Yoga itself is beyond the science or an art. It is a philosophy. Yoga is derived from Yuj – meaning unification or Anusandhaanam. It is defined in the scriptures as Yoga Chittavruttinirodhaha (or making the mind devoid of any action, bringing it to rest) In other words it is the process of controlling the mind, the Ahankaarama(Ego) and the Antarendriyas (internal organs) with the help of Yoga and Pranayama. Eastern philosophy says that just like we strengthen other organs, we can strengthen our mind too. Strengthening of mind is possible through Pranayama, meditation and Yoga, because the mind is also an organ.
Breathing exercises,(Pranayam), keep you healthy by various means. In normal course we do what may be called “shallow” breathing. The lungs are neither fully expanded nor contracted. Therefore the air flow in the lungs is restricted. Breathing exercises generally increase the volume of air flow providing more oxygen and removing carbon dioxide more efficiently.
In many breathing exercises you are told to hold your breath for some time. Depending upon the exercise you may be required to hold your breath either after inhaling, or after exhaling.
How does holding the breath help? It is not possible to empty the lungs entirely; some amount of air will be there even after exhaling “fully”. Normally there are some small pockets inside the lungs in which air tends to remain stagnant. Air inside those pockets does not join the main flow of air. It gets depleted in oxygen and fresh supply does not reach there. Blood coming in contact with air in those pockets does not get fresh oxygen and carbon dioxide is not removed from that part of blood.
When you inhale air and hold your breath in that position, the air drawn inside the lungs gets more chance of mixing with stale air in those pockets. As more time is made available for air mixing, stagnant stale air is removed and supply of fresh air goes inside those pockets. Similar action takes place when you exhale air out and hold your breath. There is reduced pressure inside the lungs which draws out the stale air. The overall effect of these actions is that entire surface of alveoli, or air sacs inside the lungs gets larger amount of fresh air.
In “Pranayam” as you continue regular practice you are expected to increase the duration of holding the breath as well as number of times you do the exercise. You should increase both, not one at the cost of the other.
Holding the breath also helps you to concentrate better. In many breathing exercises, I will again take example of “Pranayam”, you are required to concentrate on breathing and visualize the flow of air. For example as you inhale, you may be asked to visualize that you are drawing in life-force or “Prana” along with fresh oxygen. While holding the breath you may be directed to visualize that “Prana” is getting absorbed in greater quantity. When you exhale you throw out toxins as well as bad thoughts and at the same time “Prana” gets distributed in the body. Visualization has remarkable influence on the effectiveness of breathing exercises.
When you are holding your breath it is difficult to think of anything except your breathing. To that extent it helps you in directing your concentration towards yourself.
The diaphragm, like any other body muscle also needs exercise. Breathing deeply and holding your breath provide exercise for the diaphragm.
That is why learning to breathe correctly is an essential part of yoga. In yoga, breathing exercises are known as Pranayama (control of the breath) and form the cornerstone of your yoga practice. Before you can practice Pranayama it is essential you learn how to take a full yogic breath using your abdominal muscles.
Pranayam, An Art of Yoga Breathing
Pranayama, a breathing yoga helps expand one’s concentration and to become antarmukham or be able to see your own soul through yourself. Praana is force of life which is the essence of mental, spiritual and cosmic energy. Here, breathing is only a superficial or minute part of the pranayama practice.
Aayama means niyantrana or having control. So, Pranayama means having control over breathing by increasing, decreasing and stopping your breath.
What happens during Pranayama
Steps involved in Pranayama are:
- Inhalation – breathing in
- Retention – retaining the breath
- Exhalation – breathing out
- Suspension of breath while exhaling
During Pranayama the chest moves in three different ways/directions in simple harmonic motion- vertical, horizontal and circumferential motion, thereby concentrating the energy in a particular spot. Pranayama is something that is higher than Yoga itself. It must be practiced after three or four hours after food intake, early in the morning, preferably in the Brahma muhurtha (forty-five minutes before sunrise)
To the Body
When respiration is controlled, the heart rate is reduced; this helps to increase supply of oxygen, increase physical rest and cell-rest, increase mental alertness, this again induces respiratory control, this decreases metabolism and the body goes into hibernation, thereby enhancing energy.
To the Mind
When respiratory rate is reduced, alertness of the mind is increased through concentration on just respiratory control. This improves the rhythm of breathing. Such regular breathing develops orderliness. Senses of Ekatvam (onliness – perceiving things as one truth) and Sukshmatvam (subtleness – grasping quickly) are improved. This is how there is a possibility of neuro-physiological rest.
In Pranayama, total filling and emptying the lungs happens – just like we empty a swimming pool or a well. This helps generation of fresh breath. Heart rate is reduced because all resources are used – its efficiency is increased, cardiac muscle strength is improve, micro/capillary circulation is improves, nutrition to cells is improved. All this happens not with physical exertion, but only with control on breathing. Therefore there is saving of physical energy.
Pranayama to Body Functions
The relationship of Pranayama with the various systems of the body:
Slow breathing through Pranayama improves oxygenation time. This improves oxygenation itself. Through slow exhalation also, there is absorption of oxygen. This improves capillary circulation and helps nutrition to cells. This is in contrast to rapid breathing (in other exercises) which can cause hyperventilation or dizziness or weakness because of over-exertion. In Yoga and Pranayama, cellular regeneration is increased due to an increase in muscular wear and tear and decrease in cellular wear and tear. This helps in cellular rest, increases blood circulation, increases local immunity, reduces and protects respiratory infections, in today’s polluted atmosphere.
The slow breathing helps stimulation of taste buds and improves secretion. This helps carbohydrates to be better digested – digestion starts in the mouth itself. The diaphragmatic massage in Pranayama helps to massage intestines. This prevents blood to be retained in the veins and so, the entire digestion process is improved, thus reducing and preventing disorders like constipation and indigestion.
Forced blood circulation, effective filtering is improved, elimination of toxins, this helps control renal disorders like kidney malfunctions.
The reason we suffer from skin disorders is that there is very less oxygen supply to the skin, as skin is a superficial organ. Supply of oxygen to skin is improved through Pranayama and Yoga. Nutrients are provided to the skin, hydration is improved, elimination of waste takes place and skin disorders are prevented.
Forced blood circulation during Yoga and Pranayama increases supply of oxygen, energy and nutrients to the pituitary glands (master glands located in the brain), and this improves and stimulates activities of all other glands.
Forced blood circulation during Pranayama and Yoga increases cerebral circulation, nerves are soothed and nervous disorders are avoided and controlled.
Pranayama can be prescribed in high and low Blood Pressure syndromes, allergic rhinitis, vasomotor rhinitis, chronic headaches, migraines, peptic ulcers, all anxiety disorders like psoriasis. It is important to recognize that allergies are the main causes of all rhinitis syndromes and that Pranayama treats this allergy, than just reducing illnesses like rhinitis.