Pranayama is generally defined as breath control. Although this interpretation may seem correct in view of the practices involved, it does not convey the full meaning of the term. The word pranayama is comprised of two roots: prana plus ayama. Prana means ‘vital energy’ or ‘life force’. It is the force which exists in all things, whether animate or inanimate. Although closely related to the air we breathe, it is more subtle than air
or oxygen. Therefore, pranayama should not be considered as mere breathing exercises aimed at introducing extra oxygen into the lungs. Pranayama utilises breathing to influence the flow of prana in the nadis or energy channels of the pranamaya kosha or energy body. The wordyawwz means ‘control’ and is used to denote various rules or codes of conduct. However, this is not the word which is joined to prana to form pranayama; the correct word is ayama which has far more implications than the word yama. Ayama is defined as ‘extension’ or ‘expansion’. Thus, the word pranayama means ‘extension or expansion of the dimension
of prana’. The techniques of pranayama provide the method whereby the life force can be activated and regulated in order to go beyond one’s normal boundaries or limitations and attain a higher state of vibratory energy. Four aspects of pranayama
In the pranayama practices there are four important aspects of breathing which are utilised. These are:
1. Pooraka or inhalation
2. Rechaka or exhalation
3. Antar kunbhaka or internal breath retention
4. Bahir kumbhaka or external breath retention.
The different practices of pranayama involve various techniques which utilise these four aspects of breathing. There is another mode of pranayama which is called kevala kumbhaka or spontaneous breath retention. This is an advanced stage of pranayama which occurs during high states of meditation. During this state, the lungs stop their activity and the respiration ceases. At this time, the veil which prevents one from seeing
the subtle aspect of existence is lifted and a higher vision of reality is attained. The most important part of pranayama is actually kumbhaka or breath retention. However, in order to perform kumbhaka
successfully, there must be a gradual development of control over the function of respiration. Therefore, in the pranayama practices more emphasis is given to inhalation and exhalation at the beginning, in order to strengthen the lungs and balance the nervous and pranic systems in preparation for the practice
of kumbhaka. These practices influence the flow of prana in the nadis, purifying, regulating and activating them, thereby inducing physical and mental stability.
The pranic body
According to yogic physiology, the human framework is comprised of five bodies or sheaths, which account for the different aspects or dimensions of human existence. These five sheaths are known as:
1. Annamaya kosha, the food or material body
2. Manomaya kosha, the mental body
3. Pranamaya kosha, the bioplasmic or vital energy body
4. Vijnanamaya kosha, the psychic or higher mental body
5. Anandamaya kosha, the transcendental or bliss body.
Although these five sheaths function together to form an integral whole, the practices of pranayama work mainly with pranamaya kosha. The pranamaya kosha is made up of five major pranas which are collectively known as the pancha, or five, pranas: prana, apana, samana, udana and vyana.