Pranayama (Sanskrit: prāṇāyāma) is a Sanskrit word often translated as control of the life force (prana). When used as a technical term in yoga, it is often translated more specifically as “breath control.” Literal translations include A. A. Macdonell’s “suspension of breath” and I. K. Taimni’s “regulation of breath.”
Pranayama (Devanagari: prāṇāyāma) is a Sanskrit compound.
V. S. Apte provides fourteen different meanings for the word prana (Devanagari: prāṇa) including these:
* Breath, respiration
* The breath of life, vital air, principle of life (usually plural in this sense, there being five such vital airs generally assumed, but three, six, seven, nine, and even ten are also spoke of)
* Energy, vigor
* The spirit or soul
Of these meanings, the concept of “vital air” is used by Bhattacharyya to describe the concept as used in Sanskrit texts dealing with pranayama. Thomas McEvilley translates “prana” as “spirit-energy”.
Monier-Williams defines the compound prāṇāyāma as “N. of the three ‘breath-exercises’ performed during Saṃdhyā (See pūraka, recaka, kumbhaka.” This technical definition refers to a particular system of breath control with three processes as explained by Bhattacharyya: pūraka (to take the breath inside), kumbhaka (to retain it), and recaka (to discharge it). There are also other processes of pranayama in addition to this three-step model.
Macdonell gives the etymology as prāṇa + āyāma and defines it as “suspension of breath.”
Apte’s definition of āyāmaḥ derives it from ā + yām and provides several variant meanings for it when used in compounds. The first three meanings have to do with “length”, “expansion, extension”, and “stretching, extending”, but in the specific case of use in the compound prāṇāyāma he defines āyāmaḥ as meaning “restrain, control, stopping.”
An alternative etymology for the compound is cited by Ramamurti Mishra, who says that:
“Expansion of individual energy into cosmic energy is called prāṇāyāma (prāṇa, energy + ayām, expansion).”
The word “yama” (Devanagari: yāma) means “cessation” or more generally “control” or “restraint.”
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Pranayama is the fourth ‘limb’ of the eight limbs of Raja Yoga mentioned in verse 2.29 in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Patanjali discusses his specific approach to pranayama in verses 2.49 through 2.51, and devotes verses 2.52 and 2.53 to explaining the benefits of the practice. Patanjali refers to pranayama as the control of life force that comes as a result of practicing the various breathing techniques, rather than the numerous breathing exercises themselves.
Many yoga teachers advise that pranayama should be part of an overall practice that includes the other limbs of Patanjali’s Raja Yoga teachings, especially Yama, Niyama, and Asana.
Several researchers have reported that pranayama techniques are beneficial in treating a range of stress related disorders, improving autonomic functions, relieving symptoms of asthma, and reducing signs of oxidative stress. Practitioners report that the practice of pranayama develops a steady mind, strong will-power, and sound judgement, and also claim that sustained pranayama practice extends life and enhances perception.
Cautions & contraindications
Many yoga teachers recommend that pranayama techniques be practiced with care, and that advanced pranayama techniques should be practiced under the guidance of a teacher. These cautions are also made in traditional Hindu literature.
“Prana is a subtle invisible force. It is the life-force that pervades the body. It is the factor that connects the body and the mind, because it is connected on one side with the body and on the other side with the mind. It is the connecting link between the body and the mind. The body and the mind have no direct connection. They are connected through Prana only and this Prana is different from the breathing you have in your physical body.” — Swami Chidananda Saraswati.
“Yoga works primarily with the energy in the body, through the science of pranayama, or energy-control. Prana means also ‘breath.’ Yoga teaches how, through breath-control, to still the mind and attain higher states of awareness. The higher teachings of yoga take one beyond techniques, and show the yogi, or yoga practitioner, how to direct his concentration in such a way as not only to harmonize human with divine consciousness, but to merge his consciousness in the Infinite.” — Paramahansa Yogananda