“Prana” is a Sanskrit word that refers to energy. It’s not the energy that we normally think of, such as the energy that comes from a battery or power plant; it’s a much more subtle form of energy that runs throughout our bodies. You can think of it as “life force.” In Yoga, the word “prana” is used, but the same concept is present in many forms of philosophy, religion and medicine that arose in Asia. In Chinese medicine, it’s called “chi” or “qi.” In some forms of Buddhism, it’s translated as “energy wind” or “inner wind.” Regardless of what it’s called, moving, strengthening and cleansing our prana is one of the primary goals, if not the primary goal, of Yoga – not to mention the goal of Tai Chi, Qigong, acupuncture, Reiki, some forms of massage and meditative practices.
“Yama” has many meanings, but we may think of a control or self-restraint, such as the Yamas mentioned in the Yoga Sutras. “Ayam” is also a Sanskrit word. It means extending or drawing out. Put together, pranayam or pranayama refers to a family of breathing techniques practiced in Yoga that are designed to regulate one’s energy level in order to improve physical and mental health. For those interested in the more spiritual side of Yoga, pranayama opens a doorway into our more spiritual nature, by opening the mind and body connection. In some forms of Yoga, pranayama is practiced in conjunction with mantra recitation and other forms of meditation.
Pranayama with a Different Face
In martial arts, chi cultivation (a form of pranayama) is practiced to harness power in many ways. Chi cultivation is essential in all martial arts. One of the methods is to stand in a Horse Stance, which any Yoga practitioner would recognize as being similar to Goddess Pose (Utkata Konasana). The point is to cultivate energy and try to forget the physical burden placed on the legs. In some styles of Kung Fu, masters would use this as a test of patience for beginners. Those who became frustrated easily would leave and claim they learned nothing, but those who did not give up became students.
Benefits of Pranayama as a Science
Before you dismiss pranayama as yet another strange, mystic thing, consider some of the recent studies that have confirmed the benefits of pranayama breathing:
• Researchers at the Nepal Medical College found that slow-paced pranayama breathing, for just five minutes, had the effect of lowering blood pressure and heart rate. Their study was published in 2009, in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, a peer-reviewed medical journal.
• In a 2010 article, published in the Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, researchers demonstrated that pranayama breathing actually increased hand grip strength in children, who practiced the breathing techniques for two weeks.
• One of the sad side effects of some forms of diabetes is decreased cognitive functioning. In May 2010, Indian researchers published a study in the Indian Journal of Medical Research, in which they looked at the effects of a combination of pranayama and Yoga asana on cognitive brain function in patients with type 2 diabetes. The researchers found “statistically significant” improvements in the group of patients, treated with both conventional medicine, as well as pranayama and Yoga asana.
Mastering prana cultivation is not complicated for Yoga teachers, but the general public should seek out supervision from a competent teacher. Without guidance and supervision, dynamic forms of pranayama can be harmful. Some people, with medical conditions, should not practice dynamic forms of pranayama at all. Therefore, it is suggested that students learn the basics first before going on to more complicated techniques. The rewards are priceless, but the basics of pranayama require guidance, supervision, patience, practice, study, and more practice. If one pushes forward, and skips one of these steps, there is room for error and self-harm.
Have you had your own experiences that prove the benefits of pranayama practice? Please share your story in the comments section below.
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