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What is Pranayama?

By Elonne Stockton

What is pranayama and why should we practice it?

Often pranayama is made to seem illusive, or potentially dangerous, something that only advanced practitioners should practice. Even though we are far more likely to hurt ourselves in asana practice, we must still be careful. Pranayama can unfortunately be taught unsafely or incorrectly, sometimes by people who have not learned the techniques properly from a teacher, or even by people who do not have a regular pranayama practice themselves. However, pranayama can be just as easily be taught safely, in a step-by-step manner. And it can be for everyone.

What exactly is pranayama, in simple terms?

Pranayama literally means to pause, extend and regulate the prana, the life force of the breath. It is an ancient system of working with the breath through specific techniques and retentions, which enact a direct effect on the nervous system and on the mind/consciousness.
When pranayama practices were described in the Hatha Yoga texts, during the Middle Ages in India, their main purpose was to awaken kundalini, the spiritual energy that is said to be dormant in all of us. But for most people, this reason may sound too esoteric to make sense of.

Why do we practice pranayama?

The average practitioner is not too concerned with awakening their kundalini. Then why do we practice? Of course, there are countless physical and physiological effects of pranayama. For example, regulating the breath positively affects all other autonomic functions in the body. It is both an involuntary and voluntary action. By actively working with the breath, we are able to control other involuntary autonomic functions, like heart rate and digestion. Pranayama stimulates the heart and the digestive organs, it purifies the blood of toxins, and it supports all systems of the body. The list of benefits goes on. And even this is just the tip of the iceberg.

We can get to know ourselves better by practicing pranayama.

As we work with the breath, we are directly working with the mind. As our teacher, Sri O.P. Tiwariji, will say, “We go through the breath to channelize the behavior of the mind (the chitta vritti).” The definition of Yoga, according to Patanjali, the person responsible for compiling the system of Yoga, is “chitta vritti nirodhah.”

In other words, Yoga is the stilling of the mind, the channelization of the behavior of the mind, consciousness. Or, as Tiwariji would say, it is the total integration of our personality on all levels. Working with the breath, with prana, is one direct way to channelize the mind, one tangible way to achieve the state of Yoga.

As we get to know the breath, we are essentially getting to know ourselves, our habits and pre-conditionings. Any irregularities in the breath will highlight patterns in our nervous system, our conditioned responses to things. If we pay attention, the breath shows us how we react to specific situations in life, positively or negatively. By working with the breath we essentially start to undo the patterns, the conditioned responses.

Pranayama helps us find moments of quiet and stillness.

When we connect to the breath with awareness, we begin to see how our thoughts are directly linked to how we are breathing. And as our breath starts to slow down, through the practice of pranayama and other meditative/concentration techniques, we notice that our thoughts also start to slow down at the same time, since the breath and the mind are intricately connected. And we experience moments of blissful quiet.

So much of our identity revolves around our thoughts and ideas about ourselves, about others and about the world around us. As our breathing starts to “pause” so do our conceptions of the world and everyone in it, and we are left with glimpses of infinite space. If we can for one moment withhold judgment, we extricate ourselves from all of the negative feelings and emotions that are associated with those beliefs and presuppositions. For a moment we are free . . . Until the next day.

Still, we keep practicing.

This is an ongoing process, one that requires a daily routine of cleaning out. In fact, like any practice, for it to be effective we must do it consistently, continuously, over a long period of time. Patanjali cautions that there is no short-stepping this process. And there is no set definition for what “long” means; the word only implies that we keep going. Even after the practices start to work for us, we must persevere.

Tiwariji likes to quote what Swami Kuvalayananda, his teacher, said to him on Swamiji’s deathbed: “Never forget your practices!” Now in his 80’s, Tiwariji could easily take a break from practice and nobody would question him. But he is too deeply sincere for that. He sets the example for us, that we all must persevere.

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Our pranayama practice affects us throughout the day.

Remember that the work we do on the meditation cushion or yoga mat in the morning carries with us throughout the day. So although we may be doing specific exercises for only 20-30 minutes in the morning to start, the physiological effect lasts for the rest of the 24-hour period. Our heightened awareness that we start to build through practice also remains with us throughout the day.

Ideally we start to see patterns of behavior as they come up in daily situations, like when dealing with difficult relationships at home and at work. And once we become aware of these conditioned responses, we can begin to control how we respond in those situations, we can begin to attenuate the tendencies.

Our day to day interactions, how we treat ourselves and others, are an essential part of the practice. In effect, we never stop practicing.

Never learn pranayama from books.

Although some well-known teachers have taught pranayama without having properly learned from an established teacher, even the Hatha Yoga texts would agree that this is not wise. They state that when done correctly, Yoga can cure all disease; when done incorrectly, Yoga will cause illness and further suffering.

We advise finding a reputable teacher, one who has learned pranayama directly from a teacher and who has spent time practicing and trying to understand the different techniques. Find teachers who have gone through the system of pranayama following a solid lineage, like teachers who have trained and practiced with Kaivalyadhama and Samahita Retreat/Centered Yoga, with teachers like O.P. Tiwari and Paul Dallaghan.

Nothing is compulsory!

Finally, we don’t have to practice pranayama. As Tiwariji would say, nothing is compulsory. We must enjoy it and find benefit from it. If we have any doubts we must sort them out for ourselves. We have to want to do it, otherwise it won’t work for us. In which case, we should find another method. Simply put, we should find something we like, something that we can be sincere about.

The most important thing is to keep practicing.

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What is Pranayama?
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Often pranayama is made to seem illusive, or potentially dangerous, something that only advanced practitioners should practice. Even though we are far more likely to hurt ourselves in asana practice, we must still be careful. Pranayama can unfortunately be taught unsafely or incorrectly, sometimes by people who have not learned the techniques properly from a teacher, or even by people who do not have a regular pranayama practice themselves. However, pranayama can be just as easily be taught safely, in a step-by-step manner. And it can be for everyone.
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