Pranayama sadhana changed my life…and in unexpected ways.
Pranayama is an ancient yoga practice codified in India that focuses on expanding (or controlling) Prana and is one limb of the eight limb path of Ashtanga yoga.1
In this post, we define Pranayama, describe the many benefits it has offered me, and offer easy steps for you to begin or rekindle your Pranayama practice.
What is Pranayama and why is it important?
Pranayama is the process or act of enhancing our awareness of prana – the energy that animates all life.
Prana is widely defined as “life force energy;” it's what breathes life into us. And this energy – Prana – exists in many forms.
Pranayama is the practice of enhancing your awareness of this life force or Prana. And developing or enhancing your ability to observe, manipulate, and exert control or mastery of it is the aim for devoted practitioners of yoga.
Pranayama is commonly referred to as ‘breathing practices’ and while in one small sense, that does describe the process, it really undermines the scope, the depth and the power of Pranayama as a practice.
Maharishi Patanjali extols that it is through Pranayama that “the mind attains fitness for concentrated awareness” (or Dharana) in Sutra II.53. 2 (Reference below)
As a pranayama practice, you build awareness of Prana and then use the breath as the vehicle of Prana, and with consistent practice done with devotion (i.e., Sadhana) mastery of the breath and Prana is achievable.
Mastery stems from a dedicated, consistent, and regular practice, the term in Sanskrit for this is Abhyasa.
Abhyasa is the combination of these three concepts applied to repetition and rhythm as part of a commitment to regular practice. This concept was coined by Parampujya Ammaji in the Gitananda Yoga tradition and elaborated beautifully by her son Yogacharya Dr. Anananda Balayogi Bhavanani here.
How can Pranayama benefit you?
Benefits of regular and rhythmic pranayama practice (Sanskrit term for this is sadhana) are many-fold and multi-dimensional. For context, I am devoted to studying and living Yoga. I was acquainted with and practiced Pranayama through multiple yoga programs and certifications that include three 200-hour programs and a 600-hour program. Most important to understanding my experience with these benefits is that I’m 18 months into a 2-year program for Pranayama in the Gitananda Yoga tradition.
Each of us is unique and multi-dimensional. There are many layers and in Yoga, we use a framework to describe these layers as kosha which is translated to mean “sheaths.” We'll now consider the benefits of Pranayama through four of these dimensions or koshas: physical, energetic, mental, and wisdom.
Our physical body – the organs and body systems is easiest to understand. In the yoga circle, we call the physical layer the “Annamaya Kosha.”
Physical benefits of Pranayama include:
- Improved respiratory health – increased oxygen supply to cells
- Greater respiratory capacity (access to and use of more of your lung volume)
- Improved ability to regulate your mood or responses to stressful situations
- Better sleep because you are breathing more efficiently and more fully
- More energy due to better rest and respiratory health
- Enhances overall vitality
In the physical body, benefits are many and they will say improving those with breathing difficulties either from a diagnosis or recovering from a respiratory ailment where you feel diminished. These are some of the first and most noticeable benefitsGeneral just efficiency in the functioning of your body systems.
The second sheath is our energetic body referred to as the “Pranamaya Kosha.” This is where the energy (i.e., Prana) flows through the body.
Energetic benefits of Pranayama include:
- Better sleep
- Sustained energy throughout the day via energy conservation (from above)
- Sense of greater calm and ease
Let’s consider our mental body – our thoughts and feelings. We refer to the mental body as the “Manomaya Kosha.” Your thoughts affect your energy which can affect your heart rate and blood glucose. As you see, these layers of being are deeply interconnected.
Benefits of pranayama for mental well-being are:
- Improved mental focus and clarity dramatically improved.
- Emotional balance and sense of harmony that creates a buffer so I’m less affected by the chaos and the ripples that we might experience in our daily lives. Much easier to navigate those choppy waters with practice with plenty of practice
We move now to a more subtle, yet pervasive aspect of our being – our wisdom body also called the “Vijnanamaya Kosha.” From the wisdom body, we perceive the world and our place in it as well as our relationships with self and others. Examples of self-perception can be seeing or understanding how you “fit in” with a community or circumstance or seeing your role in the bigger picture of life.
Benefits of Pranayama for personal wisdom are:
- Greater self-confidence and connection with our inner self
- Feeling stronger and having a greater sense of agency over your mental, emotional and physical well being. I know how to influence all of those things at the same time.
- Greater sense of self-acceptance and perception.
In conclusion, embracing pranayama as part of your yoga journey can bring about unexpected rewards for your physical well-being, energetic balance, mental clarity, and spiritual growth. An unanticipated powerful benefit of Pranayama has been easier and better management of my Type 1 diabetes – a chronic condition I strive to manage with grace.
My daily Pranayama sadhana has elevated my physical, mental, and emotional well-being, moved me along my spiritual path, and helped stabilize my blood glucose levels.
How to get started:
I invite you to explore Pranayama if you’re new to it or rekindle your practice if you took a break. If you’re new to it, start small.
Here are a few simple steps:
- Upon waking, spend three to five minutes with one hand on your heart, one hand at the low part of your ribcage.
- Enjoy a few conscious breaths in and out through your nose.
- Bring your awareness to the movement beneath the hands and lengthen the out breath or exhale.
Do this for yourself for seven days. Notice if starting your day this way makes a difference for you.
In the Rishiculture Ashtanga Gitananda Yoga tradition, there are > 100 pranayama practices that offer potent practices that build on one another. If you are interested in learning the foundational pranayama practices that I do daily, I will soon be offering a six week course with weekly practices as a group to foster your learning from this rich cultural yoga tradition. You’ll be able to create the perfect practice that fits your schedule and your needs.
1 Pranayama as one of eight limbs of yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, described by Maharishi Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras.
2 Bhavanani, Ananda Balayogi. 2011. Understanding the Yoga Darshan – An Exploration of the Yoga Sutra of Maharishi Patanjali. Dhivyananda Creations. Pondicherry, India. 374 pages. Available for purchase at https://icyer.in/product/yoga-darshan/.
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