Exploring the HEALTH BENEFITS OF PRANAYAMA

  • By Yogacharya Dr Ananda Balayogi
  • March 9 2020
  • 2948 views
  • Article gives the importance of Pranayam in Yog Sadhana and benefits of Pranayam.

Pranayama consists of two of words Prana and Ayama. Prana is the vital life force that acts as a catalyst in all our activities and Ayama the enhancement of our awareness of this Universal Energy. Thus, Pranayama can be defined as the science of controlled, conscious expansion of the awareness of Prana in our energy sheath, the Pranamaya Kosha.

 

Gurus of Vedic times placed great importance on Pranayama and advocated its practice in order to unleash the hidden potential energy known as the Kundalini Shakti. Indian culture has always laid great emphasis on Prana and Pranayama.

 

Ancient texts say, “God is breath” as well as “Breath is life and life is breath”. Atharva Veda even states, “Prana is the fundamental basis of whatever is, was and will be”. In the Prasnopanishad we can find the following statement. “All that exists in all the three worlds is under the governance of Prana”. It is said in the Shiva-Svarodaya, “The Prana (life force) verily is one’s greatest friend, companion and there is no greater kinsman than the life force”. In the Yoga-Vashistha, Sage Vashistha says that when the energy of the life force (Prana) is restricted, then the mind dissolves, like a shadow of a thing when the thing is absent. 

 

Importance of Pranayama in Yoga Sadhana

 

The systematic practice of Yoga as codified by Maharishi Patanjali places Pranayama as the fourth limb or Anga of Ashtanga Yoga. He puts it above the Yama-Niyama and Asana and says that one must practice the Yama-Niyama and try to master Asana in order to be able to practice Pranayama. He defines Pranayama as ‘The regulation of the movements of inhalation and exhalation’. 

 

He also states that by the practice of Pranayama, the darkness that hides the light of wisdom is destroyed. He goes on to advise us that our mind attains fitness for the Samyama practices (of Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi) through perfection in Pranayama. Patanjali has said that Pranayama is regulated by place, time and number meaning that at various times in our Yoga Sadhana, different Pranayamas are required to be practiced in order to attain the ultimate spiritual goal of Moksha. Rishi Gheranda devotes an entire chapter (fifth) out of seven to the discussion of Pranayama in his Gheranda Samhita.

 

Gheranda advocates that Pranayama Sadhana be begun either in Vasanta (spring) or Sarat (autumn) to achieve success. He stresses moderation in diet for Pranayama Sadhana and says, “Half the stomach should be filled with food, one quarter with water and the other quarter left empty for practice of Pranayama”. Rishi Gheranda also advises that Pranayama should be practised facing either East or North and that the Nadis must be purified by either Samanu (using the Bija Mantras) or Nirmanu (using Shat Karmas) methods before Pranayama. 

 

Maharishi Gheranda lists the following eight Kumbhakas (Pranayamas) as important in Pranayama Sadhana: Sahita, Surya Bhedana, Ujjayi, Sitali, Bhastrika, Brahmari, Murccha and Kevali Kumbhaka. In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Swatmarama says, ‘Disturbed breath leads to a disturbed mind, hence, cultivate a steady and quiet breath in order to control the mind and prolong the life”. 

 

He also says “The Lord of the senses is the mind, the Lord of the mind is the breath; the master of breath is the nervous system; quietness of the nerves and concentration depend solely on the steady, smooth and rhythmic sound of the inhalation and exhalation”. 

 

He lists the important Kumbhakas or Pranayamas as Surya Bhedana, Ujjayi, Sitkari, Sitali, Bhastrika, Brahmari, Murccha and Plavini. He also warns us that, though Pranayama can cure all diseases, it may cause a multitude of problems if performed wrongly.

 

Views on Pranayama by Eminent Yoga Masters

 

Yogamaharishi Dr. Swami Gitananda Giri has said that Prana needs water and moves over water. This explains why ancient Yogis lived near the water bodies. He used to stress the importance of proper diet and pure lifestyle in Pranayama Sadhana. If the mind is concentrated with Ekagratha on higher positive thoughts, then the Pranic forces will be powerful and manifestation of these thoughts will be even greater. Swamiji taught more than 120 Pranayamas in the Rishiculture Astanga Yoga system and classified Pranayamas as follows -

YOGA PRANAYAMAS or ADHAMAS comprising of Pranayamas useful in correction of breathing difficulties, cleansing of the respiratory system, toning up the nervous system and strengthening the mind. For e.g. Vibhaga, Bhastrika, Kapalabhati, Shetali and Sitkari Pranayamas

SAMYAMA PRANAYAMAS or MADYAMAS comprising of Pranayamas that are an introspective means to attain sensory control, sensory withdrawal, concentration and meditation. For e.g. Brahmari, Pranava and Savitri Pranayamas.

