“So long as the breath is restrained in the body, so long as the mind is undisturbed, and so long the gaze is fixed between eyebrows, there is no fear from death,” says the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
Yoga is the perfect method of integrating body and mind together so that they form a unity. This unity creates a psychological disposition which can help one to overcome anxiety and stress and give one's best performance. Pranayama and Kriya constitute the vital aspects of Yoga and are traditionally known to produce a state of well being.
Both bring about spontaneity and relieve fatigue and anxiety. Both check the vagaries of the human mind and improve interpersonal relationship which is required for team spirit. Both help in relieving deep-seated stress from the nervous system, lead to greater regularity in sleep-cycle, bring about alertness and improve the coordination of mind and body, thereby promoting efficiency in perception and performance.
Modern science underestimates human potentialities as it focuses on the left hemisphere of the brain. The intuitive side of mind, which pervades the right hemisphere, stays untouched. It is said that Pranayama and Kriya can switch off the analytical mode and switch on to the holistic mode of consciousness. Both help a person to channelize his mental faculties and integrate his personality.
Prana and mind are entwined; by controlling one, the other can be automatically controlled, thereby making the mind steady and concentrated. It has been said that Prana is related to the mind; through mind to the will, through will to the soul; and through this to the supreme being. Prana Shakti (primodial energy) is related to both the body and the mind. Physical body (Sthula sharira) is gross while the mind is subtle. Prana forms a link between the two.
Human body is a miniature universe. Prana or vital force, flows through the subtle channels which are spread out like a net in a body. Among them, the three main channels of energy are Ida (starting from left nostril), Pingala (starting from right nostril) and Sushumna (situated inside the spinal column).
Ida and Pingala contain the lunar and solar or mental and the vital currents in the body respectively. Sushumna nadi (main channel of energy) is said to be generally closed at the base of the spine and can be opened by specific yogic techniques.
Pranayama implies the control of vital energy which tingles through the nerves. It is the control of Prana through the control of breath. In a comprehensive sense, Prana is both the breath and the universal dynamics of the cosmos.
The Bhagavadgita says,"Offering the inhaling breath into the exhaling breath and offering the exhaling breath into the inhaling breath, the yogi neutralizes both breaths; thus he releases Prana from the heart and brings life force under his control".
Breath directed by thought under the control of will is a vitalizing force which can be utilized consciously for self development. The yogis believe that the element of Prana (Pranatattva) is superior to manastattva or the mind, as Prana is present even when mind is absent during deep sleep. Just as the gross physical body has a nervous systems (Sthula Prana), there is a nervous system in the astral body too, called Sukshma Prana. Both are linked to each other.
It is traditionally believed that one can have healthy mind and healthy body by practicing Pranayama. Pranayama makes the mind steady like a flame in a windless place. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika says: "By nature, mercury and mind are unsteady; there is nothing in the world which cannot be accomplished when these are made steady". Pranayama is a conscious process of inhalation (Puraka), retention (Kumbhaka) and exhalation (Rechaka). Through inhalation or the filling of lungs, one receives primal energy in the form of breath. Through retention one savours the intake of oxygen and through exhalation one releases carbon dioxide.
Kriya is a cleansing process. The Hathayoga Pradipika refers to six purificatory rites namely, Dhauti (washing), Neti (cleaning of nasal passages), Basti (cleaning oflower colon)Nauli (purification and strengthening of abdominal muscles), Trataka (gazing at a particular point) and Kapalabhati (purification of nasal passage and lungs). Of these, the last two Kriyas can be easily performed and are said to be useful for developing concentration and mental focusing.
Trataka is gazing steadily without winking with a focused mind at a small object until tears begin to flow. Kapalabhati is forcible expulsion of abdominal breath through the nose. It is a process of clearing the sinuses. It strengthens the mucus membrane and cures the bad habit of mouth-breathing. It is somewhat similar to Bhastrika Pranayama, in which rapid succession of forcible exhalations and inhalations are performed, moving the belly like the bellows of blacksmith.
Yogic breathing involves many more exercises. In Chandrabhedi Pranayama, all inhalations are done through the left nostril and all exhalations are performed through the right nostril. In Suryabhedi Pranayama, the order is reversed. Alternate nostril-breathing is performed in Nadi-Shodhan Pranayama which literally means purification of the nadis. It combines both Chandrabhediand Suryabhedi into one cycle. Among the Pranayamas which cool the human organism are Sheetali and Sheetkari. In these Pranayamas, the air is inhaled through mouth with the tongue rolled like tube (Sheetali) or the tongue folded upwards to touch the upper palate (Sheetkari). Bhramari involves inhaling rapidly through both nostrils, making a sound of Bhramara, the bee, and exhaling rapidly through both nostrils, making the humming sound. Chanting of 'AUM' while first concentrating on the word 'Aa' then on 'Uu' followed by Ma' is an excellent means of relaxing and achieving stability of mind.
Voluntary lengthening and deepening of the breath and its retention in accordance with a particular rhythm is the key feature of Pranayama. Deep breathing increases the intake of oxygen in the body and gives physical, therapeutical and spiritual benefits. Pranayama ventilates the areas of the lungs and strengthens the muscles of the respiratory system. Kriyas decrease the levels of stress by giving one a feeling of well-being.
The Yogic way of breathing and cleansing help in toning up the body and the mind so that one is able to unfold one's potential and live in a state of balance and harmony in the world.
Dr Smriti Kaushal
Dr Smriti Kaushal is a Physiotherapist based in Brampton(Canada)