By Suzana Altero
Inhale, and God approaches you. Hold the inhalation, and God remains with you. Exhale, and you approach God. Hold the exhalation, and surrender to God.” ~Krishnamacharya
Pranayama (breathing techniques) are a key practice of Hatha Yoga, the mother of all physical or postural yoga. They are such a core tool in this tradition that the term Hatha itself is closely connected to it. Wanna understand how?
What does Pranayama mean?
The word pranayama can be technically translated as breath control (prana=breath, yama=control). However, in the hatha yoga texts it’s also linked to a wider interpretation. Prana stands for the life force underlying all life-activities and the word ayama means the whole field. Therefore, the pranayama techniques are practiced to introduce us into the whole field of the life-force itself that is present in all life-activities. Once we get to know it we are soon able to cleanse, harmonize, and ultimately control it.
But why is it a key practice in Hatha Yoga?
The life-force (prana) travels around the layers of our body through specific channels which are called nadis. There are 3 main nadis: pingala nadi, ida nadi and susumna nadi.
Pingala Nadi, The Sun and the Ha of Hatha
- All the life-activities that need energy to be broken down and give heat are linked to the Pingala nadi. This channel starts from the right side of the base of spine and ends up in the right nostril. It has the Sun as a symbol and is linked to the Ha, in hatha
Ida Nadi, The Moon and the Tha of Hatha
- All the life-activities that need energy to be conserved and by consequence cultivate coolness are linked to the Ida nadi. This channel starts from the left side of the base of spine and ends up in the left nostril. It has the Moon as a symbol and is linked to the term Tha, in hatha.
Both channels travel upwards in a spiral way, that means they go from right to left to right and so on. The word Hatha stands for these two opposing channels (nadis), the Sun and the Moon, and in a broader perspective, to the process of bringing harmony between the opposites in order to reach ultimate balance. After all, it’s only when these channels are balanced that the path towards this ultimate balance is opened. In other words, when pingala nadi and ida nadi are balanced our main channel opens up: Susumna nadi.
- Susumna nadi is the channel that rests in the middle of the spine. Kundalini awakening (or the awakening of our primal life-force) stands for the opening of this main channel. This whole process brings about a full transformation that leads to realization (samadhi), the ultimate goal of Yoga. We can understand realization as the experience of recognition of oneself as being one with the universe. That is attained when Kundalini have travelled up through Susumna nadi and have reached the highest center in the brain.
Pranayama, therefore, is a major practice that balances our energetic channels (nadis) and assists our Kundalini into the final path towards enlightenment.
puraka, kumbhaka e recaka
The word puraka stands for inhalation and recaka stands for exhalation. Kumbhaka refers to the part of the pranayama technique that the practitioner retains the breath either before an inhalation or after. As pranayama techniques are key to hatha yoga so is the retention to the pranayama technique. It is because of this retention that the term kumbhaka is also used to address each style/technique of pranayama in Hatha Yoga (Ujjayi kumbhaka, bhastrika kumbhaka, Bhramari kumbhaka etc.).
Why is the retention so important?
It is very difficult to control our minds and our emotions. However, it is quite more simple (though it is not easy) to manipulate our breath. The breath and the mind have an intimate relationship: tamper with one and you’ll affect the other one right away. This can be easily seen once someone is having a panic attack: their breathing patterns become fast, shallow and they often need assistance to come to a more relaxed state.
So why is controlling the breath so important in the first place? Here is Hatha Pradipika’s answer:
So long as breathing goes on the mind remains unsteady; when (it) stops, (the mind) becomes still and the Yogi attains complete motionlessness. Hence, one should restrain one’s breath.” Hatha Pradipika (II, verses 1 and 2)
Kumbhaka is praised and considered an essential part of pranayama in the majority of the hatha yoga scriptures. This part of the breathing techniques is considered to be closely related to the awakening of our Kundalini, the beginning of the last journey of hatha. A more tangible result of the retention of breath is simply a stronger cultivation of silence in our minds.
