A fundamental difference between Eastern and Western medicine is that many of the Eastern traditions include practices that help one to develop and achieve optimal health and wellness before the onset of disease, infection or emotional problems. Prescribing yoga and meditation to prevent and cure illnesses of the body, mind and spirit is quite typical for Vedic medicine practitioners, but anything similar is almost unheard of in Western healthcare.
The science about the flow of energy in and around the body has been well documented in Yoga and Ayurveda for thousands of years. The system is incredibly diverse. Primarily handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth in traditional sutras (not in lengthy, written texts), and through actual practice, the ancient yoga practices of Pranayama can vary wildly between teachers and schools of thought. They can include many and diverse practices, such as physical exercises (standing, seated or lying down), forms that resemble martial arts, breathing exercises, visualisations and, or, meditations. Yet, these same schools of thought, are in agreement and concurrence about many of the basic and even more esoteric concepts and principles.
Prana, difficult to describe in Western terms, as there are no parallel equivalents, is the natural energy that fills the universe and is available to everyone. While there are many ways of defining prana, it can generally be thought of as any and all types of energy which are able to demonstrate power and strength, including the power to animate objects with life. Hence, it is known as life force, and may be understood as immortal or cosmic energy, spiritual or mental energy, a divine energy that drives and elevates consciousness, the emotional mind, that part of us that governs our moods and behaviour, the force that collects and utilises wisdom.
Prana is defined as the essence, the original source from which a thing is made, and also the refining process by which a person’s essence is polished or sharpened. It is the energy present at birth that enables you to grow and develop strength. In yoga, it is considered the most important part of a you, because it is a root energy for living.
There really is no clear, modern explanation of how it works, or of the vessels (nadis) in the energy body which provide for the flow of prana, but it can be distinctly felt as an energising and healing force that bathes your cells and tissues with life force. Prana supplies the energy your organs need to function, and much like electricity in a factory that provides differing levels of currents for different machines, the flow of prana must be consciously regulated in order for the body to function optimally. Prana can be manipulated and moved by the mind, body and breath.
Yama means to restrain or control.
Your breathing has been automatic, since the first gasp of air you took at your moment of your birth into this world. Take a few minutes to explore your breath and notice
- how often you breathe
- how deeply you breathe and
- where the initial breath begins.
Some people breathe in the three home sites,which are at the root of life (namely of vata, pitta and kapha) in a compartmentalised way. Some breathe essentially in the region of the belly, others internalise the energy at the chest, and still others breathe from the throat. However, breathing fully all the way from your diaphragm through your chest and lungs is the most important type of breathing, because it allows for the maximum amount of exchange of air in your lungs. Not only is the diaphragm the most efficient of all respiratory muscles, but using it tends to be very relaxing and calming.
The diaphragm is a major muscle used for breathing and is located beneath your lowest two ribs. At rest, the diaphragm muscle is bell shaped. During inspiration, it lowers and flattens out. Optimising the use of the diaphragm is beneficial because it pulls air into the lower lobes of the lungs where more gaseous exchange takes place. Along with our diaphragm, we use our intercostal (muscles between the ribs) and abdominal muscles in the work of breathing.
The intercostals pull to lift the rib cage up and out. This causes the lungs to open in up all directions and air can be pulled down the airways.
To exhale, the muscles that have been pulling relax and air is forced out. When the diaphragm tenses up, air is pulled in; when it relaxes, it lets the spring of the ribs push the air out again.
Take a moment to practice breathing first from all the way down in your abdomen and up through your chest. Think of this as a sort of “spring cleaning” of your heart, mind and body.
Oxygen is the single, most vital ingredient for life. It’s deficiency is the most common cause of virtually all major degenerative diseases. University research studies have shown that the fundamental cause of all disease, can be attributed to a lack of oxygen, which is about 21% of the ordinary air you breathe. But more than sending it to your lungs or even your bloodstream, you need to bathe your cells and tissues with rich, oxygenated blood, which you can implement by doing a combination of several things.
