The 4th step of the Ashtanga yoga is Pranayama, the vital energy of life.
1. What is Pranayama?
The word Pranayama was made of 2 parts: Prana and Ayana. Prana is the vital energy source behind all life activities. Ayana means control. So Pranayama means "the control of the vital energy". Our life exists of movement on different levels: physical, mental, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. By practicing and studying Pranayama we learn to control these movements.
On the physical level the Prana stimulates the cells to extract the oxygen and glucoses from the blood, Prana is the source behind all the activity in our body. As for the mind: the Prana controls the physical and emotional activities. Our mind needs energy for this, Prana is also the energy source for our emotions.
Control of Prana
= control of life activities = Pranayama
We learn to control our Prana by controlling our breathing. Breathing is a continuous process from birth to death, it is an indication of life. Our breathing is automatically controlled by the autonomous nervous system, but can also be controlled by our will. We can learn to get control over the autonomous nervous system through practice of Pranayama.
2. The Pranic Body (Pranayama Kosha)
The pranic air of Vayu moves through the whole body like energy flows. This can be compared to electro magnetic fields where the energy is constantly moving. There are 5 important Vayu "flows": apana, prana, samana, udana and vyana. These are different ways of the vayu or energy flow to express itself in the same way that the different parts of the body of a person makes the body complete.
The intake of the Prana happens in the chest area (from the diaphragm to the throat) and this controls the heart and the longs. The penetration of the pranic energy is the most important function of the Prana Vayu.
Prana vayu takes care of the inward movements of the subtle cosmic power. Elimination - the outward movements - happens through the urinary and excretory system and the reproduction organs and is controlled by Apana (from the navel to the perineum).
Between the Prana and the Apana, in the region of the stomach area, Samana controls the digestion of the food. Containing and continuously rotating of the energy is the work of Samana.
Udana takes care of the refinement of the ascending energy and for the facial expressions: the clock wise rotation of the energy in the head, throat, hands and feet. The control of the penetration of the energy throughout the whole body is the work of Vyana.
Pranayama is more than just breathing exercises. It is not just about controlling the breathing but also about techniques that activate the energy in the body to a higher frequency. We practice Pranayama in order to understand and control the pranic processes in our body. Breathing is the direct way to gain Prana and the way we breath causes pranic vibrations in our body that influence our whole being.
Pranayama - Kumbhak: Patanjali explains that Kumbhak is the pause between inhalation (Purak) and exhalation. Holding the breath is very important as it gives the Prana the opportunity to assimilate and take care of the exchange of oxygen and carb dioxides in the cells. The practice of Purak and Rechak needs to be done by controlling the in- and exhalations. This control must be slow, fluent, uniform and steady.
3.Different types of Pranayama
There are different types of Pranayama exercises. The exercises that are listed here are a good start of your taining. Make sure that you receive guidance from a teacher, do not practice Pranayama without guidance.
1. Deep breathingThe deep breathing is a good technique to start your pranayama practice. The technique is that your exhalation is twice as long as your inhalation. As a beginner you can inhale for 4 counts and exhale for 8 counts. You will notice rather fast that this is a technique that is very peace giving and that you will receive a lot of energy. It also has as an advantage that you learn to use your lungs to full capacity as you purify them to the very bottom.
2. Surya BhedanThis technique of Pranayama is revitalizing and is translated as "know the sun": inhale through your right nostril, hold the breath, exhale through your left nostril. The nostril that is not active is closed by the thumb or the pinkie of the right hand. You can use the pace of the deep breathing.
3. Bhasrika Is also known as the bellows breath: is fast breathing with Surya Bhedan: it increases the heat in the body.
4. Bhramari The humming bee breath: during the inhalation you make the sound of the female honey bee, and during the exhalation you sound like the male humming bee. This pranayama has a soothing effect on the mind.
5. Ujjaji The technique of the victorious physical breath: this Pranayama is practiced by contracting the epiglottis during the inhalation. This pranayama enhances the physical awareness, helps relieve hypertension. Do not practice this pranayama when you have low blood pressure.
6. Sitkari Cooling breath: this is practiced by inhaling the air through closed teeth. This pranayama lowers the temperature of the body and brings fresh air into the lungs and the stomach. This pranayama enhances the functioning of the hypofyse. This is one of the few breathing techniques where there is inhalation through the mouth. For most other techniques both inhalation and exhalation is through the nose.
7. Shitali Cooling breath: inhale the air through the folded tongue. This has the same effect as Sitkari. For some people it is physically not possible to fold the tongue, they can always practice Sitkari with the same beneficial effects.
8. Plavini Floating breath: you "eat" air and keep it in your stomach, this helps against ulcers, acidity and overeating.