Pranayama – Part A

This Sanskrit word pranayama comes from the roots prana (Universal energy), and yama (to control). The literal definition then, is the “control of (or holding onto) the vital force (prana)”, most aptly via the breath, which makes pranayama yoga, in effect, the practice of ‘breath control’. …

It is a conscious attempt to stabilize the flows of prana and apana (two primary subtle energies whose dynamic movements are intimately linked to the breath), and bring them into a state of ‘polarity’ or ‘harmonious interaction’.

What is Prana?

Prana refers to the essential subtle energy that underlies all of reality. In the yogic tradition, prana is seen as the origin and the sum of all of the energies of the Universe.

The word itself can be broken into its Sanskrit roots, pra which means ‘prior’ or ‘to have previous existence’, and ana, which refers to a singular element, that basic unit, anu (or atom) which underlies material, manifest existence.

In this sense, the word prana literally implies that which is the ‘precursor of’ or ‘prerequisite for’ manifestation or material life.

It is precisely the action of prana, that ‘life-giving force’, that gives birth to the world and its entire range of phenomenon. Prana may therefore be seen as the total sum of energy that enlivens the human being and all of nature.

As human beings, we receive this ‘life-giving force’ most abundantly through the air that we breathe, but also in the food we eat and the water we drink — absorbing it in other ways too, such as through the skin.

What is Yoga Pranayama?

This branch of yoga is most often regarded as ‘the control of the breath’. It is true that on the existential level, the easiest ‘perceivable’ manifestation of prana, and therefore that upon which it is easiest to act, is deemed to be the breath. Consequently, the yogi mostly relies on his/her breath for the absorption, assimilation and manipulation of this vital energy.

Moreover, prana manifests within beings as the different physical, mental and psychic processes. The fine movements of the nerves in a living body and the powers of the mind are in fact only more specific manifestations of prana. The activity of the five senses are also expressions of prana vibrating at certain frequencies.

Since prana is the vital force and yama refers to its control, we can say really that pranayama refers to the ‘discipline integrated as a fundamental stage in the yogic practice, which studies the origin and nature of the mysterious and invisible force that is prana’.

Pranayama in Yoga

In “Yoga: Step-By-Step,” Yogamaharishi Dr. Swami Gitananda Giri responds to the question of where to start in the study of yoga by asking; “Where did life start?” The answer to both questions, he says, is “with the breath of life!”

He continues:

“yoga should start with the breath disciplines, which will later lead us to the ‘classical pranayamas’. In the beginning, [the practice] is very much a case of moving air in and out of the body. [But] Pranayama is actually a higher form of controlled breathing, bringing under domination the Divine Life Force, represented by the prana.”

In our introduction to yoga, we will begin with some fundamental breathing practices. These methods themselves can provide great physiological and mental benefits, and are indeed necessary precursors to the higher forms of controlled breathing referred to above by Swami Gitananda.

These foundational practices also serve to stabilizes the body, cleanse and purify the physical structure, and help to build health and endurance. These techniques are essential for cleansing and purifying the respiratory system, blood stream, and organs, for toning up the nervous system and strengthening and purifying the mind…

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