Ashtanga Guideline – Pranayama

Pranayama’s approximate translation from Sanskrit is the extension of the life force. In lay terms, this is taken to mean regulation of the breath. Pranayama is the 4th of the 8 limbs of Ashthanga yoga. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali speaks of pranayama as a way of attaining a higher state of awareness. In modern wellness studies, pranayama is included in mindfulness practice. I understand it as the preparation for mental awareness, where you become the witness of your own thoughts.

There are over 100 types of pranic breathing exercises, each with their own physical and mental benefits. They are broadly divided into three types – smooth/quiet breathing, protracted/deep breathing and quick/fast breathing.

Pranic exercises should not be carried out lightly or without focus as they can cause damage if done incorrectly. Good posture and stillness are key and reduces distraction. Padmasana or Vajrasana are ideal, depending on which is more comfortable for the person. In prana, the retention phase allows more oxygen to be absorbed by the body.

There are five levels of prana:

  • Parana – gravitational force; head to sternum; a higher quality force; helps with sneezing and opening/closing the eyes
  • Samana – lower force, for the digestive system, from the sternum to the belly; causes burps and hiccups
  • Vyana – supplies pressure to legs and hands; causes blood movement in the hands and legs
  • Udana – pressure from the base to the top of the spine along the 7 chakras; low pressure but highly potent
  • Apana – lowest quality force, from the navel to the rectum; causes passing of wind

In our class, we learned Nadi Shodana, Bastrika, Kapalabati (which is a Kriya) and Sheetali/Sheekari pranic techniques. Each has their own physical and mental benefits, some are energizing, others are relaxing; some warm the body and others cool it down. I am particularly interested in Pranayama as it helps to build breath awareness and can be used as a life tool to both calm and sharpen the mind.

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