Pranayama is generally defined as breath control. Although this interpretation may seem correct in view of the practices involved, it does not convey the full meaning of the term. The word pranayama is comprised of two roots: prana plus ayama. Prana means 'vital energy' or 'life force'. It is the force which exists in all things, whether animate or inanimate. Although closely related to the air we breathe, it is subtler than air or oxygen. Therefore, pranayama should not be considered as mere breathing exercises aimed at introducing extra oxygen into the lungs. Pranayama utilises breathing to influence the flow of prana in the nadis or energy channels of the pranamaya kosha or energy body.
The word ‘yama’ means 'control' and is used to denote various rules or codes of conduct. However, this is not the word which is joined to prana to form pranayama; the correct word is ayama which has far more implications than the word yama. Ayama is defined as 'extension' or 'expansion'. Thus, the word pranayama means 'extension or expansion of the dimension of prana'. The techniques of pranayama provide the method whereby the life force can be activated and regulated to go beyond one's normal boundaries or limitations and attain a higher state of vibratory energy.
FOUR ASPECTS OF PRANAYAM
In the pranayama practices there are four important aspects of breathing which are utilised. These are:
1. Pooraka or inhalation
2. Rechaka or exhalation
3. Antar kunbhaka or internal breath retention
4. Bahir kumbhaka or external breath retention.
The different practices of pranayama involve various techniques which utilise these four aspects of breathing. There is another mode of pranayama which is called kevala kumbhaka or spontaneous breath retention. This is an advanced stage of pranayama which occurs during high states of meditation. During this state, the lungs stop their activity and the respiration ceases. At this time, the veil which prevents one from seeing the subtle aspect of existence is lifted and a higher vision of reality is attained.
The most important part of pranayama is actually kumbhaka or breath retention. However, in order to perform kumbhaka successfully, there must be a gradual development of control over the function of respiration. Therefore, in the pranayama practices more emphasis is given to inhalation and exhalation at the beginning, in order to strengthen the lungs and balance the nervous and pranic systems in preparation for the practice of kumbhaka. These practices influence the flow of prana in the nadis, purifying, regulating and activating them, thereby inducing physical and mental stability.
The word nadi literally means 'flow' or 'current'. The ancient texts say that there are seventy two thousand nadis in the psychic body. These are visible as currents of light to a person who has developed psychic vision. In recent times the word nadi has been translated as 'nerve', but actually nadis are composed of astral matter. Like the chakras, they are not actually part of the physical body, although they correspond with the nerves. Nadis are the subtle channels through which the pranic forces flow. Out of the large number of nadis in the psychic body, ten are major and of these, three are most significant. These are ida, pingala and sushumna. The most important of these three is sushumna. All the nadis in the psychic body are subordinate to sushumna, even ida and pingala.
Ida, Pingala and Sushumna
Sushumna nadi is the spiritual channel located at the centre of the spinal cord. It originates from mooladhara chakra at the perineum and terminates at sahasrara, at the crown of the head. Ida nadi emanates from the left side of mooladhara and spirals up the spinal cord, passing through each chakra in turn, forming a criss-cross pathway which terminates at the left side of ajna chakra. Pingala nadi emanates from the right side of mooladhara and passes in an opposite manner to that of ida, terminating at the right side of ajna. Ida and pingala represent the two opposites forces flowing within us. Ida is passive, introvert and feminine; it is also known as the chandra or moon nadi. Pingala, on the other hand, is active, extrovert and masculine and is called the surya or sun nadi.
THE PRANIC BODY
According to yogic physiology, the human framework is comprised of five bodies or sheaths, which account for the different aspects or dimensions of human existence. These five sheaths are known as:
1. Annamaya kosha, the food or material body
2. Manomaya kosha, the mental body
3. Pranamaya kosha, the bioplasmic or vital energy body
4. Vijnanamaya kosha, the psychic or higher mental body
5. Anandamaya kosha, the transcendental or bliss body.
Although these five sheaths function together to form an integral whole, the practices of pranayama work mainly with pranamaya kosha. The pranamaya kosha is made up of five major pranas which are collectively known as the pancha, or five, pranas: prana, apana, samana, udana and vyana.
Prana in this context, does not refer to cosmic prana but rather to just one part of the pranamaya kosha, governing the area between the larynx and the top of the diaphragm. It is associated with the organs of respiration and speech, and the gullet, together with the muscles and nerves that activate them. It is the force by which the breath is drawn inside.
Apana is located below the navel region and provides energy for the large intestine, kidneys, anus and genitals. It is concerned with the expulsion of waste from the body.
Samana is located between the heart and the navel. It activates and controls the digestive system: the liver, intestines, pancreas and stomach, and their secretions. Samana also activates the heart and circulatory system, and is responsible for the assimilation and distribution of nutrients.
Udana controls the area of the body above the neck, activating all the sensory receptors such as the eyes, nose and ears. Thought and consciousness of the outside world would be impossible without it. Udana also harmonises and activates the limbs and all their associated muscles, ligaments, nerves and joints, as well as being responsible for the erect posture of the body.
