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How Pranayama help us prepare for Meditation.

Many find meditation very hard to practice and eventually drop out. Yogic pranayama may be the answer.

Photo: Rio Otoya | Pranayama class at Yoga Vidya Gurukul, India

Meditation has grown in popularity and is being adopted by corporations, schools, sports teams, etc. through well-being programs. The practice is recognized for its positive effects in our mental health, work performance, and empathic societal behavior. The neurological benefits include increasing neuroplasticity and neural integration (crucial to think clearly and learn new information). However, many people find meditation very hard to practice and eventually drop out. Is there perhaps an easier way to get into meditation? The traditional Yoga system may have the answer.

Traditional Yoga considers mediation as an advanced practice. Texts like Patanjali’s Sutras and the Hatha Pradipika, suggest that we must work our way up to it. First, one should stretch and relax through the practice of Asana (postures). Then, we should do some breathing exercises (Pranayama) to further calm our minds. My yoga teacher once explained: “Doing Meditation is like eating rice, you have to cook it first”. Most people familiar with Yoga are familiar with the Asanas (the posture practice), but less so with Pranayama, which is a key ingredient to ease into meditation.

What is Pranayama?

Pranayama is the 4th "Limb" of Yoga as per Patanjali's Yoga Sutras (ancient Yogic text contemporary to Buddha's 8 fold path). Prana in Sanskrit means vital energy or life force. Pranayama has two complementary etymological explanations. First, Prana+yama, where Yama means ‘control’. Such control is possible through holding your breath. Second, Prana+ayama, where Ayama means ‘expanding the dimension of’. So pranayama increases the vital force in the body. When we hold our breath or breathe slowly, we need fewer breaths to absorb more oxygen. This energy efficiency is one example of pranic increase.

Hack your nervous system and brain chemistry

Mind are body are interconnected. The main life support systems like digestive, cardiovascular and respiratory run automatically by the brain through the autonomic nervous system. However, the respiratory system is the one life support system that can be controlled willfully. The breath is a sort of backdoor to hack into our biology.

When we control the breath in Pranayama, we access control over the autonomic nervous system and therefore gain control over the mind. Slowing the breath will slow our heart rate, metabolism, flush out cortisol (stress hormones), and produce endorphins and oxytocin (pleasure and empathy hormones).

Controlling the breath develops concentration

The power of Pranayama is also in the practice. It requires focus, which develops the higher level of concentration needed in meditation. For example, we have to focus on the breathing speed, on the breathing ratios, on holding the breath for a number of counts, and on a few muscular contractions. Focusing on the breath helps us keep the mind fixed and steady in one object, which is the definition of meditation.

From breath control to meditation

The mind in its normal state is like a regular lightbulb, light goes in all directions. When we concentrate we are directing the mind in one direction towards one object, as one could do with a flashlight. Then, the mind has a narrower space to move around and becomes steadier. When we enter the state of meditation, we make the focus of that flashlight far more narrow, like the dot of a laser. Here, the mind is no longer drifting, we have made it still. Achievement, unlocked ; )Next time you practice meditation

Tip: Next time you practice meditation…

  • Try starting with 5 minutes of stretching exercises (or even some sun salutations if you practice Yoga), and then 5 minutes of deep breathing and then some Pranayama.

  • There are 8 types of pranayama techniques and each one offers different benefits. As a beginner, you start with this simple breathing: Inhale for 4 seconds, hold the breath for 4 seconds, and exhale for 8.

  • Always breathing into the belly and through the nostrils. Anyway, you can all techniques online.

  • A proper Pranayama practice starts with a few minutes of Alternate Nostril breathing, then add any other types as you learn them.

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