Pranayama in yoga is the fourth limb of eight-fold Raja Yoga. It is often spelled as Pranayam. Only after attaining Asana Siddhi (Mastery in Yoga Posture), a yoga aspirant is eligible to start the breath control exercises. It plays a vital role not only in yoga but also in other spiritual practices like Japa, Meditation, and Prayer.
Considering its paramount importance in yoga and spiritual life, substantive knowledge of this breath-control exercise is necessary for a spiritual seeker and a yoga aspirant.
This article aims to serve as a complete guide to impart expert knowledge of pranayama that includes the meaning, definition, history, elements, types, philosophy, and practice. Besides, it highlights the various yogic standpoints on the subject.
What is Pranayama?
It is a part of yoga practice that includes specific breath control exercises.
If respiration is disturbed, your mind becomes disturbed. Also, while your mind is disturbed by anger or excitement, your respiration also will get disturbed. If you get control over your mind, you will have control over respiration. Similarly, if you restrain your breathing, you could restrain your mind. Simply, Pranayama is a set of breath control exercises that restrain respiration.
Understanding its meaning and definitions give you more idea of what is Pranayama. Let us have a look at its meaning first.
The term Pranayama is the combination of two Sanskrit words: Prana and Yama. One meaning of Prana is Breath. In that sense, it is breath-controlling exercises or breath-regulating techniques. In other words, it is the control of Prana.
Yama means to control or regulate. Prana has a wider meaning.
What Is Prana?
Prana is commonly understood as a breath. Actually, it is more than that. At the micro-level, it is the vital energy that connects all the parts of the body. It makes you feel like a whole, yet each cell of the body is different from one other. Breathe is one of the media through which the vital energy or Prana makes you connected and feel like a whole.
If the connecting mechanism leaves the body, then the body becomes dead. The same life energy exists in all living beings. In non-living beings, it exists in some other manner. It is the dynamic force that exists inside an atom.
According to Indian Philosophy, the whole universe is made up of two materials. One is Akasa or Ether and the other is Prana.
Ether penetrates everything and transcends all. This is God Shiva.
Out of Akasa, everything that has a form is created with the help of Prana. Prana is the sum total of all the energies and forces of the universe. This is Goddess Sakthi.
The knowledge to control this Prana is Pranayama. Thus the Yogi who can control the vital energy can control everything in this world. From tiny atoms to gigantic stars, everything is at his command. This is the power of Pranayama.
How one could control the massive force of Prana? You have to start controlling the Prana that is nearest you. The vital force that exists nearest to you is your breath. As a result of getting control over this breath, you can get total control of Prana. Hence, Pranayama is the collection of breath control techniques for getting control over the vital force that exists in your body as well as in the whole universe.
We have already seen that Pranayama means the control of Prana. We may simply define Pranayama as the control of the vital forces or energies of the body. This can be done only through the control of the breath. Hence it is commonly defined as the set of breathing exercises that control the vital forces of the body. It is simply the yogic science of breath.
After describing Asana, Patanjali continues, ” Next comes the controlling of the exhalation and the inhalation.” This is his definition. For him, it is controlling the motion of breath.
Pranayama History and Origin
Pranayama is an age-old science of yoga that has been in practice in India for more than three thousand five hundred years. We could find references in ancient texts like Chandogya Upanishad, Brihudharanya Upanishad, Maitri Upanishad, Bhagavad Gita, and Patanjali Yoga Sutra. Let us have look at some texts.
The Chandogya Upanishad, which is said to have been compiled during the period from 800 BCE to 600 BCE, mentions the word Perfected Prana. Verse 3.17.6 advocates a three-fold concept that one should have recourse to at the time of death. The three concepts are Aksitamasi (you are imperishable- You will never cease to be), Achuyutamasi (you are unchangeable- You will not fall out of your form), and Prana-Samsitamasi (you are Prana properly refined and rendered subtle).
Chandoyga Upanishad is a collection of pre-existing texts, meaning we could not determine the correct age of the Upanishad. But we could easily come to the conclusion that it is more than 3000 years old. It clearly mentions the perfectly refined Prana. It is otherwise called Controlled Prana or simply Prana Yama. Hence it is evident that the age of Prana Yama practice is more than 3000 years.
