Yoga - Prana and You
by Shameem Akthar
Pranayama locks the scattering of pranic energy, consolidates it at the centre of your body-mind complex and laser-beams it to an intense awareness of the self
For years I had believed that pranayama means breath control. I recently learned that it actually means ‘expansion’ or extension (ayama) of your life force (prana). The first meaning is limited and the second is expansive. The first meaning relates to the simple health benefits we get out of breath control practices. The second, higher meaning, means toning up your spiritual muscles.
Pranayama with its higher goal actually means intense awareness. Sri Ramana Maharishi says moksha is very simple: when we shift our awareness within, we are Brahman. When we scatter it outwards we remain the struggling jivatman. In pranayama practice you become intensely aware of how that which is easy and apparent to saints like Ramana, remains a pipe-dream for us strugglers on the path. Even when you think you are physically still, your mind continues to turn somersaults. That is why pranayama is rather tough to do. Look at it objectively – it is just a bunch of practices where we are seated comfortably and holding our noses! Yet most yoga instructors themselves avoid because of the mind-body control it demands.
It is tough because prana is not just breath as we understand it. It flushes even inanimate things. In our body, this life force has five forms. One is actually prana (a limited version of the larger Prana which is the universal life-force), and deals with breathing and related organs. Another is udana, dealing with our expressions (social and physical) and moves throat upwards. Then is apana (the downward flowing prana) at the pelvis, which deals with bodily secretions (excretion), sexual secretions and outflows (like menstruation). Vyana is the reserve energy, technically you may link it to blood circulation that transports energy all around the body. And samana, dealing with digestion and located at the abdomen. Each has its timing and flow. That is why when you sit down to do pranayama, you feel intense inner resistance, because each prana is relentless on its path.
What pranayama aims to do is lock the scattering of the energies of these pranas, consolidate them at the centre of your body-mind complex and laser-beam it to an intense awareness of the self. Only when pranayama is done with this aspect in mind, with intense meditative awareness of the flow of one’s thoughts, are we anywhere close to understanding how we can use our bodies to reach not just health, but also God. That is also the reason why, as we intensify our pranayama practices, we are required to use the bandhas or locks, to trap and contain the energy for this sublimation.
In pranic healing, which has a lot in common with yoga, it is said that when we get irritated or reactive we are actually giving away our energy or prana to the object of provocation. This thought has a powerfully calming effect on me. I don’t wish my neighbor who irritates me to get powered by my sadhana, surely! If I gossip about someone then that person is getting the full benefit of my prana, which is leaking from the gaping hole that my negativity has torn in my pranic field ! All such negativities, including the ones we believe are good or innocent and harmless is actually tearing a hole in your pranic bubble, allowing your prana to flow out. In higher pranayama you cannot proceed far unless you rein in your mind from such vacillation and wastage. Since our mind continues doing its own thing, we use our breath to rein the mercurial mind in. This is the first purpose of pranayama.
Brahmari Pranayama (Humming Bee)
This is a simple pranayama but impacts the mind powerfully. Sit in any meditative practice. Shut eyes. Inhale and exhale a few times deeply and with awareness. Next, after a deep inhalation, exhale with the sound ‘mmm’. Do not strain, but extend the sound as long as you comfortably can. Relax. This is one round. Do up to nine rounds. This is sufficient for normal practice. While humming feel the sound vibrate in your face, and move the sound up and down the body.
Benefits: Humming is said to clear the sinuses and boost levels of nitric oxide. This in turn, ups the oxygen intake to 98 per cent; with ordinary breath it is only four per cent. Bhrahmari is amongst the most healing pranayamas and is said to repair our body very fast. It fosters a meditative temper.