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Pranayama: Cultivating Life Force

Posted by on Dec 4, 2009

In most of Western society today, we have forgotten how to breathe.  We have been conditioned to take short, gasp-like breaths to fill the lungs only moderately, if at all. It is thought that 9 out of 10 adults in the West practice shallow breathing. I often call this the “panic breath”, and I try to teach my students to change their breathing to a pranic breath.

Yogis spend a lot of time and attention learning how to breathe, though at first glance, this seems to be an activity which takes place all on its own, without our attention.   In yoga, we pay lots of attention to a seemingly small detail. Prana is a Sanskrit word meaning Energy or Life Force. Pranayama is learning to cultivate the Life Force.
Many physiological benefits can be gained by changing our breathing from clavicular or thoracic breathing, to full, deep yogic breathing, but we can expect to attain more than an increased lung capacity, a calm nervous system and brain, and decresed stress hormones flooding the bloodstream.  We can also, with practice, learn to cultivate a calm mind. The author of Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Svatmarama states that “When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.” Deep breathing is an important part of our entire mental, physical and spiritual dynamic. We only start by learning about breathing from an anatomical perspective, to more fully understand why a yogi achieves long life and a balancing of the different aspects of the self.
From a purely physiological standpoint, a yogic breathe increases lung capacity, or the tidal volume taken into the lungs with one inhale. For most adults, this is about .5 litres. We actually have the capacity for much more, though. With practice, we can learn to inhale as much as ten times that amount in a single breath. When we exhale, not all of the air is released or the lungs would collapse. Vital capacity is the term used to describe the maximum air expelled after the maximum possible inhalation. This capacity is usually measured during heavy exercise, when the lungs are working at their optimum levels. Vital capacity is basically the air left over in the lungs after we have exhaled completely. Many types of pranayama aim at not only increasing the tidal volume, or inhale, but also the vital capacity, or exhale. We can often exhale much more than we normally do in a relaxed breath also. As we learn to exhale more, the subsequent inhale is automatically much larger, as instigated by the autonomic nervous system which works on auto-pilot maintaining homeostasis in the body.
With greater practice of pranayama, more subtle things begin to occurr; however. Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati tells us that, “Pranayama is the control of the upa pranas (sub pranas) which achieves harmonization of the physiological body and leads to awakening of prana in the chakras or psychic body. Once the prana is awakened in the chakras, pranayama begins. The culmination is the merging of apana, prana and samana forces at manipura chakra which, in turn, leads to the activation of udana and vyana pranas. When the five pranas are operating simultaneously, the kundalini (spiritual energy or evolutionary potential) (3) is awakened and the process of self-realization begins (4).” (Saraswati, Swami Niranjanananda, Yoga Darshan, Sri Panchdashnam Paramahamsa Alakh Bara, Deoghar, 1993, p.134.)
About the Author

Christina Sarich is a musician, yogi, humanitarian and freelance writer who channels many hours of studying Lao TzuParamahansa YoganandaRob Brezny,  Miles Davis, and Tom Robbins into interesting tidbits to help you Wake up Your Sleepy Little Head, and See the Big Picture. Her blog is Yoga for the New World. Her latest book on yoga, Pharma Sutra, is available here.

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