Pranayama is made up of two words, prana and ayama. Prana is vital force, ayama means to restrain or control. You can see from just this that pranayama is not breathing exercises but much more than that. It is the fourth limb of real ashtanga yoga. “Tasmin Sati Svasa prasvasayorgativicchedah Pranayamah”— The control of Prana is the stoppage of inhalation and exhalation, which follows after securing that steadiness of posture or seat, Asana. Thus is Pranayama defined in Patanjali Yoga Sutras, Chapter II-49. The chief aim of Pranayama is to unite the Prana with the Apana and take the united Pranapana slowly towards the head. The effect or fruit of Pranayama is Udghata (impulse or time that the retention is held for) or awakening of the sleeping Kundalini.That being said what is prana? Prana is the governing agency of all the sensory and motor functions of the body. It is what makes the physiology work properly and maintains the health of the physical body and mind. Prana is classified into subcategories due to each of the pranas functions. There are 30 discernable types of prana in the gross body. In yoga we generally talk about ten of them, in Ayurveda five. Prana also has many different names it goes by as to how the word is being used in a sentence. Pavan, vayu, vata, anila, are some of them.
Pranayama can be looked at in the same vein as chi gung and various other Asian arts that work to build the energy of the body but should not be thought as the same as they are different in template and function, for example acupuncture points are not the same things as marmas although books you can get freely on the market have combined the two. Asana (the physical postures) are but to balance the prana of the body, which creates health and flexibility. A comfortable seat is a correct translation of Asana. From this comfortable seat of padmasana (lotus pose) pranayama or the building, storing, and building of capacity of the body takes place. This is done thru kumbaka or the stopping of the respiration. Respiration being disturbed, the mind becomes disturbed. By restraining respiration, the Yogi or Yogini gets steadiness of mind. Hatha Yoga Pradipika Chapter II – 2. The mind is intimately connected to prana as it is through the senses that we expend prana or use prana. Just as an example, at 4 AM to 4:30 AM when you wake up at night with anxiety and or a spinning mind, this is due to imbalanced prana. It is also the time of day when prana is the highest so any imbalance will have a greater effect. Simply restraining the prana at this time will calm the mind immediately. This sis also one of the reasons why a yoga practice is done at the wee hours of the AM before the sun has risen. Vata is activated until sunrise.
If pranayama is done from the western vantage point of breathing exercises, ALL is lost. The focus of the prana while inhaling, locking in correct manner, holding or restraining, then exhalation is of utmost importance. The udghata as used above is the extent of time the that the breath is held without any upset or uneasiness for inhaling or releasing the breath. This is regulated by the specific number of breaths and this shows that pranayama is regulated by numbers. Yoga philosophy uses Sankhya (numbers) philosophy as underpinnings to its science. See the article on Sankhya for more info. The specific number of breaths are fixed beforehand. These numbers are observed to see the increase in pranayamas or the rate of increase in a practice. The number is exact and should be followed carefully and increased slowly. 12 matras or 48 heartbeats is the first udghata. This increases with time and practice.
From the Hatha Yoga Pradipika:
- Posture becoming established, a Yogi or Yogini, master of himself or herself, eating salutary and moderate food, should practice pranayama, as instructed by his or her guru.
- Respiration being disturbed, the mind becomes disturbed. By restraining respiration, the Yogi or Yogini gets steadiness of mind.
- So long as the (breathing) air stays in the body, it is called life. Death consists in the passing out of the (breathing) air. It is, therefore, necessary to restrain the breath.
- The breath does not pass through the middle channel (susumna), owing to the impurities of the nadis. How can then success be attained, and how can there be the unmani avastha.
- When the whole system of the nadis which is full of impurities, is cleaned, then the Yogi or Yogini becomes able to control the Prana.
- Therefore, Pranayama should be performed daily with satwika buddhi (intellect free from raja and tama or activity and sloth), in order to drive out the impurities of the susumna.
Methods of performing Pranayama
- Sitting in the Padmâsana posture the Yogi or Yogini should fill in the air through the left nostril (closing the right one); and, keeping it confined according to one’s ability, it should be expelled slowly through the surya (right nostril).
- Then, drawing in the air through the surya slowly, the belly should be filled, and after performing Kumbhaka as before, it should be expelled slowly through the chandra (left nostril).
- Inhaling thus through the one, through which it was expelled, and having restrained it there, till possible, it should be exhaled through the other, slowly and not forcibly.
- If the air be inhaled through the left nostril, it should be expelled again through the other, and filling it through the right nostril, confining it there, it should be expelled through the left nostril. By practising in this way, through the right and the left nostrils alternately, the whole of the collection of the nadis of the yami (practisers) becomes clean, i.e., free from impurities, after 3 months and over.
- Kumbhakas should be performed gradually four times during day and night (i.e., morning, noon, evening and midnight), till the number of Kumbhakas for one time is 80 and for day and night together it is 320.
- In the beginning there is perspiration, in the middle stage there is quivering, and in the last or third stage, one obtains steadiness; and then the breath should be made steady or motionless.
- The perspiration exuding from exertion of practice should be rubbed into the body (and not wiped), as by so doing the body becomes strong.
- During the first stage of practice the food consisting of milk and ghee is wholesome. When the practice becomes established, no such restriction is necessary.
- Just as lions, elephants and tigers are controlled by and by, so the breath is controlled by slow degrees, otherwise (i.e., by being hasty or using too much force) it kills the practitioner himself or herself.
- When Pranayama, etc., are performed properly, they eradicate all diseases; but an improper practice generates diseases.
- Hiccough, asthma, cough, pain in the head, the ears, and the eyes; these and other various kinds of diseases are generated by the disturbance of the breath.
- The air should be expelled with proper tact and should be filled in skillfully; and when it has been kept confined properly it brings success. (N.B.–The above caution is necessary to warn the aspirants against omitting any instruction; and in their zeal to gain success or siddhis early, to begin the practice, either by using too much force in filling in, confining and expelling the air, or by omitting any instructions, it may cause unnecessary pressure on their ears, eyes, etc., and cause pain. Every word in the instructions is full of meaning and is necessarily used in the slokas, and should be followed very carefully and with due attention. Thus there will be nothing to fear whatsoever. We are inhaling and exhaling the air throughout our lives without any sort of danger, and Pranayama being only a regular form of it, there should be no cause to fear.)
- When the nadis become free from impurities, and there appear the outward signs of success, such as lean body and glowing color, then one should feel certain of success.
- By removing the impurities, the air can be restrained, according to one’s wish and the appetite is increased, the divine sound is awakened, and the body becomes healthy.
- If there be excess of fat or phlegm in the body, the six kinds of kriyas (duties) should be performed first. But others, not suffering from the excess of these, should not perform them.
- The six kinds of duties are: Dhauti, Basti, Neti, Trataka, Nauti and Kapala Bhati. These are called the six actions.
- These six kinds of actions which cleanse the body should be kept secret. They produce extraordinary attributes and are performed with earnestness by the best Yogis.