Science of Pranayama

Posted on by Teo Siew Yong

For the first time, I am going to share the science of Pranayama in the second module of Mothers Love Kids Yoga Teachers Training next month. The content is not confined to what I have learned in my yoga teachers training but I will also be transmitting the experiences in my muscle memory and bio memory from the initiation I received from my Guru, Bhagawan Sri Nithyananda Paramashivam (fondly known as Swamiji).  

What is pranayama?

The word pranayama comprises of two roots: prana plus ayama. ‘Prana’ means ‘vital energy’ or ‘life force’. ‘Ayama’is defined as ‘extension’ or ‘expansion’. Therefore, the word ‘Pranayama’ means ‘extension and expansion of prana’.

You should know that prana and mind are intricately linked. Fluctuation of one means fluctuation of the other. When either the mind or prana becomes balanced the other is steadied. In Hatha yoga, it says control the prana, the mind is automatically controlled, whereas Raja yoga says, control the mind and prana becomes controlled. These are two different paths of yoga. The mind is equated with a wild monkey, jumping here and there. Because of this inborn tendency, it is very difficult to hold it still. Hatha Yoga says let the mind be, concentrate on the autonomic body functions and vital energy, and the mind will become quiet by itself. When the nervous impulses are steady and rhythmic, the brain functions are regulated and the brain waves become rhythmic.

The breathing process is directly connected to the brain and central nervous system and it is one of the most vital processes in the body system. It also has some connection with the hypothalamus, the brain center which controls emotional responses. The hypothalamus is responsible for transforming perception into cognitive experience. Erratic breathing sends erratic impulses to this center and thus creates disturbed responses. There are also certain areas of the nasal mucous membrane which are connected to the visceral organs (i.e. digestive, urinary, reproductive and respiratory systems). When impulses coming from the nose are not rhythmic, the visceral organs, particularly those connected to the coccygeal plexus, respond in the same manner, arrhythmically. Being disturbed, these organs again send irregular impulses to the brain and cause more disharmony and imbalance. This cycle is continuous.

By becoming aware of the nature of the breath and by restraining it, the whole system becomes controlled. When you retain the breath, you are stopping nervous impulses in different parts of the body and harmonizing the brain wave patterns. In Pranayama, it is the duration of breath retention which has to be increased. The longer the breath is held, the greater the gap between nervous impulses and their responses in the brain. When retention is held for a prolonged period, mental agitation is curtailed.

The Yogis say that the quality of our breath reflects the quality of our lives. The breath is the bridge between the body and mind as can be seen as how the breath gets faster when we feel angry or upset. During meditation and calm states of mind, the breath is slower. Although the breath is part of the autonomic nervous system, continuing without conscious awareness, it is also within our conscious control.  We have the capacity to lengthen, manipulate and alter it, therefore giving us a direct way to control the physiological responses, emotions and the mind. Hence, the yogis have given a great importance to the science of Pranayama.

From Hatha Yoga Pradipika: When prana moves, chitta (the mental force) moves. When prana is without movement, chitta is without movement. By this (steadiness of prana) the yogi attains steadiness and should thus restrain the vayu (air)

According to Patanjali, pranayama is actually the cessation of the breath. The breathing practices that we do are intended to bring us to the point where we can retain the breath for long period of time, as this brings cessation of thoughts. When we practice pranayama techniques, we become aware of the breath and gradually the external awareness diminishes and the internal awareness expands. Although pranayama techniques utilize the breath, they are much more subtle than the breath.

Once the mind has been stilled and prana flows freely in the nadis and chakras, the doorways to the evolution of consciousness open, leading the aspirant into higher dimensions of spiritual experiences. Through Pranayama practice, the blood is enriched with oxygen and toxins are eliminated from the body. One may also experience subconscious images in the mind during pranayama. This is the process of conscious elimination of subconscious tensions.

Different types of pranayama affect the body and mind in subtle ways. Mastery of pranayama techniques not only gives the practitioners internal awareness and expansion, but also the ability to control aspects of their experience such as heat and coolness within the body, the capacity to alter the physiology, slow down the brain waves and to increase and harmonize the vital energy. Pranayama can revitalize, soothe and balance each of the different areas of the pranic body or pranayama kosha. If we view the body and mind as a continuum, it is clear that the pranic body influences our whole mind, nervous system and physical body. 

Benefits of pranayama practice

  • Focuses the mind, improves one-pointedness and concentration
  • Brings stability, peace and vitality
  • Awakens awareness
  • Soothes, activates or balances the nervous system as required
  • Clears and harmonizes the nadis, meridians, chakras and pranas
  • Prevents the build-up of stress
  • Helps to balance metabolism
  • Awakens the divine qualities like love, light and laughter
  • Prepares the mind, body and energy for meditation – Dhyana

While Pranayama is a powerful tool for gaining benefits, it is also beset with risks. In Hatha Yoga Pradipika: ‘Pranayama can eradicate all diseases if done properly, but if done wrongly, it may aggravate all diseases’

If performed properly and systematically any yogic technique will activate a greater pranic capacity and thus eliminate disorders and malfunctioning in the physical body, but if the practices are done incorrectly and unsystematically, more physical disturbances will develop. If practice is irregular or incorrect, it can be very harmful and it is better not to practice at all. Pranayama should always be learned under the guidance from a fully-trained teacher. Namaste 😀

Note: I will also be sharing the Science of Pranayama in the next Yoga Module starting on 3rd September @ 7.30 pm in Balanced Living. Contact me if you are interested.  

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About Teo Siew Yong

Teo Siew Yong draws from over a decade's worth of experience in the Vedic healing arts of Yoga and Mediation to share the sacred knowledge and experiences of self healing and self discovery with people who are ready to look within.