Prāṇāyāma प्राणायाम

Prāṇāyāma is a sādhanā (discipline, practice, fulfillment) important in Indian culture, which includes a set of techniques aimed to modify breathing processes.
The most common translations for prāṇāyāma are: “breathing techniques” and “vital breath / breath control”. However, my favorite translation is “extension of breath, of energy” derivative of: prāṇa “vital energy” of which breath is one of the vehicles, and āyāma “extend or prolong” or the negative form of yāma “hold, control” . The term appears for the first time in the Atharvāveda Saṃhitā, dated between 2000-1500 BC.
The term prāṇa derives from the verb which means breathe, inhale and corresponds and which indicates the vital breath that pervades body and soul. It is present, as long as there is life and it vanishes with death. Prāṇa also refers to the energy that circulates into the body and, in a broader sense, it is identified with ātman the Self, inherent in every human being. What concerns prāṇa is treated: in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, Chāndogya Upaniṣad, but in particular in Praśna Upaniṣad, one of the thirteen main Upaniṣad, which belongs to the Atharva Veda, or the Veda addressed in particular to the atharvāṇ the priests of the fire. This owes its name to the six questions (praśna) addressed to Ṛṣi Pippalāda by some disciples eager for knowledge who expose dense / coarse, subtle / energetic, main / ontological and finally metaphysical issues.

Many of the prāṇāyāma exercises concerns the respiratory regulation. To master all the energies contained mainly in the air, it is therefore essential to master your breathing. Since breathing is mainly involuntary by its nature, it is rarely worthy of our attention. In prāṇāyāma the potential of breathing is explored. The potential for good breathing is very interesting. We learn to make the most of every breath so that breathing becomes more efficient and it will bring benefits that will improve many aspects of daily life. Thanks to prāṇāyāma, gas and energy exchanges are improved with consequent beneficial effects for all the cells of our body. It also enhances the ability to concentrate.

In the bibliography of Yoga, prāṇāyāma constitutes the fourth stage of the eightfold path Aṣṭāṅga Yoga or Rāja Yoga reported in the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. It requires adequate preparation, through rigorous observance of ethical standards, practices of purification and self-improvement, as well as mastery of postures.

Yoga Sūtra di Patañjali – Sādhanā Pada – sūtra 49


tasmin sati śvāsapraśvāsayorgativicchedaḥ prāṇāyāmaḥ

Tasmin: on that; sati: having been; śvāsapraśvāsayah: inspiration, expiration; gati: movement; vichchhedaḥ: pause / cessation; prāṇāyāmaḥ: prāṇāyāma

Being stable on that, prāṇāyāma is the cessation of the movement of inspiration and expiration.

After mastering Yama, Niyama and Āsana, the yogi must take the road to prāṇāyāma: the suspension of inspiration (puraka) and expiration (rechaka). Just kumbhaka.

In this sutra, Patañjali introduces prāṇāyāma to give its definition.
This is the second chapter, Sādhanā Pada and the author has already introduced the “practice / discipline” (sādhanā) which leads to the achievement of a state of consciousness free from conditioning (yogaś citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ).
It is precisely thanks to the “tasmin sati” of the sutra, which literally means “to have settled here”, that what is mentioned above in the text, the previous āṅga (branch, element, limb, etc.) is recalled. The branch of yoga āsana was defined in the sūtra 2.46 as “stable and comfortable posture“, therefore the broader meaning of “tasmin sati” can be said “having established itself in a stable and comfortable posture“. We could extend the phrase in the same way to the remaining arts of yoga: pratyāhāra, dhāraṇā, dhyāna and samādhi. A firm, stable and comfortable posture should also be used in all phases of meditation. In this perspective āsana is not a limb in itself, just as all the others aren’t as well. An even more extensive meaning of the sūtra can be “after establishing oneself in self-control, fixed rules and in a stable and comfortable sitting position, controlled interruption or suspension of inhalation and exhalation is defined as prāṇāyāma“.

Basically after mastering the previous āṅga, it is possible to access the prāṇāyāma. Patañjali clearly states that Prāṇāyāma is kumbhaka (retention, apnea) and, despite recalling the breathing “exercises” of Haṭha Yoga, in Patañjali prāṇāyāma it is more a meditation instruction on breath control. To get to this subtle respiratory control, it is necessary to start from the “rough” techniques.

In Haṭha Yoga we start from the body to develop awareness and control, over time the mind expands and the breath becomes the center of practice.
Prāṇāyāma is the second stage of haṭha yoga according to Haṭhayoga Pradīpikā, the first verse of the second chapter says:

अथासने दॄढे मोगी वशी श्चहतश्चभताशन्।


Athāsane drdhe yogī vaśī hitamitāśanah
Ghurūpadishtamārghena prānāyāmānsamabhyaset

So the yogin who has domesticated his passions and observes a healthy and moderate diet, after the posture is steadily acquired, he must practice prāṇāyāma, according to the teachings of his master

Self-control and self-discipline should start with the body: āsana and prāṇāyāma are discipline but kumbhaka is self-control.

Gheraṇḍa Saṃhitā we find seven chapters, each of which corresponds to a yogic practice necessary to purify material and subtle body: seven “fulfilments”. Prāṇāyāma constitutes the fifth sādhana (fulfillment) of the ascetic path of the yogi called Ghaṭasthayoga: “the Yoga of the body”.
The word ghaṭa (jug or container) is used in the text to indicate the human body, made up of both material and subtle bodies. The fifth chapter begins with instructions on where the yogi should live, what he should eat and at what time of year he should begin yogic practice, then list ten types of prāṇāyāma.
Each sādhana leads to the acquisition of a certain quality or a “spiritual level” and the fifth is lightness. Weightlessness, as in suspension, as in water element.
In Gheraṇḍa Saṃhitā, great importance is confer to prāṇāyāma, which includes not only respiratory and prāṇā control practices but also high meditative techniques.
According to the text, prāṇā must not be understood in the materialistic meaning of “air” but above all in the more subtle one of energy / life force that pervades the whole cosmos, conveyed by breath. The goal is to expand prāṇā throughout the body through the nāḍī (energy channels). This can only happen if the channels have been previously purified. Prāṇā will awaken Kuṇḍalinī (Energy) and then addressed together in suṣumṇā (central channel), climbing and perforating the various chakras, until the Brahma door, or the residence of the soul, located on top of the head, flows into the Brahmarandhra chakra. The rise of Kuṇḍalinī is one of the main results that the yogin can achieve, he will therefore be able to achieve ever higher meditation techniques.
The text is also very serious about the negative effects of prāṇāyāma, for this reason it is very precise in the indications to be followed. “In Haṭha yoga, in general, regardless of the differences between the particular methods, the importance of prāṇāyāma is such that in several places it is stated that all subsequent progress, that is, the realization of pratyāhāra, dhāraṇā, dhyāna and samādhi, they are only more and more perfect and complete executions of his techniques.

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