Prana is the sum total of all the energy manifest in the universe. Within us, Prana is our vital life force and it is the subtile layer of our body that animates us and is responsible for every action in the body. Everything that happens in our physical body first happens in our pranic body.
Prana is effected by all the actions of body and mind; especially by how we breath and the food we eat.
Within the yogic traditions there are numerous techniques for controlling the prana. Swami Sivananda, an influential yoga master of the last century writes, “If you can control prana, you can completely control all the forces of the universe, mental and physical.” This explains some of the amazing feats of memory and strength traditionally associated with yogis.
One aspect of yoga is the mastery of the mind. To access the mind you first need to access the energy or prana, and to access the prana you need to go through the physical body. One definition of yoga is the the union of body, energy and mind. Pranayama is the technique for controlling the prana, this is the ticket for learning to use all the wondrous powers of the mind. Most pranayama techniques are not physically difficult to do, but sustaining a dedicated practice that is necessary for developing the mind can be a big commitment.
Here are some guidelines for getting started.
As mentioned above, to get to the level of the energy you have to work with the physical body. Asana practice is essential for pranayama for creating steadiness. To do pranayama the body must be comfortable while seated for a prolonged period of time. Asana helps to create the flexibility in the hips and legs that make sitting easer. Also asana strengthens and harmonizes the flow of prana within the channels. Preferred sitting postures for pranayama are sukhasana (easy pose), svastikasana (auspicious pose), and padmasana (lotus pose), but sitting on a chair is also an option.
Just as your sitting posture is the foundation for the body in pranayama practice, complete breathing is the foundation for the breath. It is also essential for training in developing kumbhaka (breath retention). This is where deliberate training of the breath begins in earnest. Don’t assume that because you have been practicing yoga for years, you are breathing completely. Our breathing patterns are typically subconscious and controlled by preconditioned habits that are out of our awareness.
A simple way to experience complete breathing is to
1. Lie on your back on a flat surface or in bed, with your knees bent. You can use a pillow under your knees to support your legs. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage. This will allow you to feel your diaphragm move as you breathe.
2. Breathe in and out slowly through your nose. As you breath in first bring the breath into the belly so that your stomach moves out against your hand, then bring it up to the middle of the body and then finally at the top of the breath feel the chest expand. As you exhale first feel the chest relax, then the middle of the torso, and then at the bottom of the exhale gently draw the belly in to complete the exhale.
Avoid too much or too little food, too much or too little sleep, and too much or too little mental and physical activity. Be regular in your lifestyle habits. A fresh, nourishing diet is particularly important. A balanced lifestyle also helps to create mental and emotional stability which is essential for some of the more advanced pranayamas that involve kumbhaka. Whatever emotion you hold in with the breath can increase the emotion and the effect it has on the body. Pandit Tigunait, a masterful pranayama practitioner, on the subject of emotional balance: “To get the benefit of pranayama, you must be steady in thought, speech, and action. Without some measure of contentment in life, pranayama brings misery.”
Practice, practice, practice, and have happy thoughts.