“Pranayama is generally defined as breath control. Although this interpretation may seem correct in view of the practices involved, it does not convey the full meaning of the term. The word pranayama is comprised of two roots: ‘prana’ plus ‘ayama’. Prana means ‘vital energy’ or ‘life force’. It is the force which exists in all things, whether animate or inanimate.
“Athaasane dridhe yogee vashee hitamitaashanaha.
The above shloka means: “Thus being established in asana and having control (of the body), taking a balanced diet; pranayama should be practiced according to the instructions of the guru”.
“Hatha Yoga Pradipika”
Although closely related to the air we breathe, it is more subtle than air or oxygen. Therefore, pranayama should not be considered as mere oxygen into the lungs. Pranayama utilizes breathing to influence the flow of prana in the nadis or energy channels of the pranamaya kosha or energy body.
The word yama means ‘control’ and is used to denote various rules or codes of conduct. However, this is not the word which is joined to prana to form pranayama; the correct word is ‘ayama’ which has far more implications. Ayama is defined as ‘extension’ or ‘expansion’. Thus, the word pranayama means ‘extension or expansion of the dimension of prana’.”
Pranayama is an important Anga in Ashtanga Yoga. It is equally necessary for all in their daily life, for good health, success and prosperity in every walk of life. The Prana may be defined as the finest vital force in everything which becomes visible on the physical plane as motion and action and on the mental plane as thought. The word Pranayama, therefore, means the restraint of vital energies. The Prana is the very essence of cosmic life, a subtle principle which evolved the whole universe into its present form, and which is pushing it towards its ultimate goal.
The control of this force is what is aimed at by the Yogis by means of Pranayama. He who conquers this, is not only the conqueror of his own existence on the physical and mental plane, but the conqueror of the whole world. Just as a goldsmith removes the impurities of gold by heating it in the hot furnace, by strongly blowing the blow-pipe, so also the Yogic student removes the impurities of the body and the Indriyas(Senses) by blowing his lungs, i.e., by practicing Pranayama.
Four aspects of pranayama
In the pranayama practices there are four important aspects of breathing which are utilized. These are:
- Pooraka or inhalation
- Rechaka or exhalation
- Antar kumbhaka or internal breath retention
- Bahir kumbhaka or external breath retention.
The different practices of pranayama involve various techniques which utilize these four aspects of breathing. There is another mode of pranayama, which is called kevala kumbhaka or spontaneous breath retention. This is an advanced stage of pranayama which occurs during high states of meditation. During this state, the fluctuation of prana ceases. At this time, the veil which prevents one from seeing the subtle aspect of existence is lifted and a higher vision of reality is attained.”
The Pranic Body
According to yogic physiology, the human framework is comprised of five bodies or sheaths, which account for the different aspects or dimensions of human existence. These five sheaths are known as:
- Annamaya kosha, the food or material body
- Manomaya kosha, the mental body
- Pranamaya kosha, the bioplasmic or vital energy body
- Vijnanamaya kosha, the psychic or higher mental body
- Anandamaya kosha, the transcendental or bliss body.
Although these five sheaths function together to form an integral whole, the practices of pranayama work mainly with pranamaya kosha. Pranamaya kosha is made up of five major pranas, which are collectively known as the pancha, or five, pranas: prana, apana, samana, udana and vyana.
What is Prana?
“He who knows Prana knows Vedas” is the important declaration of the Srutis. You will find in Vedanta Sutras: “For the same reason, breath is Brahman.” Prana is the sum total of all energy that is manifest in the universe. It is the sum total of all the forces in nature. He who has grasped this Prana, has grasped the very core of cosmic life and activity. He who has conquered and controlled this very essence, has not only subjected his own body and mind but every other body and mind in this universe.
The seat of Prana is heart. Though the Antahkarana is one, yet it assumes four forms, viz., (i) Manas, (ii) Buddhi, (iii) Chitta and (iv) Ahamkara according to the different functions it performs. Likewise, though Prana is one, it assumes five forms viz., (1) Prana, (2) Apana, (3) Samana, (4) Udana and (5) Vyana according to the different functions it performs. The function of Prana is respiration; Apana does excretion; Samana performs digestion; Udana does deglutition (swallowing of the food). It takes the Jiva to sleep. It separates the astral body from the physical body at the time of death. Vyana performs circulation of blood.
What are Nadis?
Nadis are subtle channels that carry Pranic currents. They can be seen by the astral eyes only. They are not the nerves. They are 72,000 in number. Ida, Pingala and Sushumna are the important nadis. Sushumna is the most important of all.
There are the two nerve-currents one on either side of the spinal column. The left one is called Ida and the right is known as Pingala. These are Nadis. Tentatively, some take these as the right and the left sympathetic cords, but they are subtle tubes that carry Prana. The Moon moves in the Ida and the Sun in the Pingala. Ida is cooling. Pingala is heating. Ida flows through the left nostril and the Pingala through the right nostril. The breath flows through the right nostril for one hour and then through the left nostril for one hour. Man is busily engaged in worldly activities, when the breath flows through Ida and Pingala. Sushumna is the most important of all the Nadis. It is the sustainer of the universe and the path of the universe and the path of salvation. Situated at the back of the anus, it is attached to the spinal column and extends to the Brahmarandhra of the head and is invisible and subtle.
By the practice of Pranayama, the purification of the Nadis, the brightening of the gastric fire, hearing distinctly of spiritual sounds and good health result. When the nervous centers have become purified through the regular practice of Pranayama, the air easily forces its way up through the mouth of the Sushumna, which is in the middle.
The Five Essentials
Five things are necessary for practicing Pranayama.
First a good place; second, a suitable time; third, moderate, substantial, light and nutritious food; fourth, patient and persistent practice with zeal, ease and earnestness and lastly the purification of Nadis (Nadi-Suddhi).
When the Nadis are purified the aspirant enters the first stage in the practice of Yoga—‘Arambha’. A Pranayama practitioner has a good appetite, good digestion, cheerfulness, courage, strength, vigor, a high standard of vitality and a handsome appearance. The Yogi should take his food at a time when Surya Nadi or Pingala is working, i.e., when the breath flows through the right nostril, because Pingala is heating and digests the food quickly. Pranayama should not be practiced just after taking meals, nor when one is very hungry. Pranayama should be practiced with care, perseverance and faith.
A Pranayama practitioner should always speak kind and sweet words. He must be kind to everybody. He must be honest. He must speak the truth. He must develop Vairagya, patience, Sraddha (faith), Bhakti (devotion), Karuna (mercy), etc. He must observe perfect celibacy. A householder should be very moderate in sexual matters during the practice.
Take wholesome Sattvic food half stomachful. Fill a quarter with pure water. Allow the remaining quarter free for expansion of gas and for propitiating the Lord.
Pranayama is one of the most important Sadhanas. Through the practice of Asana, you can control the physical body and through Pranayama, you can control the subtle, astral body or the Linga Sarira. As there is an intimate connection between the breath and nerve-currents, control of breath leads to the control of vital inner currents.
Time of practice: The best time to practice pranayama is at dawn, when the body is fresh, and the mind has very few impressions. If this is not possible, another good time is just after sunset. Tranquillizing pranayama may be performed before sleep. Try to practice regularly at the same time and place each day. Regularity in practice increases strength and willpower as well as acclimatizing the body and mind to the increased pranic force. Do not be in a hurry; slow, steady progress is essential.
Saraswati, Swami Satyananda. “Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha.”