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Monday, October 24, 2011

Pranayama

Breath. It’s the first thing we take when we come into this world. It’s the one thing we continue to take constantly throughout our life – without even noticing it. Human beings can live without food and water for several days, but will die if deprived of air for more than a few minutes.


The breath is the all-important element in sustaining life. Our breath cleanses our bodies, brings balance to our chemical processes – regulates our hormones and can help us recover from a multitude of illnesses. Every breath that we take in, brings in cleansing oxygen to our bodies and every exhalation throws out carbon dioxide and a host of toxins. Almost 70% of toxins leave our bodies through our breath. Small wonder then, that ancient Indian knowledge focused on ways to control and sustain this vital force in our bodies in the best way possible. The Indian systems of Yoga and Ayurveda have constantly recommended breathing exercises for good health and longevity. Referred to as ‘Pranayama’, – there are several types of these breathing exercises that Yoga masters have formulated.

‘Pranayama’ means ‘extension/control of the Life Force’ (Prana – Life force; Ayama – to draw out, extend or control). The Yoga Sutras say that pranayama is a way to attain higher states of awareness. By doing pranayama, one achieves a balance in the upward and downward flowing energy in the human body – which brings a balance of good health to the mind as well as body. Generally our inward and outward breath flows through our bodies involuntarily – it’s something we do thoughtlessly. The tradition of Yoga says that when this activity is done with more awareness and various techniques of control, then our vital life force can be made more balanced.

Studies have shown that the way we breathe contributes to our bodily functions. We are told to take long deep breaths when we are disturbed or anxious. Deep breaths calm us down when we are angry. Our breath is directly connected with influencing our mental states. Pranayama exercises have been designed with one intention in mind – to inspire, infuse, control, regulate and balance the ‘prana’ (vital life force) that keeps our bodies alive. It is the one exercise that can improve all life processes.

There are about seventy types of pranayamas mentioned in traditional texts. The tradition of Hatha Yoga focuses on eight types of Pranayama – Kapalbhati, Agnisar, Bhastrika, Ujjayee, Bhramari, Nadi Shodhana (Anuloma-Viloma), Sheetali, Sheetakari and Surya Bhedan. If you have been to a yoga class, it is very likely that you have done two of these – Kapalbhati and Nadi Shodhana.  This is probably because these two done in tandem, can bring about the best healing results with regards to chronic diseases.
Article by Reba Paul @ The Health cafe " Lets Talk Health" - October 2011.


Kapalbhati – Lustre to the Face
Popularized by Baba Ramdev in recent times – this is the breathing exercise where you take a deep breath and then forcefully expel it by strongly contracting your diaphragm repeatedly. Oxygen consumption increases, carbon dioxide is flushed out. Kapalbhati has been found to de-stress the mind, and bring calmness and clarity to the practitioner. Found to be extremely beneficial for warding off respiratory illnesses from colds to tuberculosis and emphysema; remedies stomach ailments, strengthens circulatory system; stimulates and regulates hormones; invigorates, cleanses and revitalizes brain cells. It also helps in weight loss and counteracts depression.To be done twice daily for best results.
Warning: To be practiced on an empty stomach, to be done gently and increased gradually by chronic disease patients; should only be done with expert supervision by patients suffering from heart disease, high B.P., spondylosis, slip disc and hernia; should be avoided during pregnancy and periods.

Agnisar – The Essence of Fire
In Agnisar – the stomach is withdrawn towards the backbone as far as possible repeatedly. This is done after all of the breath has been expelled from the lungs. The practitioner holds the breath while doing several such contractions. This cleansing pranayama strengthens the fire within our bodies – which is crucial to the functioning of the digestive system. It improves vitality in the body, awakening our inner energy and strengthening the internal organs. It is said to cure asthma and tuberculosis as well as a host of phlegm-related problems. Healthy women are advised to do this pranayama after childbirth as it helps to tighten up the abdominal and pelvic muscles and bring the internal organs back to their initial condition. Agnisar makes our digestive organs function optimally – ensuring that the foundation for good health is strong within our bodies.
Warning: Not to be done on a full stomach; not to be done by people with high B.P., heart problems, ulcers and hernia; pregnant women should also avoid this, as should people with ear, nose and eye problems.

Bhastrika – Bellows Breath
As the name suggests – the Bellows Breath is where you intake and expel the air from your lungs forcefully  – similar to the air pushed in and out of the bellows. This is a powerful exercise that is basically a state of controlled hyperventilation. Bhastrika increases warmth in the body;destroys phlegm (thus working against asthma, sinusitis etc.); it eliminates wind, bile and phlegm related diseases; it activates and invigorates the liver, pancreas and spleen and also stimulates the metabolic rate.
Warning: Not to be done if you are pregnant or suffering from high B.P.

