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Prana & Pranayama
' Prana burns as fire; he shrines as the sun; he rains as the cloud; he blows as the wind; he crashes as thunder in the sky. He is earth; he has form and no form; prana is immortality. Everything rests in prana, as spokes rest in the hub of a wheel.' (l)
Prana is poetically described here in the translation of the Prashna Upanishad and is supported by the translator, Eknath Easwaran, with this commentary;
'(Prana is) vital energy, the power of life; the essential substrate of all forms of energy' (2)
In Sanskrit, pra means first, na means vibration and an means to breathe. Prana is the fundamental vibratory life force and is apparent through awareness of the breath.
Prana is the life force, which like the wind cannot be seen, but we know it is there ~ we can detect it by how we feel, like after a yoga class or during a pranayama session. Some people may experience prana as a feeling of wellbeing like feeling the warm sun on your face, others may experience prana in other ways, possibly as a bright, white light, an impression of something flowing, a tingly sensation, a warm feeling or perhaps in some other way.
' Prana is the force which exists in all things... although closely related to the air we breath, it is more subtle than air or oxygen.'
Prana in yoga philoshophy and practice is often a metaphor for something greater ~ an energy that the western world of science is only just beginnning to discover. There is some way to catch up with the rishis and yogis ~ the scientists of body, mind, soul and the world around us.
Pranayama is defined most accurately as extending or expanding the dimension of prana. Certainly as pranayama practices develop they allow you to experience your breath ~ or indeed prana ~ on a deeper level.
If pra means first, na means vibration and an means to breathe... then what is pranayama? if we take the last syllable from prana, 'an' ~ which means to breathe and add it to 'ayama' ~ which means to lenghten/expand/extend, we can see that pranayama is something about lenghtening, expanding or extending the breath ~ and pranayama practices are generally interpreted as breath control exercises.
The introductory pranayama practices may begin with awareness of how the muscle bands around the lungs 'work'. The practice can help you to become aware of how breathing techniques appear to 'affect' the different 'muscle bands' of the lungs (the diafragm, the intercostals muscles in the thoracic cage and muscles in the clavicular area). Traditional techniques such as Bramari (humming bee breath) and Anuloma viloma (alternate breathing nostril) may be introduced. The teacher will introduce these practices when the class is ready and for specific reasons, e.g. Bhramari often encourages relief from mental tension while other pranayama practices may help to 'purify' the body and 'still' the mind.
Precautions for Pranayama practices
Pranayama practices are not appropriate for every practitioner: some techniques are not suitable for those with certain medical conditions, and other practices may be modified to suit certain ailments. Practice should be taken under the guidance of a well qualified and experienced teacher. The general advice when practicing pranayama is to never rush or strain. The Yoga Bunch advises not to practice certain pranayama practices if you suffer from a heart condition, blood pressure problems or are pregnant. Do not practice directly after meals, if the lungs are congested or if the breath sounds harsh.