 

SHAKTI PRANAYAMAS or UTTAMAS that are the higher Pranayamas useful in arousal of the dormant, potential Force known as the Kundalini Shakti.  For e.g. Ujjayi and Surya Bhedana Pranayamas.

 

Padma Bhushan BKS Iyengar in his book Light on Pranayama says, “Pranayama has taught me to be punctual and disciplined despite hardships.” He also defines Pranayama as the science of breath and says that it is the hub round which life revolves. 

 

In his book Light on Yoga, he explains the following interesting analogy. “The mind is like a chariot drawn by two horses that are Prana and Vasana (desires). The chariot moves in the direction of the stronger force and so if the breath prevails, the desires are controlled, senses held in check and the mind is stilled. On the other hand if desire prevails, breath is in disarray and the mind is agitated and troubled.”

 

Sri IK Taimni in his book The Science of Yoga says, “Prana is the vital life force that connects matter with energy and mind with consciousness.” He claims that the Chittavrittis can be controlled through the manipulation of Pranic currents using the art and science of Pranayama. 

 

He emphasizes that Yama and Niyama must be practiced and Asana mastered before embarking on the Pranayama Sadhana. This is because, Pranayama can awaken the potential energy of Kundalini and if the Sadhak is not ready physically and mentally; they may suffer physical and psychological disturbances and may even go out of their mind.

 

Swami Rama of the Himalayas claims that for Hatha Yogis, Pranayama is the final way of liberation. He says “For the Raja Yogis, Pranayama is an important step to awaken the Sushumna leading to the state of deep Dhyana and ultimately the arousal of Kundalini Shakti.”

 

Benefits of Pranayama on Health and Wellbeing

 

Overall health and well-being

According to the Hatha Pradipika, when the nerves are purified by Pranayama the body becomes slender and lustrous, gastric fire increases, inner sounds are heard and excellent health is attained.

 

Yogi Swatmarama says that Surya Bhedana purifies the sinuses, cures Vata disorders and removes worms. Ujjayi is said to cure the disorders of phlegm as and of the Dhatus (humors). He says that Sitkari creates an enviable condition of body where there is no hunger, thirst, sleep or lassitude. Shetali relieves colic, spleenomegaly, fever and bile disorders. He also states that hunger and thirst we alleviated and even the most dangerous of poisons are neutralized. Bhastrika has the capacity to cure disorders of phlegm, bile and gas and helps to increase the gastric fire.

 

Brain Function

Memory, intelligence and creativity are enhanced through the practice of Pranayama. This is of great value in children as it helps them to realise and actualize their inherent potential in all walks of life. Yogic breathing through single nostril also increases spatial scores, speed of mental processing and dexterity of the tasks.

 

Mukh Bhastrika improves the speed of reaction and this is useful in mentally challenged children who have a delayed reaction time. Pranayama produces an improvement of neural function at both central and peripheral levels of the nervous system and also produces a balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic aspects of the autonomic nervous system. This homeostatic ‘Samatvam’ is of use to combat stress disorders that are the scrooge of modern man. 

 

Pranayamas such as Nadi Shuddhi and Nadi Shoddhana are important for cleansing the nervous system and it is said that Nadi Shuddhi can cleanse all the 72, 000 Nadis. Just as water, when run in opposite directions cleanses the water pipe, the process of breathing in the opposite nostrils leads to turbulence and cleansing of the nervous system. Right nostril breathing influences the left brain while left nostril breathing the right brain function. Right brain is the creative, artistic, intuitive aspect whereas left brain the analytical and calculating aspect of our personality.

 

Thus, alternate nostril Pranayamas such as Nadi Shuddhi, Nadi Shoddhana, Loma Viloma and Aloma Viloma help cerebral cleansing and the creation of a balanced personality. As these alternate-nostril-breathing techniques stimulate different divisions of the central and autonomic nervous systems, they have useful implications in treating psycho physiological disorders associated with hemispheric and autonomic imbalance. 

 

Spatial performance of males is better during right nostril breathing and verbal performance better during left nostril breathing. In females spatial performance is better during left nostril breathing. Thus, many learning disabilities can be treated using such Pranayama.

 

Emotional health

Emotions and breath are known to have a deep relationship. Animals such as the rat and rabbit have fast breathing and so are extremely nervous, mentally unstable, and emotionally restless and live only for short periods of time. In contrast, the elephant and turtle are slow, deep breathers and consequently have calmer personality and longer lives.

 

Conscious, deep and regular breathing can synchronise and reinforce inherent cardiovascular rhythms and modify baroreflex sensitivity. This may be attained by practice of Pranayamas such as Ujjayi, Savitri, Sukha, Sukha Purvaka and Pranava Pranayamas.

 

Autonomic and metabolic function

Right nostril breathing correlates with the activity phase of the basic rest activity cycle, it activates the sympathetic nervous system as shown by an increase in the oxygen consumption whereas left nostril breathing decreases sympathetic activity as manifested by an increase in volar galvanic skin resistance. 

