Prana is life force. Similar in concept to what the Japanese call Ki and the Taoists call Chi. It is not breath, but that subtle energy that causes the body to take breath. All of our selves and all of the universe contain prana and by learning to control your prana you may also learn to control the prana outside of you, giving you superhuman control of the world around you. Know, however, that just to control your own prana may be several (or more) lifetimes of work on its own.
The act of pranayama is the act of bringing consciousness to what was previously subconscious. It's an act of awakening and it can not be done without the mind. Having complete control of your prana, you control all of your body's seemingly involuntary systems. In addition, you can move your prana to areas where it may be depleted, preventing illness and giving you more energy.
Most people think of breath retention when they think of pranayama, but this is only one way (and the most risky way of controlling prana. Breath control should only be done after years of correct asana practice and with the right teacher. Even then there are many factors to consider including the quality of air around you. Premature or incorrect breath control can cause instability and even mental and emotional illness as it directly affects the nervous system. It is better not to do this type of pranayama than to do it incorrectly.
There are other methods of pranayma. The Ujjayi breathing style used in the Ashtanga tradition is pranayama and has no breath retention. This non-reactive nostril breathing is extremely affective for controlling prana. One can feel the effects almost immediately. Since there is no breath retention, it is pretty gentle and good for beginners though a teacher should still be present! Alternate side nostril breathing without retention
is also good pranayama as our prana has three main channels, the Ida, which runs along the left side of the body, the Pingala, which runs along the right, and the Sushumna which connects the base to the crown. Alternate nostril breathing balances the sides and helps us to feel more relaxed and centered. Meditation also controls the prana and is therefore pranayama. So is sun gazing. We get life force from the sun which then goes into the food that we eat. Those who have mastered pranayama can skip eating and feed off prana directly from our closest star.
We are all looking for a healthier more vibrant feeling in our lives. We try to get more sleep, drink coffee or a juice. These are temporary fixes. A yogi looks for the real solution. We are all looking for more control over ourselves, our bodies, and our reactions to life. We try to gain this from pressuring change in others or forcing our own bodies to do what we think is best. The yogi looks for true authority. There is no forcing when there is true control over prana. There isn't even an asking. There is a completely harmonious state where the mind and the body become one. The end of all conflict lays at the end of prana control. And the beginning of the highest of the eight limbs.
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