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What is Pranayama?

Pranayama is a compound word in Sanskrit composed of 'prana' + 'ayama'. Prana is the cosmic/universal life force which is responsible for keeping us 'alive'. In India, when a person dies, we say that 'prana' has left the person's body. The word 'ayama' has two different meanings - to stretch/elongate/expand and to control/restrain. Breath is a gross manifestation of this prana. So, the word pranayama means the ability to expand or stretch our life force (prana) by controlling the breath. Pranayama techniques involve controlling the breath in a variety of ways. According to Sage Patanjali (sutra 2.50), "Modifications of the breath are either internal, external or stopped; they are to be regulated by space, time and number and are either long or short". In this context space represents either a specific point of focus within the body (e.g. lower spine) or the left/right nostril, time means the duration of the breath and number means the number of inhalations and exhalations or retentions. Following these guidelines, a large number of breathing techniques have been documented in the Hatha Yoga Pradeepika, the ancient text on Hatha Yoga. Over the years, many new techniques as well as different variations on the classical techniques have emerged and are widely practiced.

Pranayama is the fourth of the eight limbs of yoga (Ashtanga Yoga) as defined by Sage Patanjali. It provides a vital bridge between the body and the mind. By controlling the breath, one can control the mind. When a person is angry or agitated, his breath is fast, disturbed and shallow. When a person is calm, his breath is soft and undisturbed. We often hear the phrase, "take a deep breath!" whenever we are upset over something. What yoga teaches us is that not only our emotions control the quality of our breath, but we can control the mind and our emotions by controlling the breath.

Pranayama in Raja Yoga

The following sutras in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali discuss pranayama:

(Sutra 2.49) - This having been established (that is, having mastered a comfortable and firm seated posture (asana), pranayama is defined as the cessation of inspiration and expiration.

(Sutra 2.50) - Its fluctuations are internal, external or suppressed; it is observed according to time, place and number, and becomes prolonged and subtle.

(Sutra 2.51) - The fourth variety is the one that goes beyond the sphere of internal and external.

The benefits of Pranayama are discussed in the following two sutras:

(Sutra 2.52) - From that (practice of pranayama) is dissolved the covering of light (the darkness of ignorance that covers the light of knowledge)

(Sutra 2.53) - and the mind develops the ability for Dharana (concentration). Dharana, dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (total absorption) are the last three limbs of the eight limbs of yoga (Ashtanga Yoga) and represent a progressively deepening inward focus, leadhing finally to a state of samadhi.

In addition to the above sutras which are described as part of the Ashtanga Yoga, sutra 1.34 in chapter 1 (Samadhi Pada) also mentions about pranayama with respect to controlling the fluctuations of the mind (chitta vritti nirodhah):

(Sutra 1.34) - Or by the expiration and retention of breath (mind is stabilized).

Pranayama in Hatha Yoga

In the Hatha Yoga Pradeepika (a free online translation and commentary is available here), Chapter two covers the topic of Shatkarma (six cleansing techniques) and Pranayama in detail. There are many shlokas which describe the philosophy and techniques of pranayama. Below are given a few of the representative shlokas related to pranayama:

(Shloka 2.1) - Thus being established in asana and having control of the body, taking balanced diet, pranayama should be practiced according to the instructions of the guru.

(Shloka 2.5) - When all the nadis and chakras have been purified, then the yogi is able to retain prana.

The following pranayama, including kumbhaka (breath retention) practices are provided:

Pranayama in Integral Yoga Class

In the beginners class, we introduce three basic techniques of pranayama:

Easy-to-follow instructions for practicing the above techniques are given here. Once the students develop a basic understanding of these techniques, they are gradually introduced to some variations on these techniques along with some other pranayama techniques as stated above, including the concept of 'kumbhaka' (breath retention).

Benefits of Pranayama

Pranayma Workshop slides