In order to understand the meaning of pranayama, we need to first understand the meaning of prana.
What is Prana?
Prana is roughly translated as energy or vital force. From the yogic point of you, the entire cosmos is alive, throbbing with prana. Prana is ever present in every aspect of creation.
It is said in Kathopanishad (2:3:2) that :
This whole world - whatever there is - vibrates having originated from prana.
Everyone is born with a certain quantum of prana, but the quantity and quality change continuously, as we go through life.
Positive thoughts,higher feelings and yogic practises generate higher levels of prana. We can also receive prana from food, environment, sun, water and air.
However, prana is not received only from external sources. It can be self-generated. We can work with our prana to enhance life's vitality, strength, to boost capability, efficiency, to cure diseases and to develop higher states of awareness.
The aim of pranayama is to help us guide our prana whithin our energetic body.
The medium of pranayama is the breath.
The practises involve guiding the respiration beyond its normal limit, stretching it, speeding it up and slowing it down in order to experience the full range of respiration on the physical and spiritual level.
Pranayama has two etymological meanings:
1) Prana + ayama - expansion of prana
2) Prana + yama = control of prana
When we work with pranayama (breathwork), we enter into the process of expanding or stretching prana (prana + ayama) as well as we work on our ability to stop the prana (breath) to control it (prana + yama).
Both explanations convey the meaning of pranayama.
The practice of pranayama has a direct effect on the functioning of the brain.
Pranayama has the ability to blend together the different cells in the brain reducing the brainwave activity. This mean less chaos in the brain, less unorganised thoughts, feelings.
Breathing is a unique vital process that normally functions unconsciously but we also have the ability to breathe consciously.
Regular practise of pranayama helps us to shift to more conscious breathing with immense effects on one's wellbeing.
Conscious breathing has a calming effect on the mind. Even simple breath awareness with your natural breathing pattern will result in quieting a tense mind and will induce a relaxing rhythm of breathing.
Pranayama has an immediate influence on the nervous system, brain and mind.
Benefits of Pranayama
rhythmic, deep and slow respiration stimulates a calm and content state of mind
regular practise establishes regular breathing positively impacting the rhythm of the brain and helps to release physical, emotional and mental blocks
pranayama reestablishes the natural, relaxed rhythms of the body and mind.
it forms a bridge between the body and the mind, the conscious and the unconscious.
slow breathing increases the human lifespan
it helps to keeps the heart stronger and more nourished.
deep breathing increases the absorption of prana/energy leading to more vitality in life and an improved sense of wellbeing.
Physical benefits : healthy body, removes blockages, cleanses the lungs, stronger heart, improved overall sense of wellbeing.
Spiritual benefits: tranquil mind, decreased mental activity, inner calmness, increased connection with the flow of energy/prana.
How to practise?
It's best to practise pranayama first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. Wear comfortable clothes and sit in a quiet place in a meditation position. It's great to do pranayama prior to asana practice and prior to meditation as it allows us to arrive in the space.
Some of the classical yoga pranayamas are:
Yogic Breathing (three part breath) *
Nadi Shodana (Alternate Nostril Breathing) *
Kapalabhati ( Skull shining breath)*
Bhramari ( Bee Humming Breath) *
Ujjayi Breath ( Ocean Breath)
* These pranayamas are available on my YouTube channel.
Remember to never hold your breath if it does not feel comfortable and never strain your lungs . If you feel discomfort, simply stop the pranayama and return to natural breathing.
If you are a beginner, it's best to learn pranayama with a qualified teacher who can give you tips specific to your needs.
Some practices are not suitable for pregnant women or people suffering from high blood pressure or heart problems. Please consult a qualified teacher before trying them out.