About Pranayama

We can live without eating for some weeks, without drinking for some days, but without breathing only for a few minutes. Breath is life, however most people rarely or never pay any attention to the way they breathe. In yoga practice we always stay in touch with our breath. Moreover, there are specific yogic exercises that concentrate just on breathing to teach us how to breathe properly and how to link the breath with movements.

As we advance in yoga practice, we learn pranayama which is much more than just breathing exercises. There are two opinions on translation of the word pranayama. Commonly, it’s considered to comprise the words prana and yama which literally mean control of prana. Other schools believe that the word pranayama consists of prana and ayama, which can then be translated as expanding prana. Pranayama is the process of expanding our usually small reservoir of prana by lengthening, directing, and regulating the movement of the breath and then limiting or restraining the increased pranic energy in the body-mind.

According to yogic science, breath is the primary regulator of prana. While we can’t see and touch prana directly, at least not as yoga beginner practitioners, we can do so indirectly, through one of its most obvious physical manifestations and significant vehicles, our breath. Through pranayama, we use the breath to affect the subtle flows of prana in the body, and its regulation and distribution to the various levels of our being which allows us to maintain a healthy body and mind. Just as asana practice can result in more refined body awareness, pranayama practice leads to deeper prana awareness.

The early yogis discovered that breathing is intimately connected with our physical, emotional and mental states. Normally, when we are not paying attention to our breath, it is quite random, and subject to all kinds of fluctuations according to the physical state of the body, as well as emotional and mental states. For example, the breath is affected by what and when we last ate, what surrounds the body - climatic conditions, noise, etc., and our moods and thoughts. A smooth slow rhythm usually indicates a relaxed state of body and mind. Irregular respiration usually means tension. Since the mind is very subtle, impossible to grasp, yogis started using the breath to acquire some degree of control over the mind which gradually resulted in the discovery of the practices of pranayama.

The primary purpose of pranayama practice is to awaken prana, expand its dimensions and become further aware of the more subtle levels of our existence. Breathing is an exceptional function of the body in that it is ordinarily regulated automatically by the autonomic nervous system but can be consciously modified. Because of this, it can act as a doorway between the conscious and unconscious aspects of the self. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the most influential texts on hatha yoga, devotes two-and-a-half times as many verses to pranayama as it does to asana.

One should start practicing pranayama only after being established in the practice of natural breath (instead of "breathing," the breath arises internally and one is “breathed”). There are several pranayama techniques available which all have different aims but there is one rule for all of them - there should be no tension felt in the body or mind, one must stay relaxed and comfortable throughout the practice. One should always feel at ease when practicing pranayama, able to calmly observe the quality of each breath.

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