by Sri Swami Satchidananda - founder of Integral Yoga
Prana: The Vital Force
When you breathe, in addition to the oxygen, you also take in a lot of prana. The oxygen gets diffused in the lungs and then gets into the bloodstream, but the prana goes throughout the body. It enters into every area – physical, vital and mental. Every cell of your body vibrates with new life.
Prana is our very life. It is the vital force that pervades the entire cosmos. You get prana from food, from the sun, and from the air you breathe. You can live for many weeks without food, days without water, minutes without air, but not even for a fraction of a second without prana.
In Sanskrit, if you deify the prana you can call it Parashakti, the Cosmic Power. Wherever you see power, you see the action of prana. Even the movements in an atom are due to the prana within it. The light and heat in a flame are prana. Electricity is prana. Your motorcar moves with prana – gasoline is a liquid form of prana. To raise your hand you need prana. Your breathing is prana. Your digestion is prana. Even to think you need prana, because it is the subtle prana that moves the mind.
All movement everywhere is caused by prana, the cosmic energy. The entire nature is moving constantly. That is the nature of the nature – constant movement and transformation. And it is the prana that causes all the movement. So why should we want to control it?
Pranayama: Controlling the Cosmic Power
In pranayama we are trying to handle and control the cosmic Shakti. Pranayama is composed of two words: "prana" and "ayama." "Ayama" means regulation, control or mastery. We begin by regulating the prana that moves our own bodies and minds. When we gain mastery over the prana, we have mastery over the inner nature too because it is the prana that creates all the movements in an individual – physical and mental. We try to control the inner nature, because it is nature's movement that causes a lot of disturbance in the system and makes it impossible for the Light within to shine in its true, original way.
When we can control the prana inside, we can control the prana outside too. They are one and the same force on different levels. The body is a microcosm, and the universe outside is a macrocosm. So by the regular practice of pranayama, we are able not only to control and direct the prana that functions within us, but the universal prana as well.
With proper pranayama you begin to use the entire lungs. You take in much more than your normal quota of oxygen and prana. It can be measured in laboratory tests. In a normal breath, you inhale five hundred cubic centimeters of air, and then breathe out the same. After your exhalation, the lungs are almost empty. Still there is residual air in the lungs. After you breathe out your normal five hundred cubic centimeters, if you pull you tummy in slightly, you can exhale some more air, which has been measured as sixteen hundred cubic centimeters.
Now you begin to inhale. You first inhale the air that you squeezed out – sixteen hundred cubic centimeters. Then you inhale your normal five hundred. And the afterwards, you can inhale some additional air. If you inhale more deeply, you can take in another sixteen hundred cubic centimeters. So after a complete squeezing out of the exhalation, you can inhale thirty-seven hundred cubic centimeters. So instead of your usual five hundred cubic centimeters, you can take in thirty-seven hundred cubic centimeters – more than seven times more air, more oxygen and more prana if you do the pranayama regularly.
Imagine the advantage. The quality of the blood improves, and the richness of the blood is the basis of the entire body's health. Your blood gets more oxygenated. Oxygen is life. It is a great panacea, a fine medicine for all kinds of poisons. When you have that much vitality, no virus can even think of coming near you. As soon as it comes near, you burn it out. That is the beauty of pranayama.
Benefits of Pranayama
Pranayama helps to purify the system and to calm and regulate the mind. It purifies the nervous system and eliminates toxins from the body and blood. It helps in the curing of asthma, consumption and other respiratory disorders. With proper breathing you can eliminate the excess mucous which causes most hayfever and sinus discomfort. You can exhilarate the blood circulation and stimulate the entire body quickly. Pranayama produces lightness of body, alertness of mind, good appetite, proper digestion and sound sleep.
Pranayama helps you to attain radiant health, but that is only a secondary benefit, a by-product, of the practice of pranayama. The main aim is to control the mind through the prana. If you can control the mind, you are the master. The prana – here as the movement of the breath – and the movement of the mind go together. If you regulate the prana, you have regulated through the movement of the breath, that same pranic movement in the mind. Should you ever feel upset, tense or worried, do some slow deep breathing with full attention on the breath, and you will easily bring the mind to a calm state.
According to the Yoga Sutras, the Light within is covered by a veil of mental darkness. The benefit of pranayama is that it removes this veil, and the mind becomes clear and fit for concentration. So pranayama is a beautiful preparation for meditation. Before meditation, do three rounds of Deerga Swaasam, the three part breath. It will exhilarate the entire body, drive off drowsiness, remove tension, and bring harmonious movement in all the cells. After this, do some alternate nostril breathing, or some slow deep breathing through both nostrils at the same time. Follow the breath with the mind. Feel how it comes in, how far it goes, and how it returns. Calm, slow and steady breathing will also keep the mind very calm.
To derive the maximum benefit, go slowly in developing your practice. Be patient. Pranayama should never be done in a hurry, nor should you try to advance too quickly, because you are dealing with vital energy. The yoga scriptures personify prana as a deadly cobra. So remember, you are playing with a cobra. If you play well and make the cobra dance, you will accrue many benefits, as did the snake charmers in India. They used their snakes for their livelihood. But if they didn't play properly, they would be killed. In the same way, with prana, you should be very careful. Do everything gently, avoid even the slightest strain, and never hurry.
If you want to build up your body and mind, save your prana – the vital energy. Learn to regulate and store vitality and be careful not to waste it in your life. And to get extra prana, practice pranayama regularly.
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