Last updated: 2017-09-19 | 1309 Views |
Some yoga gurus rank pranayama over asana as the most important part of the practice. If you're new to it, you may be wondering what exactly it is and how to get started.
Definition of Pranayama
Prana means life force or breath sustaining the body; Ayama translates as "to extend or draw out." Together two mean breath extension or control.
Sooner or later, most of us feel a little depressed or anxious, and certainly all of us know what it's like to feel tired. There are many different ways of treating these feelings, from exercise to meditation, from medication to a long vacation in Hawaii. But you may not realize that you have a safe, effective, and inexpensive remedy right at hand for each of these conditions. What is this magical elixir? Your own breath.
As yogis have known for centuries—and as medical science is beginning to discover—the breath has amazing recuperative powers. By controlling the breath (a practice called Pranayama), the yogis found, they could alter their state of mind. The three pranayama practices described here primarily create their effects by slowing and regularizing the breath. This engages what scientists call the parasympathetic nervous system, a complex biological mechanism that calms and soothes us.
How does slower breathing help? In stressful times, we typically breathe too rapidly. This leads to a buildup of oxygen in the bloodstream and a corresponding decrease in the relative amount of carbon dioxide, which in turn upsets the ideal acid-alkaline balance—the pH level—of the blood. This condition, known as respiratory alkalosis, can result in muscle twitching, nausea, irritability, lightheadedness, confusion, and anxiety.
In contrast, slowing the breath raises the carbon dioxide level in the blood, which nudges the pH level back to a less alkaline state. As the blood's pH changes, the parasympathetic nervous system calms us in a variety of ways, including telling the vagus nerve to secrete acetylcholine, a substance that lowers the heart rate.
Try This Breathing Test:
To experiment with consciously expanding your breath, sit in a chair with your spine erect—or, better yet, lie on your back on the floor. Put your fingertips lightly on your lower belly, just above the pubic bone, and try to direct a few inhalations into this space, expanding the belly each time. Once you can do this, move your fingertips to the spaces below your collarbones, placing your pinkie tips on the sides of the sternum and splaying the rest of your fingers out to the sides.
Then, for a few inhalations, see if you can gently expand these spaces. Be careful to keep your throat as soft as possible as you do this, because there's a counterproductive tendency to tense it as you inhale into the upper chest.
Once you can move the breath into the lower belly and upper chest, try to awaken your entire back torso, an area that is terra incognita for many people. As much as you can, breathe into your back body, feeling how it balloons and then deflates with each breath cycle. Once you can feel this, experiment with filling all of your newfound spaces with every breath.
cr. Yoga Journal