Pandit Hari Shankar Dabral
We breathe 21,600 times a day. How many of us are aware of our breath? Breathing is a process that begins immediately after our birth. We do not feel a need to be aware of such a natural process that continues even while sleeping. According to yoga science, breath is a material form of prana. Breath is a thread that links the body and the mind. Breath is known a barometer of the mind. Anything that happens in the mind is reflected in the breath and anything that happens in the breath is reflected in the mind.
A change in our breath signals something has changed in the body and the mind. When we face crisis, fear, shock or tragedy we breathe with an erratic shallow chest breath. We form poor breathing habits in response to continual stress in life. Many problems that people have these days are due to irregular breathing processes such as shallow chest breathing. Emotions can be stabilized through working with the breath.
In the Himalayan Tradition of yoga and meditation, we are first taught how to breathe diaphragmatically. After establishing diaphragmatic breathing, one learns to regulate the inhale and exhale (shvasa and prashvasa) – the twin laws of life. Establishing an even diaphragmatic breath as our normal breathing pattern reduces stress, increases energy and improves physical, emotional and mental health. Without proper breathing, we cannot bring balance to the body and mind. There is a gap in between the body and mind if there is a gap in the breath. When we eliminate the pauses in the breath, we eliminate the gap between the body and mind. Shri Swami Rama of the Himalayas says that a habitual pause in the breath at the end of the inhalation or exhalation is also damaging to the heart muscle.
Breath is a vehicle for prana to move in the body. Prana is the vital principle in the universe, the life force within us. Prana is the first unit of energy in the universe, says Shri Swami Rama.
Pranayama is the fourth limb in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The first five are yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama and pratyahara. They are known as external limbs (vahiranga) which prepare one for the higher internal practices (antaranga) of the last three – dharana, dhyana and samadhi. Pranayama helps one to achieve all the levels of dhyana (meditation) and samadhi. “He who has controlled his breath and prana has also controlled his mind. He who has controlled his mind has also controlled his breath” Shri Swami Rama.
Pranayama consists of two components – pra and ayama. Prana is the vital principle of the universe. Ayama is an expansion. The second etymology is prana and yama. Yama is control over the prana. Expansion of prana and control over prana is pranayama. Prana circulates through the body by means of over 72,000 energy channels, or nadis.
Prana is also known as vayu (air). There are five vayus in the human body – prana (upward flow), apana (downward flow), udana (above throat), samana (between heart and navel), vyana (pervades the whole body and governs the relaxation and contraction of all muscles). Pranas play a great role in the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
The basic principle in the tradition of pranayama is that one undertakes a practice of yamas and niyamas and asanas (hatha yoga). Asana (hatha yoga) prepares us for the practice of pranayama. Patanjali uses the word asana for hatha yoga. The definition of asana in the Yoga Sutras is “sthira sukham asanam”. An asana should be sthira (steady) and sukham (comfortable). Asana also means a seat, which needs to be steady and comfortable. The first two rungs, the yamas and niyamas, purify our emotions and the mind and build a moral character in humans.
Nadi Shodhanam is a basic pranayama that is taught to beginners. Nadi Shodhanam purifies the nadis, the energy channels. It is known as channel purification or alternate nostril breathing. It has been scientifically proven that a regular practice of channel purification can bring emotional stability, calm anxiety and the nervous system, control blood pressure and alleviate depression. It is known in the texts as a joyful breath.
In the modern age where our life and eating habits are irregular and erratic, systematic pranayama practices can help to simplify our habits and lifestyle. Common problems such as high blood pressure, stress, insomnia and nervous disorders can be helped to a great degree by the practice of pranayama.
A systematic practice of pranayama can lead one to have a healthy body and a healthy mind, a mind that is ready for experiencing everlasting joy and bliss.
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