Firstly, you must change your diet and start eating special plant or oxygen rich foods that are high in vitamins and minerals, which, for instance, can increase your red blood cell supply… and in turn, boost the amount of oxygen travelling through your whole body. Secondly, start using exercise methods such as yoga and other non-strenuous practices which flood your body with oxygen, as well as flush out waste from your system. And, thirdly, you need to learn how to breathe properly. The flabbergasting fact is, that very few people know how to breathe correctly. And if you don’t breathe properly, your brain and body are starved of oxygen…which makes it almost impossible to concentrate.
Unfortunately, people do not breathe properly and need to practise simple, breathing exercises.
The Five flows of Prana
The essence of Yoga is the management of prana - the life force and vital energy. According to Yogic texts, ill health in the body-mind occurs when the flow and function of Prana becomes obstructed in its corresponding wind (vayu). By understanding how prana operates, a Yoga teacher can assist in restoring good health in their students, by removing whatever is obstructing the movement of Prana.
Pancha Prana Vayu (the five flows of prana) is amongst the many tools available to a yoga teacher/therapist. These are explained in several Upanishads, the Yoga Yajnavalka, the Gheranda Samhita and mentioned in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. They are crucial to the understanding and application of Yoga.
The Prana Vayus are described by their location in the body and the direction in which they move through the body.
• Prana vayu is situated around the head and heart and energy flows inwards and upwards. It nourishes the brain, the eyes and the senses.
• Apana vayu is situated at the anus/pelvic floor and is responsible for downward moving energy. Its energy nourishes the organs of elimination and reproduction.
• Udana vayu is situated around the throat. It is responsible for upward moving energy and governs speech and self-expression.
• Samana vayu situated around the navel, moves energy from the periphery to the navel and is responsible for digestion and assimilation.
• Vyana vayu moves all over the body, particularly from the centre to the periphery and is associated with the circulation of all substances throughout the body.
By understanding the Prana Vayus, you can learn to
- effectively remove the obstacles blocking Prana in the body
- improve health and
- assist in healing the body.
All diseases arise from an upsetting of the winds in the body. The roots of depression, anxiety, fear and other negative emotions are found within the energy body, and in our modern world of stress, over-work, over-stimulation, and constant hustle, the nervous and emotional systems of the body are the first to breakdown. Anger pushes up the heat in the energy and can make it explosive, joy makes the energy slacken, grief disperses its own energy throughout the body, fear brings the energy and power down, terror confuses the energy, and anxiety causes the energy to stagnate. Anger harms the liver, joy affects the heart, anxiety the spleen, grief the lungs, and fear the kidneys.
All Yoga practices effect the movement of the Prana Vayus. You can regulate the flow of prana:
- by making new body patterns and shapes, in asanas,
- by using conscious regulation of the breath, or
- with a mantra and chanting to change thought patterns or
- by use of subtle energy practices of yoga.
The application of these tools can be modified to have a specific effect on the regulation of Prana for an individual.
Pranayama, a key to better health
Pranayama, traditional yoga breathing, is an important practice of yoga and a key to better health. Through which the practitioner comes into contact with different dimensions of energy (gross to subtle), and by establishing control over the life force or prana, develops the control over the functioning of the mind-body complex.
Literally, pranayama means the extension or expansion of the range of prana. With the expansion of prana, gross consciousness is transported to the subtler realm of existence. Learning first how to conserve and firm your original prana is critical to your yoga practice. In order to raise your spirit you must first nourish and fill the brain with prana, which is how a dedicated practice of yoga can lead to a very real spiritual awakening.
There are various practices in Pranayama, and different breath practices are used; some are activating, heating and invigorating, some are balancing, harmonising and pacifying, and some of them are cooling in nature. Through the appropriate practice of pranayama, the practitioner not only establishes harmony and control over the functioning of the physiological systems, but also extends the control to those subtle processes of the body which support all activities happening at the grosser levels of being.
