Prana is the life force which permeates the whole universe. You have heard of it before under different names: ‘Chi’ from Chinese acupuncture and healing systems, ‘The Force’ from Star Wars and quite simply ‘Energy’.
The aim is to retain as much prana inside the body as possible. We are all looking for vitality; stored energy that exudes from healthy people. We can retain more prana in the body by breath control – ‘pranayama’. Pranayama is one of the eight limbs of yoga – it is just as important as asana (physical) practice and meditation. There are many different breathing exercises you can do which aren’t outlined here but feel free to message me or ask me in class.
In everyday life we are faced with stresses and tensions in the physical body as well as the mind and these affect our breathing. Most of us take around 14 to 20 breaths per minute compared to an ideal 5 or 6 breaths says Patricia Gerbarg, MD, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College.
We have all noticed that when we are angry or stressed our breathing gets fast and shallow. This happens as a result of the fight or flight response to stress controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. It makes sense on an evolutionary level to escape or fight threats such as lions or rival tribes but once again evolution gets us into a tight spot in modern life.
Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School states that a collection of studies have found that it also works the other way around. Changing how we breathe affects the nervous system. If we breathe deeper and slower we stimulate the rest and restore response controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system.
For this reason a regular pranayama practice can help to train the parasympathetic response of the body so that we can reduce that all too common feeling of stress in the body. Simply breathing deeply stimulates the diaphragm which causes the body to release hormones to counteract stress.
If you don’t manage to fit pranayama into your daily practice just bear it in mind for those times when you feel tension in your body or mind as stress or anger.
Philosophy / Spirituality
Prana is believed to flow through the body through channels called nadis in a similar way to how blood flows through arteries and veins. Although unproven there are supposedly 72,000 nadis in the body, some of which have been mapped out by ancient yogis in complicated diagrams like the one below.
To make it a bit simpler there are three major nadi’s in the body. The Sushumna flows straight from the bases of the spine to the top of the head. The other two (Ida and Pingala) weave around and through the Sushmna in a helix all intersecting at energy centres called chakras. I have written a blog on chakras here.
The general gist is that once the two weaving nadi’s are clear of stagnation and flowing freely and equally then the Sushumna can work it’s magic. It is believed that at this time a dormant energy which lies curled up like a snake at the bottom of the spine can begin to rise up towards the top of the head. This energy is called the kundalini. There are many different accounts of what happens when the kundalini is awakened, in some cases blissful enlightenment and in others death or madness.
Kundalini awakening is rare and I’m in no means an expert in it. However if you are experienced in your spiritual practice and want to gain enlightenment do your reading and research and be careful!
Happy breathing everyone!