality we don’t know very much about the effects of these practices on the body and so with that in mind it is important to have a high level of body & self-awareness before engaging in any of these practices. Advanced pranayama’s were taught only after the student gained a certain level of proficiency with the basic yoga practices.

Today, science and medicine have confirmed that the rhythms of the breath have a powerful and significant impact on health.   Blood pressure is one of the bodily functions that responds to breath control.  And blood pressure is a major contributor to healthy heart function. We also know that an increase in oxygen to the kidneys & liver help promote optimal functioning of these organs as well.  Balancing out hormonal functions is very likely another benefit to monitoring the breath.  The waves of extreme emotions can be quickly soothed by breathing consciously to certain rhythms. And, the negative effects of stress on the body, the most documented topic of all, are immediately reduced and minimized by conscious breathing. Finally, the greatest miracle of all is that breathing more consciously is a technique that is available and easy to do for all of us, no exceptions.  Think of it as a gift from our creator enabling all of us to self-soothe and self-heal at any given moment.  The idea that we can heal or cure ourselves, without the intervention of modern medicine, is a concept that many of us have sadly forgotten.

One of the things that I first noticed as a yoga teacher was how few people have any awareness of the breath at all.  They are ignorant of how they are breathing. It’s one of those automatic bodily functions that we tend to take for granted.  That is until one encounters a major problem such as shortness of breath, asthma, anxiety, or emphysema.  Unfortunately, by this time it may (or may not) be too late to completely reverse the situation.  However, some gains can still be made by becoming even more conscious of our own breathing process and by attempting to bring some conscious control and a more focused awareness to the process.  At the very least, the increased levels of the stress hormones will subside enough for one to experience some relief from immediate circumstances.  Cellular regeneration of dis-eased systems might also be possible depending on the depth and regularity of your practice.

I remember watching an episode of Storm Stories on The Weather Channel.  One survivor of a terrifying hurricane spoke of his experience. A very large shard of glass from a breaking window had seriously cut him in the vulnerable mid-section of his body.  He was bleeding profusely and couldn’t move from where he had fallen in his kitchen.  The storm raged on and it wasn’t until the next day that he was discovered.  He knew that he couldn’t live through the night at the rate he was bleeding so he immediately began to practice the yogic breathing techniques he had learned in his yoga classes.  Through these practices he was not only able to stay calm and relaxed both mentally and emotionally but he was also able to slow down his heart rate and reduce his blood pressure thereby slowing down the bleeding process.  It was a moving story and clearly showed the benefits of not just pranayama but the whole of yoga.

These practices are not for everyone.  Nor will they necessarily cure everything that ails you.  But one thing they will do is to enable you to stay calm, centered, and present through the everyday stresses that challenge you.  And in the event of crisis, or the unexpected chaos that life presents, you will have some tools at your disposal to help you maintain your balance over longer periods of stress. But remember, they are practices, which means ‘something that you repeat on a periodic basis’.  Going to one class or one workshop is not going to do much.  The sooner you integrate them into your daily life the sooner you will feel more alive, more vibrant, calmer, clearer, and more balanced.

Remember also, that yoga means union, and that suggests that you can’t just isolate one particular yogic practice from the whole and expect the same results.  Breathing, postures, meditation, and living an ethical life all need to be practiced together at the same time.  Many benefits can be had by learning these techniques one at a time, but for long lasting and life enhancing effects it is best to integrate them as a whole into ones life.

© Ida Cullen. All rights reserved.