Prana - Pranayama
What is Prana?
What makes any motion possible: the blink of an eye, the budding of a flower, the splitting of atoms or the fall of a meteor? Thousands of years ago, the yogis living in the shadow of the Himalayas the inherent quality of the motion in creation and they called it prana. One may roughly translate the word prana as energy or vital force, but neither definition offer the precise equivalent of the Sanskrit term that emerged from the higher states of contemplation. The word prana assumes the quality of livingness. From the yogic point of view, the entire cosmos is alive, throbbing with prana.
Prana is ever present in every aspect of creation. The prana within every created object gives existence and material form, whether it is a planet, an asteroid, a blade of grass or a tree. If there were no prana there would be no existence. If prana were withdrawn from the universe, there would be total disintegration. All-beings, whether living to non-living, exist due to prana. Every manifestation in creation forms part of a never-ending matrix of energy particles, arranged in different densities, combinations and variations. The universal principle of prana may be in a static or dynamic state, but it is behind all existence on every plane of being from the highest to the lowest.
Play of Prana and Chitta
Both prana and consciousness must be present for life to exist. The conscious experience is chitta, that which takes one closer to the conscious experience is prana, and that which motivates prana is vasana, inherent desire. So, prana and vasana are the two supports of consciousness. A living being is called a prani, one who has prana and thus consciousness. It is not that consciousness is the cause of existence and prana the result, now is prana the cause of conciousness the result. They are two aspects of existence which determine the nature of everything.
Consciousness is being, awareness, knowledge; prana is becoming, manifestation through motion. Consciousness is a dormant experience whereas prana is the active principle of manifest energy. They are the two internal principles that are the basis of the macrocosmos and the microcosmos. Everything is a combination of prana and chitta. The entire universe, creation and existence are a play of consciousness and energy. The life force and mental force permeate every atom and cell of the universe, though remaining at different degrees of separation.
Benefits of Pranayama
Pranayama initiates a process in the physical body whereby the energy molecules and the mental forces which interact with one another in life and consciousness are transformed. When the molecules of mind are transformed, higher qualities such as love, compassion and unity arises. Matter is energy and, therefore, the physical body can be transformed into energy. The physical body is not merely a bundle of bone, marrow, nerves and mucuc. One must re-analyze and re-define what the body is and how far its transformation can be effected.
Can this body be turned into light particles? This must be considered in terms of science, not in terms of belief or faith. It this physical body can be transformed, if the molecules can undergo a state of metamorphosis, how is that achieved?
The answer is that the body is redress extremely subtle and pure through the process of yoga and accordingly transformed. Pranayama is a key method. When the yogic texts state that through pranayama one can control one`s circumstances and character and harmonise the individual life with comic life, they are referring to the power of pranayama to bring about such an intrinsic transformation.
The aspirant who practices pranayama in a sustained manner will find that every aspect of the being, at every level, is gradually being impacted. As one advances in the practices, the structure, the skin and the smell of the body begins to change. One is always full of fresh energy, and the senses are calmed and their outgoing tendency diminishes. Impurities are removed not only from the physical and prank bodies, but also from the mental, psychic and causal bodies. As a result, the intellectual capacity increases and the mind and thoughts become more powerful. As prana flows freely through all the levels of being, the negative tendencies begin to drop off almost automatically. The small things that could earlier spin one out of control dissolve into nothing, and the connection with and experience of cosmic prana becomes stronger and steadier.
Awakening of vital energy
Digestive and eliminatory system
Experience of higher consciousness
Purification of Nadis and Chakra system
Bandhas are a series of internal energy gates within the subtle body which assist in the regulation of the pranic flow. There is 3 which we will speak about.
These are : Mulabandha, Uddiyana Bandha & Jalandhara Bandha
You may think of them as valves which work similarly to the valves within the circulatory system. Bandhas regulate the flow of prana ( life-force) in a similar way within the subtle energy channels known as nadis.
When engaging the locks, energy is forced to spread throughout these pathways. We are then able to assimilate this energy on a cellular level as the prana bathes and feeds our subtle body and balances the gross of the nervous system.
Mula bandha is the root lock. It so called because of its location at the base of our nerve tree, the spinal column.
There is a difference of location for this bandha in males and females.
In males the seat of Mulabandha is the perineal muscle which is located in front of the anus and behind the genitals.
In females the location is near the top of the cervix.
A good way to understand its location is to imagine that you have a need to go to the toilet and there is none in sight. Which muscles would you use to resist this urge?
In the beginning one may contract the anus in order to engage Mulabandha. This is more subtle than that. This technique is also given to women to assist in the toning of the pelvic floor after childbirth. It is called the Keigel technique.
You can practice this while urinating by engaging the muscles of the pelvic floor and stopping the flow of urine and then release the contraction and let it flow again. This contraction will engage more muscles than necessary but over time you may learn to refine the action so that it’s more specifically focused.
In the beginning these locks may waver.
With practice it will become possible to hold them for the entire duration of each yoga practice.
Uddiyana Bandha (lock)
The second lock is Uddiyana Bandha, means flying up. In its complete expression, Uddiyana Bandha is performed by exhaling fully and then drawing the lower belly inward and upward while simultaneously lifting up the diaphragm.
This level of uddiyana is primarly utilized during the exhale retention phase of specialized breath control methods known as pranayama.
This full level of engagement is not possible to maintain throughout practice due to the inability to inhale while total uddiyana bandha is engaged.
The level of uddiyana we should hold for the duration of our practice is more subtle. Rather than sucking in the belly fully, we must instead simply maintain a stillness located three fingers below the navel.
This will allow space for the diaphragm to drop during each inhale and the lung’s expansion will find its way into the side ribs, back and chest.
The upper portions of the torso must remain soft so that the inhale expansion may occur to its fullest expression.
Upon each exhale the lower abdominal muscles may contract and encourage a total emptying of the lungs.
This contraction must then be released in order for the inhale to repeat fully, yet not relaxed so much that the lower belly rises with the incoming breath.
The action is subtle. Don’t over do it.
There is a visual exercise to assist you in further understanding this bandha. Imagine that you have a string which is attached two inches below the navel. Take that string and draw it straight through the body and tie it around the spine. Now when you inhale the lower belly will remain still and you will maintain freedom in the upper torso.
These bandhas (locks) are a subtle dynamic, that may take many years to understand. Be patient. Don’t worry if you don’t get it right away. In time they will come. Just as mulabandha, Uddiyana bandha should eventually be held for the duration of the practice.
Jalandhara bandha is the third lock to discuss. It is the chin-lock. This lock is not utilized as frequently as the other two. It occurs spontaneously in some asanas such as shoulder stand .
It is however, used extensively for pranayama. To engage jalandhara bandha you may extend the chin forward and then draw it back into the notch which is formed where the two clavicle bones meet, at the bony protrusions below your adam’s apple.
When engaging all the three bandhas simultaneously it is called “mahabandha” or the great lock.
Bandhas cannot be understood through mental powers. Understanding of them will grow from these early seeds of awareness as personal practice develops.