What are the benefits of pranayama?
In his book, Prana and Pranayama, Swami Niranjanda Saraswati writes: “In the yoga text is written that through pranayama one can control one’s circumstances and character and harmonize the individual life with the cosmic life. The aspirant who practises pranayama in a sustained manner will find that every aspect of the being is gradually impacted. As one advances in practises, the structure, skin and the smell of the body begin to change. One is full and fresh of energy and the senses are calmed and their outgoing tendency diminishes….”
Later on he continues with: “As prana flows through all the levels of being, the negative tendencies begin to drop off almost automatically. The small things that could earlier spin one out of control dissolve into nothing, and the connection with and experience of cosmic prana becomes stronger and steadier”.
Wouw…. I like. From my own experience I can only say: this is true. Since I practise yoga from which pranayama is a big part, I changed. Not only my body but also my mind got more flexible and stronger. When I have to make a decision for example, I remark I do trust more and more on my own insights. Another great aspect is that I yoga helps me to be energetically balanced. This results in a positive way of experiencing life. 🙂
Of course there are more benefits of pranayama practise. Swami Nirajanda Saraswati, outlines them as following:
Benefit 1: Awakening vital energy
The purpose of pranayama is to awaken the inherent energy, the power of prana! Pranayama generates static electricity in the body in every minute quantity and there is a feeling of improved energy and dynamism. (More info about prana you can find in the chapter 1 – introduction )
Benefit 2: Physical benefits
Pranayama influences almost all the organs and physiological systems:
// Respiratory system
Pranayama excersises the muscles of respiration and the lungs through the process of deep, rapid or slow breathing. The chest is opened to it’s fullest extend and the lungs are stretched to the utmost. Your respiratory muscles become stronger and your lungs become more elastic. Result: a healthier process of respiration.
Nice detail 🙂 Did you know that when you perform pranayama you do not absorb a larger quantity of oxygen?
In fact, the amount of oxygen absorbed during a round of pranayama is less than the amount absorbed during normal respiration. However, the practises allow more time for oxygen to mix with the blood flow and for the system to eliminate waste through the breath and blood. When you do pranayama practises you prepare the respiratory organs and muscles to work efficiently all through the day. Reason: with a more efficient respiratory apparatus, a larger quantity of oxygen is absorbed throughout the day than it normally would be.
Benefit 3: Digestive and eliminatory system
The stomach, pancreas, liver, bowels and kidneys are all exercised in pranayama through the massage given to them by the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles. This happens in a normal respiration ass well but during pranayama the movement of muscles and the resulting massage is greatly accentuated. All the associated muscles and nerves are toned up and rendered healthier. Absorption also comes more efficient with a well functioning digestive and eliminatory system so that the blood is enriched with nutritive elements.
Benefit 4: Cardiac system
Many research studies have verified pranayama is extremely beneficial for the heart. The practices minimise the stress put on the cardiac system by day-to-day life. Breathing with slow, deep and long breaths gives rest to the heart. Example: in 1968 f Bihar School of Yoga was asked by the Health Minister of the Government of India to conduct research on coronary diseases in yoga. About one thousand of patients suffering from cardiac disorders such as angina, myocardial infarctions and other cardiac diseases were referred to yoga and pranayama practises. At the end of the study period it was found that the practise of pranayama helped each and every patient; but especially those sufferering from angina and ischemia.
During the practises of pranayama, the muscles of the heart are gently massaged, allowing for good circulation. Also when you enter the state of meditation there is no stress on the heart, and the body is able to withstand the higher states of consciousness without any adverse effect.
Benefit 4: Endocrine system
The endocrine glands influence the behaviour, reactions, interpretations and even the so called natural responses. Pranayama harmonises, purifies and neutralises the secretions of these glands and thereby influences thought and behaviour.
The overall health of the endocrine systems is largely dependent on the quality of the blood and its distribution to the glands. During pranayama, especially the vitalizing practises, the circulations of the blood are also rendered very rich. The richer and more liberal blood supply brought to the endocrine glands enhances their functionality and the regulated breathing helps to balance the system.
Benefit 5: Nervous system
To appreciate the role of stress in disease and of relaxation in prevention and recovery, it’s important to understand the function of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) The ANS controls the function of the heart, liver, intestines, and other internal organs. The ANS has two branches that work in conjunction: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
The parasympathetic system (PSN) is responsible for stimulation of “rest-and-digest” or “feed and breed” activities that occur when the body is at rest, especially after eating, including sexual arousal, salivation, lacrimation (tears), urination and defecation. Its action is described as being complementary to that of the Sympathic Nervous System (SNS) which is responsible for stimulating activities associated with the ‘fight-or flight response’
The SNS, in conjunction with stress hormones as adrenaline and cortisol, initiate a series of changes in the body, including raising blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar levels. These changes can help a person deal with a crisis situation. Example: in a so called ” fight or flight response” more energy, blood and oxygen flows to the large muscles of the trunk, arms, and legs, allowing the person to run from danger or do a battle
The PNS, in contrast, tends to slow the heart and lower the blood pressure, allowing recovery after a stressful event. Blood flow that was diverted away from the intestines and reproductive organs, whose function isn’t essential in an emergency, returns. In contrast to fight or flight, these more restorative functions can be thought of as “rest and digest.”
Many yoga practises, including quiet asana, slow breathing, meditation, and guided imagery, increase activation of the PNS and lead to mental relaxation. However, yoga techniques are more than just relaxation. Energetic practices like vigorous sun salutations, kaphalabhati breathing, and breath retentions actually activate the SNS.
Back to pranayama 🙂
The brain, spinal cord, cranial and spinal nerves benefit from a richer and more liberal mood supply received through pranayama. In addition the actions of the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles during extended inhalation pull up the lower part of the spinal column.
Bandha’s in Pranayama
If jalandara bandha is integrated into the pranayama practise, the upper part of the spinal column is also pulled up. The pulling up of the vertebral column as a whole tones the roots of the spinal nerve and gives a strong peripheral stimulus to the whole nervous system. If pranayama is combined with all the three bandhas, the high intra thoracic, intra pulmonary and intra-abdominal pressures gives peripheral stimulus to the different nerve plexuses situated in the abdomen and the thorax.
Also, respiration controls fluctuation moods, which are subtle behaviors of the mind. For this purposea pranayam round is usually begun from the left nostril, which represents ida nadi or the mental energy (see chapter chacras and nadi’s of this article). In contrast, the rotation of awareness in yoga nidra (yogic sleep) is begun from the right side to first subdue pingala, the vital energy and heat in the body.
Effect 5: Greater concentration
The cumulative effect of pranayama is that the mind becomes steady and still. Disturbing energies are removed. I would like to explain this a bit more in detail; therefore in the next article I’ll talk about the three gunas. This concept is originated in Samkhya philosophy and is a key concept in various schools of Hindu philosophy nowadays.
Prana and pranayama, Swami Niranjananda Saraswati, Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar, India
Four chapters on freedom, Swami Satyananada saraswati, Yoga publications Trust, Munger, Bihar India
Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Swami Muktbodhananda, Yoga publications Trust Munger, Bihar, India