An even more fundamental question is why do we want our minds to become steady and silent ? In other words, why do we want the inner babbling to stop or be let go?
All yoga techniques are about bringing silence not only to our gross level (body) but also to the subtlest layers of ourselves (emotion, mind and intellect as well). Cleansing our pranic channels is also a part of reaching this silence: if everything flows nicely, our psycho-physical structure will demand less of our attention (and will complain less!).
Only through silence can we start exploring and experiencing who we really are beyond what we’ve been conditioned and learned to be.
Pranayama and its modern adaptations
These days our pranayama practices mostly derive from Hatha Yoga literature. Though they are derived from these scriptures they do not necessarily include the breath retention in their techniques. A good example is the adaptation that happened to the “Ujjayi” practice: one segment of the ujjayi kumbhaka (the contraction of the glottis while inhaling and/or exhaling) has been broadly used in yoga classes since the gurus of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga (a modern yoga style of practice) have combined it with its flowing body movements.
It is very important to note, though, that the practice of pranayama without retention does not mean that it has no benefits. Breath awareness and the first stage of pranayama itself brings a multitude of benefits to our mood, mind-state and overall health. In fact, beginners are strongly advised to practice with no retention of breath for at least 3 months and under an experienced teacher’s guidance.
Is pranayama without retention useful?
There are several pranayama techniques and they all bring many benefits even without retention. For general health and well-being pranayama without retention is actually more than enough; retentions are usually for those that have chosen hatha yoga as their spiritual path since they are connected to the awakening of our primal energy (kundalini) as previously mentioned.
But, what can be gained from pranayama without retention?
We can summarize quite an amazing list of benefits:
- Normal breathing gives a gentle massage to the kidneys and bowels. During pranayama this massage is more intense and helps the practitioner to relieve any constipation and eliminate toxins. Moreover, the nerves and muscles that control those organs functions get a tone-up too!
- It is a myth that we absorb more oxygen during pranayama… However, the whole breathing apparatus (the lungs) is well trained by being expanded and stretched to its fullest potential. That induces the practitioner to actually breath better for the rest of the day and have more oxygen as consequence!
- Stomach, pancreas and liver are also massaged which helps in the digestion and the absorption of food. As a consequence our blood has more oxygen and more nutrients, which means that it has more quality and can support the different systems and organs to work more effectively!
- During pranayama, the diaphragm also massages the heart nicely. Moreover, bhastrika (a pranayama technique) improves the circulation by the vibrations that it creates and are spread to all tissues, including veins, arteries and capillaries.
- The nerves receive better blood supply, which provides a big boost to the nervous system. But it’s not just that! As one study claims, “The focus on slow deep breathing has been shown to improve autonomic nervous system functioning through enhanced activation of the parasympathetic nervous system.
The majority of the pranayama techniques work through slowing down the breath. Though researchers are still focusing on fully understanding how it works it’s known that when we slow down our breaths we decrease the effect of stress and strain on the body, which improves physical and mental health.
Modern Yoga practice (and not only pranayama) has been found to be a great tool to manage our mood and help us just feel good. It’s not surprising that yoga keeps being discovered by the west as complementary therapy to stress, depression, and cancer, among other dis-eases.
Are you ready to feel the power of pranayama? I hope you feel inspired by all these amazing facts and give some time to pranayama in your self-practice!
Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Suzana Altero. Suzana lives in India and is married to an indo-german who is also a yoga geek! She is a passionate yoga teacher and co-founder of Turiya Yoga where a wonderful team offers Yoga Teacher Training in India. She is a world traveller and a complete yoga, psychology, mythology and… theology geek! Fully into nature, being with friends and devouring books, her perfect day is an ecleft if mixture of all those things while also having time for listening to an inspiring satsang (spiritual talk)! You can follow her work on Facebook or Twitter.