 

Surya Pranayama results in correction of low blood pressure to normal levels, increased heart rate, increased skin conductance and increased body temperature. This also significantly increases metabolism and this is very useful in obesity and hypothyroidism.  Right nostril breathing significantly increases blood glucose levels, whereas left nostril breathing lowers it and this is useful in understanding the mechanism by which Chandra Pranayama helps the diabetic patient.

 

Chandra Pranayama produces a decrease in systolic, diastolic and mean blood pressures and this can be used as a prophylactic means to combat rises in blood pressure associated with everyday stress and strain of life.  Left nostril breathing produces a significant increase in the baseline GSR suggestive of reduced sympathetic activity to the palmer sweat glands. This helps us understand the mechanism by which Chandra Pranayama helps to reduce blood pressure of hypertensives.

 

As diabetes mellitus and hypertension coexist in a vast majority of patients, Chandra Pranayama can be used in such patients with great benefit to reduce both blood sugar as well as blood pressure.

 

Circulation

Yogic breathing involves improvement in oxygen consumption with better oxygen delivery, utilization and minimal energy expenditure. A higher work rate with reduced oxygen consumption per unit of work without increase in blood lactate levels has been reported. There is an accompanied increase in peripheral blood flow, along with a decrease in body weight. This is beneficial to patients suffering from diminished peripheral circulation and intermittent claudication.  Regular and continuous use of any muscle prevents fat deposition, increases flexibility and heightens performance.

 

Ujjayi with long and short Kumbhaka (breath holding) may exert its effects by alterations in the skeletal muscle activity, autonomic discharge, and cerebral blood flow.  This is useful in treating geriatric patients who have impaired cerebral circulation. It is also useful in treating patients who are unable to do more vigorous practices.

 

Exercise and altitude tolerance 

Slow breathing rate of Pranayama substantially reduces chemo reflex sensitivity and long-term practice leads to a generalised reduction in chemo reflex. This type of training can be useful in those who have to work at high altitude as well as divers. Patients of breathlessness and laboured breathing can also benefit from such training.

 

Breathing disorders and lung function

Kapalabhati produces an increase in the low frequency and decrease in the high frequency band of the heart rate variability spectrum indicating increased sympathetic activity. This may help Asthmatic patients for whom sympathomimetic drugs are life-saving in acute asthma. It is also useful in stimulating depressed patients and those suffering from disorders of excessive sleep such as narcolepsy.

 

Lung function has been reported to improve in numerous studies after Pranayama training and the benefits include prolongation of breath holding time with increase in Forced Vital Capacity (FVC), Forced Vital Capacity in first second (FEV1), Maximum Voluntary Ventilation (MVV), Peak Expiratory Flow Rate (PEFR) and lowered respiratory rate. Patients of chronic lung diseases such as asthma, emphysema and bronchitis can derive immense benefit from these changes in lung function.

 

Relaxation

Breathing is the key to bridging the gap between body and mind is of vital importance in treating psychosomatic disorders.

 

Savitri Pranayama produces a relaxant effect on the cardiovascular system and is extremely useful in hypertension as well as coronary artery disease. The long-term manipulation of breathing by practicing slow deep breathing results in the overstretching of pulmonary stretch receptors and this chronic manipulation may result in vagus blockage, thereby decreasing vagal manipulation. This also leads to a re-conditioning or re-learning of a healthy pattern of breathing with ample tidal volume and a slow rate. Abdominal breathing is correlated with better and more profound relaxation in any schedule of relaxation.

 

Savitri Pranayama when performed in Shavasana produces deep relaxation and this helps alleviate the stress in many psychosomatic disorders such as hypertension, irritable bowel syndrome, peptic ulcer and asthma.

 

In Conclusion

 

Pranayama has immense therapeutic potential in a wide range of psychosomatic disorders and can be used either as a monotherapy or in combination with Asanas and other aspects of Yoga. Importance must also be placed on right diet and right attitude while practicing Pranayama, as the body needs raw materials such as vitamins, minerals and water to heal itself through Pranayama.

 

Pranayama is of vital importance in the Yoga Sadhana or Yogic discipline of any sincere Sadhak who is trying to achieve the state of Yoga. Unless the mind is controlled, the higher aspects of Yoga are not possible and the best and only way to really control the mind is by regular, dedicated and determined practice of Pranayama with awareness, consciousness and purity of thought, word and deed.

 

Pranayama practise can only be possible if the field has been prepared by the sincere practice of the Yama, Niyama and Asana that are necessary preludes to Pranayama Sadhana.

 

Author is Director CYTER and Professor Yoga Therapy, Sri Balaji Vidyapeeth, Pondicherry, Indiawww.sbvu.ac.in/cyter

 

To read all articles by author

 

Also read

1. Essence of Pranayanama

2. Commentary on Prasna Upanishad

3. Surya Nadi Pranayama (Right Nostril Breathing)

4. Chandra Nadi Pranayama (Left Nostril Breathing)

 

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