What is Prana, Pranayama and why is it relevant to meditation?
Prana is an energetic force that exists within all beings and things. Yama means to restrain and Ayama means to extend, lengthen; thus Pranayama practices works with extension and restraining of one’s energetic force.
Some might say that breath is prana, but that is not quite accurate. Prana denotes constancy, a force in constant motion, energy that drives action. The kind of energy that burst forth to manifest the Universe and human beings. Science might describe prana as multidimensional energy: a combination of electrical, magnetic, electromagnetic, photonic, ocular, thermal and mental energies.
Prana travels along energy meridians in the body. It is said that there are 72,000 nadis, energy pathways, in the body. The main energy channels, or ‘Nadis,’ are the Ida (lunar) channel, the Pingala (solar) channel and the Sushumna Nadi, the main energy meridian that travels from the base of the spine up and out through the crown of the head. The Ida and Pingala criss-cross along the Sushumna Nadi, at seven different points, denoting a convergence, resulting in a chakra, or energy wheel. One can remove blockages associated with each chakra with the help of pranayama practice.
Breath techniques can help to increase or ‘restrain’ the quanta of prana. It also aids in channeling and directing that energy in our bodies using inhalation, exhalation and retention. In order to help a practitioner withdraw from one’s senses (pratyahara) and concentrate (dharana), pranayama techniques are vital to one’s progress in attaining inward meditative states.
Pranayama practices have been known for over 4000 years, but detailed practices primarily appear in writing the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Gheranda Samhita and Hatharatnavali, between the 5th and 6th centuries. There are many practices identified which could easily overwhelm and confuse.
A good starting point in working with breath techniques is to build a foundation utilizing first, an attention to breath. We take approximately 21, 600 breaths per day, or 900 per hour, although many of us are not even aware of this involuntary process.
A simple, and sometimes not-so-simple, technique might be to become aware of the breath at the nostril tips, ribs, or belly during inhalation and exhalation, with pointed concentration of nothing but breath awareness for 5-10 minutes. Unconscious breathing is controlled by medulla oblongata and conscious breathing is controlled by more evolved areas of the brain, at the cerebral cortex. To bring awareness to this process, transforms the involuntary to voluntary as well as from static to evolutionary. This transformation alone generally has an effect of calming one’s nervous system, reacting on the sympathetic nervous system.
Short, shallow or sharp breathing indicates an active, anxious or depressed mind, whereas long, deep breaths indicate a calm mind and attitude. During these receptive, relaxed states of being, without thought, is when the magic begins to happen.
Along with breath techniques, many yogis also practice with engaging bandhas (energetic locks), working with the koshas (energy sheaths) and/or chakras (energy vortices).
Yogis believe that the brain and its corresponding nervous system is controlled by the chakras and the nadis. If there is a blockage, then mental and physical stability decreases, and meditation is blocked as well.
Once you begin to understand that you can control your own beliefs and reactions, by reconditioning your mind, you will see how you are able to thereby, control your reality. Consciousness inward translates into consciousness outward. Moreover, stillness inward, in deep meditative states, connects you to the Divine, and with it a divine sense of ease and fulfillment and connectedness, of Whole. With control of prana, comes control of the monkey mind, and increased physical and mental health, concentration, harmony, relaxation and ease in your life.
Life is a meditative path. Yogis have some ‘far-out’ ways (as my teacher would say) to help you along, and pranayama is one of them.