Prana-whata? Yea, that was my first thought when I heard the word pranayama for the very first time. Prana is the Sandskrit word for “vital life” and is understood as the life force energy that resides within each and every one of us. Pranic energy is that which sustains all life and does so through breath. Yama, the first limb of Patanjali’s eight-limbed yogic path, relates to our attitudes towards the outside world. Therefore, pranayama is the way in which we exercise control over this life force energy. The benefits of pranayama or breath retention are vast. Studies have shown that a regular pranayama practice has profound effects the nervous system in addition to the physical body. A daily pranayama practice can lower blood pressure, ease tension and stress by eliciting the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the relaxation response.
Who has time these days to sit cross-legged on a yoga mat for an hour each day? No one! No problem. It’s not the amount of time you practice pranayama that matters, it’s the quality and the consistency of your practice. How do you practice pranayama if you’ve never done it before? It’s as easy as these three steps:
STEP 1: Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit. You don’t have to sit on the floor with your legs crossed if it’s uncomfortable. If you experience any sort of physical discomfort during your pranayama practice it will be difficult to focus on the breath and instead of calming your mind you will only agitate it.
STEP 2: Ensure that wherever you choose to sit for your pranayama practice your spines remains elongated. Sitting up against a wall is a great idea because it will support your spine without you having to exert much effort. It’s important to keep your spine as long as possible during a pranayama practice because it creates an optimal connection between the brain and spine. If done correctly, people often report feeling “high” or euphoric after they practice. With each inhalation a properly aligned spine allows the pranic energy to spread throughout the body; therefore messages sent to and from the brain become crystal clear and experiences become richer after the pranayama session.
STEP 3: Close your eyes and start breathing! Focus your attention on the timing of your breath. Begin with a ratio of 1:2 meaning inhale through the nose for one count then exhale through nose for two counts. Beginners might find it easier to exhale through the mouth, but as you become more advanced inhaling and exhaling through the nose maximizes the benefits. As you become more advanced you can increase the timing so instead of a 1:2 ratio the ratio increases to 2:4 or 3:6 and so on.
If you have an iphone, ipad or an ipod touch you can download an application from the itunes store called Pranayama by Saagara where you can choose your own settings for your practice. You can choose how long you want to practice —anywhere between 5 minutes to 60 minutes—and choose your timing based on a 1:2 ratio. Once you’ve entered your settings and hit “ok” a graphic of a seated yogi appears on the screen. You will also see a transparent circle over the yogi graphic. When you are ready to begin your practice, press the play button you will hear audio that will guide your pranayama practice along with a visual aid dividing the circle into the appropriate timing for your inhales and exhales. You can personalize your settings by selecting music to guide you through the practice and you can personalize your breathing pattern choices also. It probably sounds a lot more complicated as you are reading this post but when you actually try playing with it you will see that it’s incredibly simple and very clever, especially for beginners. Additionally the Pranayama by Saagara application acts like a yoga instructor or yoga buddy for the lonely or intimidated practitioner. The toughest part of a pranayama practice is twofold: a) Literally sitting down and doing it; b) Practicing alone. Without question, the Pranayama by Saagara application’s functionality addresses any fears, concerns or hesitations a beginner practitioner might have. Five stars!