PranayamaPranayama is not, as many think, something about breath; breath indeed has very little to do with it, if anything. Breathing is only one of the many exercises through which we get to the real Pranayama. Pranayama means the control of Prana.

Prana & the moment we are born

When a fetus is in utero, the mother does the breathing. Her lungs deliver oxygen to the uterus and placenta. From there it travels to the umbilical cord, which takes about half the oxygenated blood to the inferior vena cava while the other half enters the liver. The two sides of the heart are connected, bypassing the lungs, which remain dormant until the child is born.

Needless to say, human fetal circulation is very different from ex-utero circulation. Being born means being severed from the umbilical cord—the lifeline that has sustained the fetus for nine months. Suddenly, and for the first time, the infant needs to engage in actions that ensure continued survival. The very first of these actions declares physical and physiological independence. It is the first breath, and it is the most important and forceful inhalation a human will ever take.

The initial inflation of the lungs triggers enormous changes to the entire circulatory system, which has previously been geared toward receiving oxygenated blood from the placenta. That first breath causes a massive surge of blood into the lungs, the right and left sides of the heart to separate into two pumps, and the specialized vessels of fetal circulation to shut down, seal off, and become ligaments that support the abdominal organs.

That first inhalation must be so forceful because it needs to overcome the initial surface tension of the previously inactive lung tissue. The force required to overcome that tension is three or four times greater than that of a normal inhalation.2 Another radical reversal that occurs at the moment of birth is the sudden experience of body weight in space. Inside the womb, the fetus is in a cushioned, supportive, fluid-filled environment. Suddenly, the child’s entire universe expands—the limbs and head can move freely, and the baby must be supported in gravity. Because adults swaddle babies and move them around from place to place, stability and mobility may not seem to be so much of an issue early in life. In fact, infants begin to develop their posture immediately after taking their first breath, as soon as they begin to nurse. The complex, coordinated action of simultaneously breathing, sucking, and swallowing eventually provides them with the tonic strength to accomplish their first postural skill—supporting the weight of the head. This is no small feat for the infant, considering that an infant’s head constitutes one fourth of its overall body length, compared to one eighth for an adult. Head support involves the coordinated action of many muscles and, as with all weight-bearing skills, a balancing act between mobilization and stabilization. Postural development continues from the head downward until after about a year, when babies begin walking, culminating in the completion of the lumbar curve at about 10 years of age. Having a healthy life on Earth requires an integrated relationship between breath and posture, prana and apana, and sthira and sukha. If something goes wrong with one of these functions, by definition it will go wrong with the others. In this light, yoga practice can be viewed as a way of integrating the body’s systems so we spend more time in a state of sukha than in dukha. To summarize, from the moment of birth, humans are confronted by breath and gravity, two forces that were not present in utero. To thrive, we need to reconcile those forces as long as we draw breath on this planet.

Prana is the vital force in every being

The Prana is the vital force in every being. Thought is the finest and highest action of Prana.

The control of this Prana, as before stated, is what is called Pranayama. The most obvious manifestation of this Prana in the human body is the motion of the lungs. If that stops, as a rule all the other manifestations of force in the body will immediately stop. But there are persons who can train themselves in such a manner that the body will live on, even when this motion has stopped.

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