When you are alive, you may use your prana to nourish you at physical, mental and causal levels. When you build up your prana to a high level, your will is able to lead it to seperate from the physical body even while you are alive. When you have reached this stage, your physical body is able to live for many hundreds of years. People who can do this are living persons whose consciousness has reached the stage of enlightenment or Buddhahood.
Energy and Consciousness
Pranayama is the link between energy and consciousness. Through the practice of pranayama, the state of consciousness can be altered, and the practitioner can access a hidden dimension of prana.
In the Shanti yoga tradition of Hatha yoga, energy and consciousness are used interchangeably. They are considered to be two sides of the same coin. Consciousness is considered to be the static aspect of energy, and energy is the dynamic aspect of consciousness. Therefore, whatever changes or alterations happen in the realm of energy, will bring about a corresponding alteration in the state of consciousness. The science of pranayama was developed by rishis (ancient seers) based on this premise of tantra.
A common legend about pranayama is that yogic breathing increases oxygen in your blood. It doesn't. Actually, it decreases oxygen very predictably, which is actually a beneficial thing. A pulse oximeter can immediately reveal this to be true.
To combat the chronic over-breathing prevalent today, which most people do, and to normalise our nervous system and health, traditional yoga breathing or pranayama is wonderful and excellent. It is a specific yogic practice in which a systematic process of breathing is involved.
Whenever the problems of mind management arise, the practice of pranayama can serve as a potent tool to manage the problems of the mind and emotions. Pranayama is also responsible for mobilising the energies of the body, because breathing is a process by which you can connect with different mind-body levels of functioning. According to the science of yoga, prana is that aspect of energy which keeps the mind and the body running.
The practice of pranayama has its own psychotherapeutic values. The reason for this is that pranayama incorporates breathing techniques which bring about a qualitative change in the patterns of thoughts, feelings and emotions. In many somatic psychotherapeutic schools, yoga therapists use breathing to change the patterns of awareness in individuals. In different branches of Somatic-psychotherapy, such as Bioenergetics, Aqua therapy, Primal therapy etc, therapists use appropriate breathing techniques to transform mental states in their patients.
It has been observed by these therapists that there is a connection between the nature of feelings, thoughts and breathing patterns. If there is a change in the state of feeling, thinking, feeling and breathing patterns are also altered. As an example, notice a situation when you are in the state of anger, then observe what happens with your breathing patterns and how it behaves. The harmonious flow of the breath is lost, it becomes arhythmical, interrupted and tense. However, if you think about the state when you are relaxed, you would observe that in this state of harmony, the breath also becomes relaxed and harmonised and follows a constant rhythm. Based on the above observations, yogic somatic psychologists concluded that there is a definite relationship between states of mind and breathing patterns.
In addition to the practice, another important and unavoidable aspect of the whole process is the approach that decides where the practice will take you. Like any other yogic practice, Pranayama needs proper centering to go into deeper levels of experiences and therefore it is equally important that the practitioner gives time to settle in properly before journeying within.
Pranayama is a true treasure for those seeking physical and mental wellness, as well as happiness in our short, beautiful lives. It is the most practical method for strengthening and building life force energy within the body, mind and spirit, and catalysing meaningful personal transformation. The presence and experience of prana is universal to human beings and can be directly experienced through Shanti Yoga.
Anyone can develop the presence, awareness and sensitivity to come to know these treasured practices. And what a treasure it is to be a happy, healthy person.
Come and join me and attend my Pranayama sessions Mondays at 9:15am
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• What is the location and function of each of the five functional divisions of Prana
• Describe the physical and mental signs of Prana obstruction in each Vayu
• Outline methods of removing the obstruction of prana from these areas
• Suggest how you would apply Asana, Pranayama and Meditation to restore circulation of Prana