Vyana pervades the whole body, regulating and controlling all movement, and coordinating the other pranas. It acts as the reserve force for the other pranas. Along with the five major pranas there are five minor pranas known as the upa-pranas. These five sub-pranas are: naga, koorma, krikara, devadatta and dhananjaya. Their functions are described as follows. Naga is responsible for belching and hiccups. Koorma opens the eyes and stimulates blinking. Krikara generates hunger, thirst, sneezing and coughing. Devadatta induces sleep and yawning. Dhananjaya lingers immediately after death and is responsible for decomposition of the body.
Along with the five major pranas there are five minor pranas known as the upa-pranas. These five sub-pranas are: naga, koorma, krikara, devadatta and dhananjaya. Their functions are described as follows.
Naga is responsible for belching and hiccups.
Koorma opens the eyes and stimulates blinking.
Krikara generates hunger, thirst, sneezing and coughing.
Devadatta induces sleep and yawning.
Dhananjaya lingers immediately after death and is responsible for decomposition of the body.
DEFINITION OF CHAKRA
The word chakra literally means 'wheel' or 'circle' but in the yogic context a better translation is 'vortex' or 'whirlpool'. The chakras are vortices of pranic energy at specific areas in the body which control the circulation of prana permeating the entire human structure. Each chakra is a switch which turns on or opens up specific areas of the brain. In most people these psychic centres lie dormant and inactive. Concentration on the chakras while performing yogic practices stimulates the flow of energy through the chakras and helps to activate them.This in turn awakens the dormant areas in the brain and the corresponding faculties in the psychic and mental bodies, allowing one to experience higher planes of consciousness which are normally inaccessible.
The major chakras are seven in number and are located along the pathway of sushumna which flows through the centre of the spinal cord. Sushumna originates at the perineum and terminates at the top of the head. The chakras are connected to a network of psychic channels called nadis, which correspond to the nerves but are more subtle in nature.
The chakras are depicted symbolically as lotus flowers, each having a particular number of petals and a characteristic colour. The lotus symbolises the three stages the aspirant must pass through in spiritual life: ignorance, aspiration and illumination. It represents spiritual growth from the lowest state of awareness to the highest state of consciousness. The petals of the lotus, inscribed with the beeja mantras or seed sounds of the Sanskrit alphabet, represent the different manifestations of psychic energy connected with the chakras and the nadis or psychic channels leading into and out of them. Within each chakra is a yantra comprised of the geometrical symbol of its associated element and beeja mantra. Within the yantra there is also a presiding deity, which represents particular aspects of divinity, along with the corresponding vahana or vehicle which is an animal form, representing other psychic aspects related with the particular centre.
DESCRIPTION OF THE SEVEN CHAKRAS
Muladhara or the base or root chakra is related to security, survival and also to basic human potentiality. This center is located in the region between the genitals and the anus. Although no endocrine organ is placed here, it is said to relate to the inner adrenal glands, the adrenal medulla, responsible for the fight and flight response when survival is under threat. In this region is located a muscle that controls ejaculation in the sexual act. A parallel is drawn between the sperm cell and the ovum, where the genetic code lies coiled, and the kundalini. Symbolized by a lotus with four petals.
Swadhisthana or the sacral chakra is located in the groin, and is related to emotion, sexuality and creativity. This chakra is said to correspond to the testicles or the ovaries, that produce the various sex hormones involved in the reproductive cycle, which can cause dramatic mood swings. Symbolised by a lotus with six petals.
Manipura or the solar plexus chakra is related to energy, assimilation and digestion, and is said to correspond to the roles played by the pancreas and the outer adrenal glands, the adrenal cortex. These play a valuable role in digestion, the conversion of food matter into energy for the body. Symbolised by a lotus with ten petals.
Anahata or the heart/emotions chakra is related to love, equilibrium, and wellbeing. It is related to the thymus, located in the chest. This organ is part of the immune system, as well as being part of the endocrine system. It produces T cells responsible for fighting off disease, and is adversely affected by stress. Symbolized by a lotus with twelve petals.
Vishuddha or the throat chakra is said to be related to communication and growth, growth being a form of expression. This chakra is paralleled to the thyroid, a gland that is also in the throat, and which produces thyroid hormone, responsible for growth and maturation. Symbolized by a lotus with sixteen petals.
Ajna or the third eye is linked to the pineal gland. Ajna is the chakra of time and awareness and of light. The pineal gland is a light sensitive gland, that produces the hormone melatonin, which regulates the instincts of going to sleep and awakening. It has been conjectured that it also produces trace amounts of the psychedelic chemical dimethyltryptamine. Symbolized by a lotus with two petals.
Sahasrara or the crown chakra is said to be the chakra of consciousness, the master chakra that controls all the others. Its role would be very similar to that of the pituitary gland, which secretes hormones to control the rest of the endocrine system, and also connects to the central nervous system via the hypothalamus. The thalamus is thought to have a key role in the physical basis of consciousness. Symbolized by a lotus with a thousand petals.