The word Prāṇāyāma is a compound of prāṇa (life-force) and āyāma (control). Alternatively, it could be understood as a process that extends the dimension of the life force. It is one of the 8 limbs of yoga, and precedes meditation by two steps. When we say prāṇa, we are not talking merely about the breath.
As Swami Vivekananda puts it, “it is the vitality of the breath which is Prāṇa.” The Vedic scriptures emphasise the predominance of Prāņa (life-force) and provide instructions on breath-control in order to attain immortality. The Vedic seers understood the direct link between the breath and the mind. For instance, in the Chāndogya Upaṇiṣad (6.8.2), the connection between the breath and mind is illustrated through an analogy:
“A bird, which is tied by a string flies in all directions, returns to its point of bondage, as it does not reach any place of refuge. Similarly, dear boy, the mind flies off in all directions and, on not reaching any other place to stay, returns to the breath. This is because the mind is tied to the breath.”
Therefore, the most traditional methods of meditating involved the breath. Even after Pratyāhāra, one could still focus on the breath. Breathing is done automatically and one does not need to induce it. In one of his videos, Yogi Kirti mentioned that one could avoid energy creation or disturbances if we thought of ourselves as a rock while meditating. This reminds me of the manner in which Lord Śiva mediates in the Kumārasambhava:
“Because he controlled his inner winds
He was like a cloud without the gushing of rain
He resembled a pot of water without ripple
Like an un-flickering lamp in a place without breeze.”
However, apart from inhalation and exhalation, advanced practitioners would also retain their breath. This is known as Kumbhaka. Once the yogi’s channels are purified, she/he is able to practice more advanced breath-control techniques. There are two types of Kumbhaka – Sahita and Kevala. Kevala Kumbhaka is the stopping of breath for as long as one wishes, while Sahita kumbhaka is breath-retention accompanied by inhalation and exhalation. The yogi is often instructed to apply certain locks (bandhas) while holding the breath, as well as apply mudras. This aids in steadying the breath and making the energy rise up the Suṣumnā.
However, for beginners, there are various types of Prāṇāyāma techniques that are more feasible. The examples include yogic breathing, Ujjayi breath, Bhastrika, NāḍiŚodhana and Bhramarī.
Benefits of Prāṇāyāma
Traditionally, the ultimate aim of some Yogic practices was to direct Prāṇa into the suṣumnā nadi specifically, enabling Kuṇḍalini to rise, and thus bring about Mokṣa.
There are two energetic nerve channels (nāḍis) on either side of the spine – Iḍā and Piṅgala. The Prāṇa flows upwards through the iḍā, and with this upward movement, the breath is automatically drawn into the lungs. The result is that the mind is lured towards the gross world of senses. The energy flows downwards through the Piṅgala, which is called apāna. With this downward movement, there is exhalation of the breath, signifying a rejection of the external world.
The continuous cycle of happiness and dejection is embedded within the subtle channels. Through Prāṇāyāma, one could redirect the energy though the central spine known as Suṣumnā nāḍi. When this energy in the Suṣumnā reaches the top of the spine and attains the 6th Chakra, one becomes enlightened.
One could say that as a by-product of Prāṇāyāma, the practitioner attains Siddhis – extraordinary powers. However, sometimes the attainment of Siddhis could be distracting to the pursuit of the ultimate goal of liberation.
There are various physical benefits that Prāņāyāma brings about. The main ones include stress-reduction, improvement of sleep quality, reduction of high blood pressure, improvement of lung function, reduction of hypertension, etc.
For instance, Ujjayī breathing improves concentration, promotes clarity and focus, enhances memory and bolsters immune system. It removes disorders of the dhātu – the 7 constituents of the body: blood, bone, marrow, fat, semen, skin and flesh. Bhramarī prāṇāyāma relieves cerebral tension and alleviates throat problems.
The Bhastrika Prāṇāyāma burns up toxins and removes imbalance in doṣas. Due to the rapid exchange of air in the lungs, there is an increase in the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide into and out of the bloodstream. This stimulates metabolism, producing heat and flushing out toxins.