Pranayama is an important aspect of raja yoga and hatha yoga. Patanjali defines pranayama in the Yoga Sutras (2:49) as, “Tasminsati shvaasprashvaasayorgativichchhedah praanaayamah” – pranayama is that by which the movement of breath during inhalation and exhalation is controlled. Vyasa Bhashya explains the benefits of pranayama as, “Tapo na param pranayata tato vishudharmarlanam deeptishyagyanasya” – there is no greater tapa than pranayama. It washes away impurities and leads to the light of real knowledge.
Generally, pranayama is explained as the conscious regulation of the breathing process replacing normal automatic breathing. Rao (1995) states that pranayama manipulates the rate of breathing, duration of inhalation and exhalation and breath holding in different body positions. According to Swami Satyananda (2002), the word ‘pranayama’ is composed of the two words ‘prana’ and ‘ayama’. Prana is the vital force which pervades the entire body. According to Swami Niranjanananda (2002), “prana is a type of complex multi-dimensional energy consisting of a combination of electrical, magnetic, electro-magnetic, photonic, thermal and mental energies.” Ayama means ‘extension or expansion’. Thus pranayama is the extension or expansion of the dimension of prana, the vital force. There are about fifty types of pranayama, of which nadi shodhana, kapalbhati, bhastrika, ujjayi, bhramari, sheetali, sheetkari, surya bheda, moorcha and plavini are the most important.
Personality transformation, in this context, refers to the positive development that takes place at the physical and mental levels. At the physical level this means proper and healthy functioning of the body. At rest all the muscles of the body are relaxed and the joints remain loose to conserve energy, and the metabolic rate is very low. In emergency situations, there is sympathetic arousal leading to various changes in the physiological systems of the body: the muscles become tight, digestion stops, the heart beats faster and so on. The moment the emergency is gone, homeostasis is regained. However, today people are busy dealing with enormous tensions almost all the time. As a result, there is continuous arousal at the level of the body leading to a number of psychophysiological disorders. It is therefore necessary to train the body to regain homeostasis after the situation requiring arousal has passed.
Personality transformation at the mental level refers to development in the power of imagination, creativity, steadfastness and willpower. It also refers to healthier interactions, a more positive and optimistic outlook which leads to less tension and conflict in dealing with other people. A mentally healthy person is one who has a balanced personality free from complexes and inconsistencies, emotional and nervous tensions, disorders and conflicts (Chauhan 1999). Mental development is a must for an adjusted and balanced personality.
In fact, physical and mental development are inseparable. Every personality is a composition of physical and mental traits. For a balanced personality, the well-being of both body and mind have to be promoted. One cannot be promoted at the expense of the other. If the mind is sick, it will not allow the living cells to grow and become strong, and if the body is sick, it will make the mind quite helpless and negative. Therefore, both body and mind have to be taken care of for effective personality transformation. One of the best direct methods is the practice of pranayama.
While pranayama is a powerful tool to gain benefits, it is also beset with risks. As stated in Hatha Yoga Pradipika (2:16): Pranayamen yukten sarvarogakshayo bhavet; Ayuktabhyasayogen sarvarogasamudchavah. This means that pranayama can eradicate all diseases if done properly, but if done wrongly, it may aggravate all diseases. Therefore, certain precautions must be taken. Important ones are to always work gradually and systematically, and to work within your capacity. Perform pranayama after asanas and before meditation practices. Never perform pranayama in a foul smelling, smoky or dusty room. Avoid practising in the sun or wind. Do not practise after meals. Clean the nasal cavity regularly. Keep the spine straight while practising pranayama. Avoid smoking or drinking alcohol. Always practise under the guidance of a competent yoga teacher.
In pranayama practice, awareness, conscious regulation of the breath, and the duration of inhalation, exhalation and retention (inner as well as outer) are the core points. These influence the body and mind in the following manner.
Exchange of gases: In pranayama practices a large amount of oxygen is supplied to the body. The greater the intake of oxygen, the greater is the quantity of carbon dioxide expelled. When we hold our breath in internal retention, we expand our lungs and fill them with pure air. The pure air is therefore able to reach every cell, and the cells of the lungs are purified and strengthened in this way. In external retention, the cells of the lungs contract and the impure air is squeezed out. This dual process makes the entire body clean, pure and light. It also increases longevity.
Vital capacity: The vital capacity increases as a result of practising some types of pranayama in combination with asanas, mudras and bandhas, as they exercise the musculature involved in breathing. The abdominal muscles are also strengthened as we tend to contract the abdominal muscles more as we extend exhalation.
Health and immunity: Pranayama provides energy and strengthens different organs of the body, which bestows health and the power of resistance to diseases.
Autonomic balance: This is achieved particularly through the alternate nostril breathing in nadi shodhana pranayama, which stimulates and balances the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, as well as regulating and balancing ida and pingala nadis.
Relaxation: Breathing smoothly and evenly, without jerks, slows the rate of breathing, deepens the breath and makes it rhythmic. This reduces the arousal level and anxiety, and produces deep relaxation, allowing the practitioner to rest in his or her centre.
Calmness of mind: Breath awareness brings tranquillity and restricts interference from the thought process. It stills the disturbances of the mind, freeing it to tune into the subtle aspects of our being.
Reduction of mental activity and inner stillness: When the breath is retained, nerve impulses are stopped in different parts of the body and the brain wave patterns are harnessed. This greatly reduces mental activity and gives rise to an experience of inner stillness. The longer the breath is held, the greater the gap between the nerve impulses and their responses in the brain. When the breath is held for a prolonged period, mental agitation and dissipation are curtailed.
Evolution of self: While pranayama practices give rise to many wonderful effects at the physical and mental levels, they also form an important part of the higher practices in yoga which aim at total evolution of the self.
Research has shown the positive and promoting effects of pranayama on the body and mind. Investigations on nostril dominance in pranayama, brain function and autonomic activity seem to indicate that excessive activity of the left brain and right nostril dominance result in sympathetic arousal which characterizes stress, whereas right brain or left nostril dominance underlies parasympathetic dominance which characterizes rest and relaxation (Shanahoff-Khalso 1991). Wood (1993) studied the effect of pranayama on mood change and perceptions of vitality. He found that a 30-minute session of yogic stretching and breathing exercises produces a marked augmentation in perception of physical and mental energy. Naveen et al (1997) concluded that pranayama practices increase spatial memory. Venkatesh et al (1989, 1991) studied personality variables in meditation and pranayama practitioners. In their longitudinal study, pranayama and meditation gave rise to a relaxed nature, reduced tension, increased time competency, inner directedness, flexibility, self-actualization value and self-worth. Helibronn (1992) reported the valuable effect of breathing and meditation on stress. Basyal (2002) reported that the practice of certain pranayama techniques (nadi shodhana, bhramari and bhastrika) is beneficial for managing the symptoms of depression.
On the basis of empirical findings, experiential observations and the analysis presented regarding the physiological and psychological effects, it is clear that regular practice of pranayama is instrumental in providing positive transformation in practitioners at the physical, mental and spiritual levels. Pranayana balances the physiological systems - cardiovascular, respiratory, nervous and endocrine. Many physicians and healers are now incorporating pranayama techniques along with other measures in the management of diseases related to these systems. Simultaneously, the pranayama techniques are useful in improving mental health, including management of mental disorders like depression, emotional instability and anxiety neurosis. In addition, pranayama can be regarded as the most important sadhana for promoting spiritual awakening and aiming at a blissful life.
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