Pranayama controls the flow of prana throughout the body and is essential to an asana practice. Prana is the cosmic force without which nothing moves or functions. Think of it as gasoline in a car or electricity in a lightbulb. Without prana, we cannot live. The breath is the gross representation of prana moving in and out of our body.
Prana is the breath of life when your child is conceived – that glimmer of energy that makes it all happen. And when you die, prana leaves the body; you can pump oxygen into a person all you want, but that person will not come back to life without prana. Swami Vishnu-devananda, a disciple of Swami Sivananda, says:
To breathe means to live…Yogis count life not by number of years but number of breaths. We constantly drain our life force or pranic energy by our thinking, willing, acting, etc. Every thought, every act of will, or motion of muscles uses up this life force and in consequence constant replenishing is necessary, which is possible mainly through breathing alone.
Take notice of your breath when you are upset or angry; your breathing is probably irregular and shallow. Prana is not properly cycling throughout your body, causing this irritated, anxious state. Whenever you find yourself like this, take deep breaths, expanding your belly and allowing your diaphragm to lift high into your chest cavity. Once you do this for a minute or two, the prana will regulate and your mood will lighten. This is a great tool when dealing with a difficult parenting moment.
You can also transfer prana to another person. You may already be doing this with your child, especially when they are sick or have hurt themselves. You give them hugs and give them a kiss to make that sore spot feel better. You are transferring your prana to them, sending them revitalizing energy. This is called pranic healing.
Vishnu-devananda, in his book, The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga, says:
We knowingly or unknowingly use the power of prana in our various daily activities. When you visit a sick friend who is having pain all over his body and head, you often unconsciously put the palm of your hand on his forehead or stroke gently over his body. You are at this moment unconsciously trying to transfer your pranic energy through your palm to your sick friend. Just see what happens to you when you fall down and knock your knee accidentally. The first thing you do is to hold the breath and then you hold the knee tightly with your palms. This is an instinctive act. But the real fact behind this is that by holding the breath you are able to get an extra supply of pranic energy, which you unconsciously transmit to that knee through your hands. When you want to lift a heavy object you again hold the breath automatically, because lifting needs more energy, which you get by holding the breath. Thus it proves that breathing plays a great part in controlling and regulating the pranic movements of the body.
Another example of instinctive prana transfer is a mother’s constant need to touch her infant. Studies have shown that babies who are not touched often, but are still fed and diapered regularly, often fail to thrive. Many hospitals have introduced what’s called “kangaroo care” to neonatal intensive care units, allowing the tiny infant’s parents to have skin-to-skin contact instead of being alone in incubators. The babies recover faster due to the constant and loving touch, with stabilized heart rates and body temperatures. This is all ancient yoga wisdom that is just now being realized in modern medical practices.
The mind and prana are connected; if you learn to control prana, you can control the mind. Pranayama is automatically practiced when you concentrate on something closely. While concentrating, you may notice that your breath gets very shallow or may stop altogether – that’s pranayama. During childbirth, a woman is controlling the flow of her breath in order to effectively handle pain from contractions. When the baby is born, she is so focused on her baby that she pays no attention to her breathing. For many mothers, time seems to stop the moment she sees her child for the first time; everything appears hazy as she experiences the reward of all of her hard work. I believe the pranayama practiced during childbirth explains the highs of oxytocin a woman may feel immediately after birth. Their hearts are literally jumping for joy and love. It is no wonder that the seat of prana lies in the chest and its representative color is dark red, like blood.
The act of controlling our breath naturally leads to controlling our mind and our circumstances and institutes a healthy dose of discipline into our lives. Pranayama can lift our mood, cleanse our bodies of illness and increase our concentration. All of these benefit mothers as we raise our children to be respectful and loving people.
Swami Satchidananda, another devoted follower of Sivananda and the founder of Integral Yoga:
By regulating the prana, we regulate our minds, because the two always go together. If one is controlled, the other is automatically controlled as well. That is why pranayama is given by Patanjali and is so very important. Control and discipline are very necessary to our lives. Without discipline nothing can be achieved…Throughout nature we can observe discipline. It is only human beings who, in the name of freedom, say, ‘I can just do anything I want. I don’t want discipline. Nothing should bind me.’ Nobody need bind us or tell us the way if we already know how to follow a particular discipline. But when we do not, we should listen to those who do know what to do.
Pranayama can be practiced during meditation and asana, as well as just walking or lying in bed. Sivananda gave some easy tips on pranayama on the latter two options. Both can be done while carrying or lying down with your baby, especially during the first few weeks after childbirth. These pranayama techniques will help cleanse and rejuvenate your body after the hard work of pregnancy and childbirth.
First, while walking, in Sivananda’s words: “Walk with head up, shoulders back and with chest expanded. Inhale slowly through both nostrils counting OM mentally three times, one count for each step. Then retain the breath till you count twelve OMs. Then exhale slowly through both nostrils till you count six OMs. Take the respiratory pause or rest after one pranayama counting 12 OMs. If you find it difficult to count OM with each step, count OM without having any concern with the steps.”
Then, while laying down, he says: “Lie down on the back, quiet at ease, over a blanket. Keep the hands on the ground by the side and legs straight. The heels should be kept together, but the toes can remain a little apart. Relax all the muscles and the nerves…Draw the breath slowly without making any noise, through both nostrils. Retain the breath as long as you can do it with comfort. Then exhale slowly through both nostrils. Repeat the process twelve times in the morning and twelve times in the evening. Chant OM mentally during the practice.”
By a mother’s practice of pranayama, the child will take note and often take on the practice themselves. Have you ever noticed how an infant naturally knows how to breathe properly? Their bellies grow big and then fall with every breath, especially as they sleep. They are not chest breathers, like we often are; this means that the breath stays only in the chest and not reaching down to the lung’s fullest capacity. Chest breathing is a learned function and comes from years of anxiety and stress. Deep belly breathing comes naturally. If every child practiced pranayama, I believe they would be more relaxed and be able to handle the stress that life hands them throughout their life.
See the next chapter: “Eight Limbs of Postpartum Yoga: Yamas”
Series sources can be found here.