Ujjayi – Victorious Breath
In the Ujjayi, one’s throat is constricted and the breath is inhaled through the nose, with a hissing sound – like a sigh with the mouth closed; holding the breath for a few seconds before exhaling deeply. According to B.K.S. Iyengar, “this pranayama aerates the lungs, removes phlegm, gives endurance, soothes the nerves and tones the entire system. Ujjayi done in a reclining position, is ideal for persons suffering from high blood pressure and coronary troubles.” This pranayama is said to be a miracle remedy for thyroid problems, cures snoring, is beneficial in healing throat problems – including asthma, tonsils, colds and coughs.

Bhramari – Humming Bee Breath
This pranayama exercise has the practitioner making a sound while inhaling and exhaling – usually an ‘Om’ is chanted with the ‘m’ drawn out. This exercise is said to work miracles in healing throat problems. It calms the mind, elevates the mood and reduces stress; it is also beneficial in reducing anger, anxiety, insomnia and blood pressure.  Practitioners experience a speeding up of healing and great post-surgery benefits from this breathing.

Nadi Shodhana/ Anuloma-Viloma – Alternate Nostril Breathing
One of the most popular pranayama exercises – the practitioner breathes in through the right nostril, holds the breath and then exhales through the left, repeating the process through the other nostril. It is only recently that scientists have discovered a connection between the nasal cycle and brain function. Yogis have known this for years. It is to bring a balance to the left and right brain hemispheres that this pranayama was designed. This is reputedly one of the most beneficial of all breathing exercises – infusing the blood with oxygen, revitalizing and purifying the body. The practitioner feels clear headed and calm. It detoxifies the blood, calms the mind and soothes anxieties. The millions of nerves or ‘nadis’ contained in our body are purified with this technique. The main purpose of this pranayama is to balance the dual forces of physical and mental energy in the practitioner’s body.
It is highly recommended for individuals who suffer from depression, insomnia, hypertension, high B.P., heart problems, fits of anger and Parkinsons.

Sheetali and Sheetakari – Beat the Heat
These pranayamas are the cooling breath, used during the hot Indian summers to cool and calm the body and mind. Sheetali is done by sticking the tongue out, curling up the sides like a tube and breathing in through this appendage, and breathing out through the nose. In Sheetkari the tongue is placed at the base of the upper teeth, with jaw gently closed and lips slightly parted – inhaling through the teeth, with a hissing sound. Apart from regulating the temperature of the body, these techniques also reduce emotional excitation and tensions. Sheetali refreshes the body, mind and also aids blood purification. It is good for combating high B.P., constipation, indigestion, acidity, ulcer, skin disease and spleen enlargement. It is said that a regular practitioner will be safe from poison and viral infections. Sheetkari improves the disposition – keeping you agile, in high spirits and active throughout the day. It relieves hunger and thirst and clears the complexion – slowing down the appearance of wrinkles and blemishes.
Warning: Avoid this exercise during cold weather, and when you have a cold, cough and other respiratory illnesses. Arthritis or low B.P.  and heart patients should consult a doctor or yoga expert before doing this.

Surya Bheda – Activating the Sun
This pranayama technique focuses on breathing exclusively through the right nostril. The right nostril is considered to be the doorway to the Sun energy in our body. By activating this energy, the body is supported to fight against ‘Vata’ diseases; gas in the abdomen, rhinitis and different kinds of neuralgia. It awakens Kundalini and steadies the concentration of the mind. It increases the digestive fire and appetite and purifies the nerves.
Warning: Should be avoided if one is suffering from fever or diarrhea. People with heart disease, epilepsy, hypertension and high Pitta or acidity should not do this pranayama.
As you can see, incorporating pranayama into your daily routine can be extremely beneficial to long term health. It can be used to correct a variety of ailments. More importantly, if you are healthy right now, starting a breathing routine can be crucial in safeguarding you from going the usual route of ‘decaying with age’.

Pranayama helps you regularize and lower your breathing rate – which is supposed to determine how long you live. The understanding is that the less number of breath you take, the longer you live. It improves blood circulation, meaning that more oxygen is available in your body. This ensures vitality, high immunity and quick healing. More oxygen in the blood also means more oxygen to the heart muscles – making a healthy heart! All of the internal organs benefit from breathing exercises – the lungs, abdomen, intestines, kidneys and pancreas. But the trump card lies in the fact that something so simple as breathing can play such a huge role in mental health. Studies show that pranayama is helpful in treating a wide range of stress related disorders.
A pranayama practitioner develops a steady mind, better judgement and perception and a healthy life. A daily routine can be started at any age, provided the lessons are given by a trained professional. So what are you waiting for? Find a good yoga teacher, and start breathing your way to good health!

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To email the author Reba Paul -  rebekaah.paul@gmail.com