Fitness Magazine

Breath and Energy (Pranamaya Kosha)

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Beth

Breath and Energy (Pranamaya Kosha)

Windswept Landscape by Camille Corot

This post on Pranamaya Kosha is number four in my series on the multi-dimensional five-layer Kosha model of the human being. Pranamaya Kosha contains two aspects: breath as one aspect and energy as the other. As in all things yoga, these aspects are inseparable even though we may separate them to discuss, explain, and explore the topic. 
Breath is the aspect of this layer that is, perhaps, the most “real,” meaning that it is firmly rooted in the five-sense material world. Most of us are familiar with the major parts of our respiratory system: nose and nasal cavity, mouth, throat, trachea, lungs, and the muscles of respiration. We’ve seen pictures and diagrams in our anatomy books and we have developed some helpful metaphors and analogies. I like the analogy that reinforces the symbiotic relationship between human beings and trees. We humans breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, while trees breathe in carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. So this analogy asks us to picture our lungs as upside down trees with the leaves at the base of the lungs representing alveoli, those clusters of cells that exchange the oxygen we breathe in for the carbon dioxide that we expel on the exhalation. It’s a helpful visualization to use when introducing breath awareness to beginners.  
“Man and woman, beast and bird live by breath
Breath is therefore called the true sign of life.
It is the vital force in everyone
That determines how long we are to live.”  —The Upanishads, translation by Eknath Easwaran 

As this quote from the Taittirya Upanishad affirms, where there is breath, there is life and this vital force is key to our health. In The Breathing Book: Good Health and Vitality Through Essential Breath Work, Donna Farhi says, 
“Breathing affects your respiratory, cardiovascular, neurological, gastrointestinal, muscular and psychic systems and also has a general effect on your sleep, your memory, your energy level, and your concentration.” 
Understanding this and finding ways to work appropriately with the breath is also a key to healthy aging. Breathing is a life-giving activity that is controlled by our autonomic nervous system and it happens whether we pay attention to the process or not. But when we do point the light of self-awareness toward our breath, we may begin to develop awareness of the other aspect of this layer of being: our energy. Knowledge of this aspect of Pranamaya Kosha remains in the subtle realm for most people until practice or grace renders it noticeable. This may be because most of us can’t “see” our energy at first. But with practice and awareness, we can learn to detect it through tingling sensations, pulsing, feelings of warmth or coolness, a sense of motion that might feel like water flowing, waves of light, or a sense of balance, calm equilibrium and joy. 
This energy is called prana, which is often defined as the vital life force that pervades all of existence. Iyengar defines it this way:  
“Prana is the energy permeating the universe at all levels. It is physical, mental, intellectual, sexual, spiritual and cosmic energy.” — B.K.S. Iyengar, from Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom 
For years, I’d heard my teachers talk about prana but my first personal experience with it came only many years into my yoga practice, when suddenly I consciously felt my palms tingle, really tingle. It felt like bees buzzing. Since then, I’m much more attuned to this and can detect energy flows in other parts of my body, mainly the soles of my feet, my hips and spine, neck and head. Most of the time it’s pleasurable but during my Kundalini Yoga years, I was so buzzed from one session at a workshop that I had to lie down for an hour until the energy settled. In some sense it felt like I had “tied one on” and was “high as a kite” on energy. Needless to say, I am now very mindful of the power of prana and recognize that this needs to be worked with carefully as excesses can be difficult to manage. B.K.S. Iyengar offers this perspective:  
“It has to be clear that you cannot just increase the volume of anything as volatile and explosive as pure energy without taking steps to contain, harness and direct it. If you were to suddenly to triple the strength of the electrical current arriving in your house, you would not think the kettle would boil in a third of the usual time and your house lights burn three times brighter. You know you would immediately burn out all the circuits and be left with nothing.” — B.K.S. Iyengar, from Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom 
Iyengar is firm in the belief that a steady consistent asana practice is the needed foundation before working with prana in any deep or intense way. Lesson learned! 
Energy blocks, imbalances, or excesses like the one I experienced can affect our sense of well-being. Then the question becomes, what might unbalanced energy or a lack of prana in the body feel like? We can look for inefficient breathing patterns (chest, reverse, shallow, or rapid breathing), aches, pains, poor digestion, lack of motivation, an over-stressed, mind, exhaustion, or fatigue. If we detect an imbalance we can make an effort to address it, do what we can to change it, manage it, or ultimately, if need be, accept it. For example for addressing these imbalances, we can use pranayama practices, which range from cooling to heating with balancing practices positioned at the center of the range (see Friday Q&A: Recommended Pranayama Practices for a summary of these practices). 
We can work with the Pranamaya Kosha on two levels: to utilize our breath/energy for the purpose of improving mood and physical health or to deepen our understanding of the process of Self-realization. Most of us would do well to stick with level 1 unless we are working with a qualified and experienced teacher.  
Level 1: Choose and use appropriate breath practices to reduce stress and anxiety, balance emotions, and ease physical pain. For example, one of our readers, Debbie Cabusas, discovered that adding pranayama to her asana practice was very helpful for her in this way. You can read about her experience in the post The Power of Pranayama: Debbie's Story.
Also, Richard Brown and Patricia Gerbarg, both MDs, have been using simple breath techniques to work with survivors of mass disasters such as the September 11th, 2001 World Trade Center attacks, the 2010 Gulf Oil spill in the United States, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and the wars in South Sudan and Rwanda in Africa. It’s interesting to note that most of those helped by their techniques did not have a consistent yoga practice. Their work is impressive and you can read more about it and the science that informs it at www.breath-body-mind.com
Baxter and Nina recommend breath practices in their posts Friday Q&A: Recommended Pranayama Practices, Pranayama: A Powerful Key to Your Nervous System, Stimulating Breath Practices We Recommend, Calming Breath Practices We Recommend, and Breath Practices for Balance.
Level 2: Pranayama and energy-enhancing techniques can also be used as ways to deepen your spiritual growth. If this is your path, please find and work with a qualified and experienced teacher. 
In my next post, I will offer some additional suggestions for working with Pranamaya Kosha at level one. 
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For information on Beth Gibbs' classes and upcoming workshops, see Beth's Classes and Workshops and for information about Beth, ProYoga Therapeutics, and Beth's book and CD, see proyogatherapeutics.com.

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