Prana has many meanings - it is described by Dr. Vasant Lad as a life force created by Parusha and Prakriti. Parusha is defined as universal consciousness and Prakriti as primordial matter. Together these create PRANA (breath, giving life force) or pure awareness, “perception without recognition.” Within the wisdom traditions, Prana also is considered the bridge between birth and death, taking the first breath and exhaling the last breath as the markers of conscious existence.
Yama is considered to mean control. Prana (life energy) and yama, thus loosely translates to controlled breathing. But, as many point out, Pranayama may also be separated into prana and ayama. Where yama means to 'restrain' or 'control', ayama means the opposite, ‘length’, ‘expansion’, ‘suspension.’ Therefore, we can consider Pranayama not only as the controlling of the breaths of life energy, but also as the freeing of life energy.
Stabilizing Our Physical and Emotional States:
Pranayama is a breathing technique that helps to strengthen and clear our respiratory system - our lungs, our diaphragm, our upper respiratory organs. Practicing Pranayama regularly can also, by accessing the parasympathetic nervous system, assist in countering our all too frequently triggered fight or flight response. The fight or flight response is a reaction to threats, real or perceived, that results in a surge in cortisol which eventually can weaken our body. Pranayama is thus an excellent way to re-establish homeostasis.
But perhaps, more importantly, Pranayama, and other breathing techniques are also excellent emotional stabilizers. When we are angry, excited, enthusiastic or scared, our breathing changes. Practice sensing the reactions, and being mindful of those breathing changes, and learn to employ Pranayama technique. This awareness, coupled with technique, can actually effect positive change in your state of wellbeing.
Some other benefits:
Improves lung capacity
Lowers blood pressure
Strengthens abdominal muscles
Helps clear sinus issues
Many say the goal of Pranayama is to go within, to pull our senses inward and harness the energy of Prana from the belly button up the spine and out of the nose and mouth in a cleansing meditative state to enable mindful awareness.
Pranayama consists of four discernible stages:
Abhyantara kumbhaka (the mindful pause after inhalation)
Bahya Kumbhaka (the mindful pause after exhalation)
During each stage of the breath cycle, there is a combination of physical action and observation, followed by a mindful witnessing during the pause. Observe the inhalation sensation, pause to witness the inhalation and release the exhalation. Pause to resume. Each phase is to the count of four as a guideline. The aim is to have the duration of each phase consistent with all the other phases, and throughout the practice. Each person may differ in what they pay mind to; inhalation, or exhalation, or the still pauses at the top (inhale) or bottom (exhale).
Beginning the Practice:
Dirga Pranayama is a great way to first begin to connect with your breath, before moving onto the other pranayama techniques. It is a more energetic, flowing practice than the one described above. Dirga Pranayama is a three part breath: the low belly (just below belly button), the low chest (diaphragm, lower ribs), and the low throat (sternum, upper chest). Begin by inhaling through the low belly pulling it in, then expand into the chest, then pull up into the low throat. The exhale begins out through the throat, deepening into the chest, then down pulling into the low belly. You can use your hands to feel and encourage the isolation of each area, as you begin. Once you find the rhythm, relax into the cycle, and feel the flow of the breath moving. Once you are comfortable with this flow, begin to incorporate that awareness into the full Pranayama practice described.
During this time of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear - for ourselves and our loved ones - deepening our breathing practices, and being mindful of our breath throughout the day, can greatly assist in bringing relaxation to the body, and calm to the mind. Your body needs to breathe, so honor that work, and harness it for strength.