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is one of the earliest of the Upanishads and it dates back to the earlier part of the First Millenium BCE. The term Prana is found in the starting Mantra itself. In this Mantra, the parts of the universe are compared with the parts of the body. It says vātaḥ prāṇaḥ. The air of the universe is compared with the Prana of the body.
Chapter 1.3 describes Prana Vidya or meditation on Prana. Swami Ktishnananda describes the meaning of verse 1.3.7 as;
The Prāṇa mentioned here is not merely the breathing principle or the breath, so-called. Some people translate Prāṇa as breathe, but it is not just that. It is the energy, a subtle force, a vitality, that keeps the whole body in unison. If we can feel a sensation of unity in the whole body, it is because of the harmonious movement of the Prāṇa in the whole system. Really, the body is not one whole, it is made up of parts; every cell is different from every other cell, every limb is different from every other limb. But, in spite of this diversification, we are a whole, indivisible completeness. This is due to the Prāṇa which is the immediate manifestation of the ātmā-Śakti within us…. and correspondingly in the cosmos, we may say, Hiraṇyagarbha is the reflection of the Absolute Brahman.The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad Commentary by Swami Krishnananda 1.3.7
It is clear that Prana is more than breath and more important than the other parts of the body. So the techniques of Prana were developed and practiced in those days.
Bhagavad Gita Verses 4.29 and 4.30 mention the practice of Pranayama.
Still, others, who are inclined to the process of breath restraint to remain in trance, practice by offering the movement of the outgoing breath into the incoming, and the incoming breath into the outgoing, and thus, at last, remain in trance, stopping all breathing. Others, curtailing the eating process, offer the outgoing breath into itself as a sacrifice.Bhagavad Gita 4.29
It proves the fact that Pranayama was a part of yoga three thousand years ago.
Elements Of Pranayama
The four elements or components of Pranayama are Rechaka, Puraka, Kumbhaka, and Shunyaka. These are the four basic aspects of Pranayama.
Rechaka is the outgoing breath. Puraka is the incoming breath. Kumbhhaka is stopping breathing after inhalation and Shunyaka is stopping the breath after exhalation.
The stopping of breath after inhalation is Inner Retention or Antar Kumbhaka. Likewise, the stopping of breath after exhalation is Outer retention or Bahya Kumbhaka or simply Shunyaka. However, Outer Retention is rarely incorporated in breath control practices.
Sometimes, inhalation gets the name Abyantara Vritti. Also, retention is Stambha Vritti, and exhalation is Bahya Vritti.
One round of Inhalation, retention, and exhalation is one Pranayama. Hence this cycle is generally followed in each type of breath control practice. The Medieval Hatha Yoga texts often call one count of Pranayama as one Kumbhaka. They use both terms as synonyms. Hence, Kumbhaka either means retention alone or retention with inhalation and exhalation.
For measuring the length of the breath, yoga texts use a unit of measurement called Matra. Matra in this context equals four seconds. Many people confuse Matra as a measure to pronounce a letter that is approximately one second.
Types of Pranayama
Generally, the types of Pranayama are two-fold: Sakala and Kevala.
Sakala Pranayama is a breathing pattern that includes Inhalation and Exhalation; whereas Kevala Pranayama is a type that does not include Inhalation and Exhalation. It is an advanced type and Adepts in Yoga can practice this.
Yet another general classification is there: Sagarbha and Agarbha. Sagarbha Pranayam is a breath control practice with Mantra and Meditation; whereas Agarbha Pranayam is without Mantra and Meditation.
Sakala-type pranayamas are further classified into many types. Different Yoga texts give different types. Let us discuss the commonly used types.
Nadi Shodhan Pranayam
Sitali Pranayama is a soothing breathing control practice suitable for hot weather conditions. The Sanskrit word Sital means that which is calm and soothing. It harmonizes the body and mind.
Sitkari Pranayama is a similar type. Both Breathing practices are good for summer. It helps control desire and balances the mind.
Ujjayi means to conquer or be victorious. It is one of the simplest breath control practices yet gives immense benefits to the practitioner.
Bhramari is the sound of a female bee. In this practice, exhalation is done with the sound of a bee.
Bhastrika Pranayam is the breathing that resembles the bellows of the blacksmith. It is similar to Kabalbhati yet a different one.
