The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali offer a simple definition of pranayam as “the regulation of the incoming and outgoing flow of breath with retention.” Sounds easy enough to master, yet within this act of breathing actually lies the source of immense healing power which yogic masters have been teaching for hundreds of years as a way to prepare the mind for the stillness of meditation. Historically shrouded in mysticism and accessible only to those who practice yoga or ayurveda, pranayam has until recent times been off limits to the common man.
The word pranayama consists of two parts: “prana” and “ayama.” “Ayama” means stretch, extension, expansion, length, breadth, regulation, prolongation, restraint, and control; the word describes the action of pranayama.
“Prana,” or life force, refers to the physical, mental, intellectual, sexual, spiritual, and cosmic energies. It is the sum total of all the energy and forces manifested in nature: heat, light, magnetism, electricity, and so on.
“Prana” also denotes cosmic power, or the power of the entire universe, which manifests itself as a conscious, living being within each of us through the phenomenon of breathing.
So what exactly is the big secret to breathing? We all know how to breathe, yet the ancient seers of India proclaimed that when we direct our breath by thought and will, it can become a vitalizing and regenerating force.
Normally, we breathe from our chest, using only a fraction of our lungs. Pranayam teaches us the proper way to breathe—slowly and deeply—increasing the lung capacity and efficiency, while making more oxygen available to the body for it to function well. Practiced correctly, yogic breathing can steady emotions, calm frazzled nerves, and give the individual great clarity of mind. There is an intimate connection between the breath and the mind. In addition to enabling the individual to cultivate a sense of peace and greater concentration, specific breathing techniques help to eliminate toxins at a cellular level, improve digestion, metabolism, and overall health and energy.
Yogic breathing exercises are performed while sitting down in the lotus pose, with the spine, neck, and head in a straight line, the body relaxed, and the mind alert. It is not a passive activity, but rather a subtle discipline, which requires the instruction of a knowledgeable teacher. We are fortunate today that there are many classes and camps through which the serious seeker may embark on the journey to better health. India Currents’ calendar of ongoing yoga events is a good starting point if you’re interested in learning more about pranayam.
Ajita Patel is an ayurvedic health educator currently pursuing a degree from California College of Ayurveda.Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.