Pranayama ordinarily means ‘breathing exercise’ but it also has a much deeper meaning. The word prana has been called ‘Brahman’ in the Upanishads. The Sanskrit word prana means ‘cosmic energy’ and ayana means ‘control’. The compound of the two terms together means to ‘control this energy’.
Breath permeates every single particle in the body that is working all the time. When it stops working inside the body life comes to an end. It is said that a person can live for a long time without food but without prana the life is over.
When breath enters the body it is not merely air or oxygen that comes in, but an invisible divine energy that fills us inside. This also sustains the vitality of the body. The main passage of prana is the nose; the inhalation and exhalation through the nostrils is the basis of life and pranayama. The seers and sages invented the pranayama breathing techniques so that the mind may reveal the divinity of the inner self, hidden within. As the techniques are perfected the mind becomes capable of attaining concentration. Pranayama is not merely breathing in and breathing out, one also accumulates ‘pranic energy’ or ‘vital force’ along with air. All the actions of the body are directly or indirectly connected with this prana.
Generally people do not breathe deeply. As a result they only use about a quarter of their lung function. Swami Vivekananda, the Indian master of yoga said, “The most obvious manifestation of this prana in the human body is the motion of the lungs. If that stops, as a rule all other manifestations of force (prana) in the body will immediately stop.”
Pranayama literally means controlling this motion of the lungs as this motion is associated with the breath. It’s not that the breath produces the motion. On the contrary, it is the motion of the lungs that produces the breath. This motion draws in the air by an action similar to pumping.
Prana (energy) moves the lungs and the movement of the lungs draws in the air. Therefore pranayama is not necessarily breathing, but controlling that muscular power or the energy which moves the lungs. When the prana is controlled we can see that all the other actions of prana in the body slowly come under control.
Due to improper breathing and impurities and foreign matter infiltrating the lungs, people become susceptible to deadly diseases. Various diseases can be warded off easily by practicing pranayama and one can increase longevity and benefit fully from a happy and healthy life.
Practicing pranayama regularly gives us the ability to control the sense organs that are dominated by the mind. As the mind is very erratic and unstable the sense organs follow it wherever it goes. When the sense organs are restrained along with the mind by pranayama breathing, a state of supremacy is reached.
However, a word of caution: pranayama should be practiced slowly with patience and without any hurry. The process is similar to ferocious wild animals like lions, elephants and tigers, who are tamed progressively with great caution and respect. If done in a hurry, these animals can attack and harm us; similarly, prana should be brought under control by gradual practice. Otherwise, harm can befall a learner.
- Pranayama should be practiced in a quiet and clean place.
- One should sit with their spine held erect.
- Those who are unable to sit on the ground can sit on a chair.
- Breaths should be taken through the nose only.
- If you experience fatigue, a rest between exercises is permissible.
- People with high blood pressure should limit their pranayama exercises to a minimum amount.
- Practice should generally be according to one’s capacity and age.
- Pregnant women should not attempt difficult pranayama practices.