Anulom Vilom Pranayam
Anulom Vilom Pranayam is an advanced-stage breathing exercise of Nadishodan Pranayam. It is just alternate nostril breathing with retention. This type contains many stages. At the initial stage, there should not be any retention. However, at the advanced stage, the ratio of inhalation, retention, and exhalation will be 16: 64: 32.
Kabalbhati Pranayam is one of the Shat Kriya or yogic cleansing exercises that should be practiced before the start of breath control exercises. It is similar to Bhastrika.
Surya Bheda Pranayama
Surya Bhedana Pranayama is a breathing exercise that involves the right nostril. Advanced practices of this type incorporate retention, Yogic Seals, and Locks.
Plavini Pranayama is one that makes you float. It is also known as Bhujankini Mudra. It also helps for fasting for a long duration of time.
Moorchha Pranayama is an advanced type that involves yogic seals and locks. It is a very good preparation for meditation.
Benefits of Pranayama
Benefits according to Svetasvatara Upanishad
Pranayama clears the dross of the mind. As a result of this, the mind will fix on Brahman. Hence the practice.
Benefits according to Yoga Sutra
Breath control practice destroys the coverings of the mind. In other words, the mind becomes clear and fit for Dharana practices.
Benefits according to Yoga Sikha Upanishad
According to Yoga Sikha Upanishad, the mind is bound up with Prana just like a bird is bound up with a rope. One cannot control the mind except by controlling Prana. Likewise, only through breath control practice, one can get Prana under control. In other words, Pranayama is the only way through which we can control the mind.
Benefits according to Yoga Chudamani Upanishad
Yoga Chudamani Upanishad states that the fire of Pranayama destroys all sins. It becomes a bridge to cross over the ocean of the world of sins. Through the breath control practices, Kundalini starts heading its course. Moreover, it results in the manifestation of Nada and the achievement of good health.
Benefits according to Darshana Upanishad
Darshana Upanishad elaborates on the benefits of breath control practices. The Yogi who practices breath control practices by drawing in the Prana from outside and filling the whole body with it lives for a hundred years without any diseases.
One can gain mastery over Prana by holding it on the tip of the nose. He can prevent all diseases by holding it in the middle of the navel. At the toes, the lightness of the body. By holding it in the middle of the eyebrows after inhaling through the left nostril, one can drink the nectar
Inhaling through the tongue, one can overcome thirst and tiredness. Also, it gives immunity to all diseases. By holding it in a specific part of the body like the eyes or ears, one can alleviate the diseases of that part.
Benefits according to Yoga Tattva Upanishad
As per Yoga Tattva Upanishad, by practice, the Yogi achieves superhuman feats like levitation. However, he should not disclose it to the outside world. He will not suffer from the miseries of a trivial nature.
The amount of urine and feces will be smaller. His body will become light. Likewise, his sleeping time will be lesser. Moreover, he will experience the absence of sweat, a bad smell in the mouth, spittle, rheum of eyes, and rheumatic afflictions of the joints.
By intensifying the practice, he will attain the power to wander over the earth and be at the desired place in no time. His body will be strong and by a mere blow of his hand, he will conquer any creature in the world. Most women will admire him. His body will generate a sweet smell.
To learn more about the benefits, refer to this article.
Asana, Pranayama, Meditation Sequence
The practice of breath control comes after yoga poses in the eightfold yoga sequence. Only after getting Asana Siddhi, one must proceed to the breath control exercises. If the Yogi successfully controls Prana, he becomes eligible for Dharana and meditation.
Yoga texts prescribe specific yoga poses for breath control and meditation. They recommend that one may choose any of the following poses according to their suitability.
Pranayama and Meditation
Most modern meditation practices don’t require mastery of seated yoga poses and breath control practice as preliminaries. These meditation practices won’t give complete benefits. Yet they may have some benefits like mental peace and harmony. To achieve the full benefits of meditation, one must follow the sequence of eightfold Yoga.
Pranayama in Japa Yoga
Just as Pranayama is a part of eight-fold yoga, it is also a part of Japa Yoga too. A simple Japa Practice contains the following limbs.
- Meditation on Lord Ganapati
- Meditation on the Deity of Mantra
- Mantra Japa
Likewise, it is a part of all Puja Sequences. Hence, it has been a part of not only yoga practices but also spiritual practices.