Prana is the first root word of pranayama. The second is ayama, which means to extend or expand. So, in pranayama we extend and expand our life energy by extending and expanding our breath. Some ancient texts claim that we are born with our breaths already numbered, and that by slowing down our breathing we are extending our time in this cycle.
How Pranayama Works, Mystically Speaking
Here’s why. There is a central channel, called the sushumna. When prana flows through the sushumna we experience enlightenment. However, in most of us the kundalini (spiritual energy) lies coiled at the base of this channel. This dormant spiritual energy blocks the prana from entering the central channel and forces it to take an alternate route, through the ida nadi on the left and pingala nadi on the right.
The ida is associated with the left side of the body, the feminine, and the moon. Very much like yin.
The pingala is associated with the right side, the masculine, and the sun. Very much like yang.
These two nadis spiral up the outside of the central channel, and where they cross they create pools or eddies of energy called chakras.
The ida, the pingala, and the chakras represent different facets of our personalities. Pranayama (and in fact all of Hatha Yoga) is the art and science of balancing the right and left channels, opening the chakras, and awakening our spiritual energy, the kundalini, thereby allowing it to move up through the sushumna so we can attain spiritual liberation. (You can find a more thorough introduction to the subtle body here.)
There has been a lot of solid scientific research done on pranayama and meditation over the last half century. The Institute of Noetic Science database of meditation research has more than 6000 entries! The results are unambiguously and overwhelmingly in favor of these breathing/concentration exercises being good for your body and your brain. Check out The Neurobiology of Meditation for more.
How Pranayama Works, Scientifically Speaking
A Place to Begin, Abdominal Breathing
In the Gheranda Samhita it says to "fill the belly with air." That isn't what's really happening. Really, we are filling the lower lobes of the lungs so that the diaphragm presses down and makes the abdomen expand.
The best position to learn this method is lying down. Later, you'll be able to use it anywhere, any time. But for now, lay down on your back and get comfortable. Place your hands on your abdomen with your middle fingers pointing toward your navel.
Let a few breaths come and go. Just watch without trying to change anything. Then gently let the movement of your breathing go down into your belly. Witness your hands gently rise and fall as your abdomen expands on your inhale and contracts on your exhale. Let your chest become nearly still.
Spend a few minutes here. Work up to five and then ten minutes at a stretch. When your thoughts wander away from the experience of your breath, notice. Then let go of your thoughts, set them aside. Come back to your breath and to your body.
That's it! At first it will seem much easier said than done. But eventually you'll find this a very restful practice. And as you practice, you'll be expanding your lung capacity and preparing yourself both physically and mentally for other types of pranayama.
In future posts, I will describe other basic forms of pranayama. If you’re in Tucson, you don’t have to wait. I’m offering “Breathing and Being: an Introduction to Pranayama and Samyama” 26 July, 3 – 4:30, at Mindful Yoga East. Find more information here.