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The practice and teaching of pranayama can make one re-assess the word “fitness”.
The common images associated with being fit are not necessarily the yogis definition of fit – according to them, fitness follows wellness or a sense of wellbeing. Once the state of feeling well has been achieved, fitness is the next logical step. That is one of the basic tenets of classical yoga that is taught in India - and pranayama is a key practice in the process.
Pranayama as taught in classical hatha yoga
Classical hatha yoga is taught in three steps: asana, pranayama, yoga nidra or other types of meditation. Pranayama is critical to achieving fitness, although one would never imagine so. Pranayama can be used very effecively as a fitness modality all unto itself and when combined with asana and meditation, would make for a complete and rejuvenating practice. Pranayama takes care of the individual at all three levels – the physical, the emotional and the spiritual. The immediate effects of practicing pranayama can be felt on the body and the more subtler effects are felt over time.
Pranayama as therapy
Pranayama has been recommended as therapy for several health conditions such as diabetes, weight loss, obesity, high blood pressure and psychological problems. Each one of these health problems could be tackled with different pranayama specifically aimed at them, while also increasing the sense of wellbeing. Usually pranayama practice is topped off with the bellows breath and then the bee humming breath. Bhastrika or the bellows breath can help reduce weight, tackle obesity, and weight accumulated on the abdomen. Brahmari, the bee humming breath massages the brain and leaves you feeling relaxed.
Ujjayi, the hissing breath balances the body's blood pressure and sheetali pranayama, the cooling breath balances the body's temperature. All these practices together will take about 25 minutes each time. Include a bit of alternate nostril breathing as well and you're good to go. You will feel healthy, mentally and physically agile, bright, and overall capable of taking on any challenge, be it physical or emotional. Pranayama for fitness is a wonderful idea because it gets you feeling in the pink of health and from there on, takes you to new heights of fitness.
Pranayama for fitness
The effects of pranayama as a fitness tool can also be maximised when used in conjunction with asana. Breathing deeply during asana practice is only one small part of it. You could actually incorporate techniques of pranayama into asana. For example, while practicing sun salutations, you could use ujjayi breathing instead of inhaling and exhaling as you normally do. This gives the practice of sun salutations an edge – you might break a sweat, but you won't be out of breath. You will build your muscular strength without a heavy workout, you will feel capable of running a marathon. Thats what pranayama can do for you – increase lung capacity and leave you panting for more!
Overall, pranayama can be considered one of the best fitness tools and one that every workout program, irrespective of what it is, would do well to fit in.