Pranayama is one of the most misunderstood terms in the field of yoga today. Often, teachers use "breathing" or "breath work" to define pranayama, but it is so much more than that. To break down the word, prana means "energy" or "life force," and yama means "to control." Broken down slightly differently, pran still means "energy," and ayama means "to expand." Put together, the essential thing to remember is that pranayama is both the control and expansion of life force energy. This can happen through the breath and it can happen in many other ways as well.
The general nature of pranayama and reason for its practice is referenced in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as one of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Numerous specific forms of the practice are outlined in the "Hatha Yoga Pradipika." They range from simple to complex and it is often cautioned that practitioners learn from a seasoned teacher because the manipulation of energy incorrectly can cause imbalances.
Let's begin with the breath since that is the most commonly understood practice of pranayama. This gives us a basis to understand how we can work with the regulation of energy within our own bodies in other ways, as will also be described further.
Sama Vrtti (Equal Breathing) Pranayama
The most fundamental practice of energy control that we can engage is managing our breathing in an equal rhythm of inhalation and exhalation. This is accomplished by paying attention to the pace and quality of the breath by simply counting as you inhale and counting as you exhale, gently working towards an equal number in each. There should never be a sense of strain or force to achieve a result in pranayama, so take it slow and allow the balance to come in naturally. Any forcefulness will create agitation in the body and mind and is counter to the goal of pranayama.
Once the equal breath can be maintained with ease, then many other forms of breathing can be practiced for various purposes. Similar to how asanas develop a control over the physical body, regular pranayama practice enables us to control the breath, or subtle life force moving through the body. Regulation of the breath into varying patterns and retention of the breath after both the inhale and the exhale require discipline and focus, and help bring the mind into a state of serenity. (Read more in Vritti: Calming the Waves of Your Mind.)
Watch the Energy of Thought
The second most important aspect to the control of our life force energy has to do with thoughts we entertain throughout the day. Because thoughts manifest into our words, actions and material lives, whatever thoughts we habitually entertain determine the quality and quantity of our energy reserves. As an example, consider a time that you felt sad or upset. How was your energy? It was probably quite low. To consciously control prana, we must watch over our minds. This is also a practice of discipline and focus. Once we catch a thought pattern that is detrimental to our prana, we can choose to change it. In the "The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali," this is called pratipaksha bhavana: “When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite [positive] ones should be thought of.” The progression of pranic control of the body through asanas and the breath through pranayama is culminated in the control of the mind. By stabilizing thoughts and emotions we become less reactive and impulsive and are disturbed less by the fluctuations of daily life. This is the essence of the yoga sutra that directs us to “still the fluctuations of the mind” and it is what enables the deeper practices of pranayama during meditation.
Direct Energy Through Meditation
To reach the ultimate state of pranayama described in the Yoga Sutras, we must still the body and mind so completely that all breath stops spontaneously. This is vastly different from breath retention mentioned earlier and cannot be forced through intentional holding of the breath. When the natural cessation of breath occurs and, therefore, the flow of prana ceases temporarily during meditation, it is because the consciousness has been detached from the physical vessel, in the same way that unplugging a cord detaches the energy current from an appliance. This is the state in which prana is expanded beyond the physical expression and rejoins with the Infinite Essence of life from which it originally sprang. When this occurs, the sutra states, “…the veil over the inner Light is destroyed,” meaning that we begin to perceive the true Self, which is the goal of all yoga practice. (Learn more in Discovering Yourself Through a Body Scan Meditation.) To facilitate this, regular breathing pranayama should be practiced, as well as visualizing the pranic current moving up the spine from the coccyx, or root chakra, to the top of the skull, or crown chakra. When the prana is liberated from its downward flow into physical form, it can again rejoin the expansive state of pure Consciousness.
Beyond breath control and visualization, simple additional ways to practice the regulation and expansion of prana are through regular exposure to pure natural elements such as sunlight and clean water, or through contact with an enlightened teacher. Prana is highest in the natural world and in the presence of a person who has already rejoined individual consciousness with the universal Consciousness. In these environments, we absorb greater levels of prana that facilitate our journey toward Self-realization. It is important to use the very tangible tool of the breath to regulate our prana on a daily basis and to recognize that prana is not limited to the breath, but available to us in other ways as well.