Last updated: December 21, 2023

What Does Pranayama Mean?

Pranayama is a system of techniques used to harness and manipulate universal energy known as prana. It is an integral aspect of yoga, often incorporated into asana practice or used as a preliminary step for meditation.

The term is derived from several Sanskrit roots; prana meaning “vital life force,” yama meaning “control'' and ayama meaning “extension” or “expansion.” The breath is symbolic of prana, and pranayama can be understood as methods to extend and expand vital life force energy through the deliberate control of respiration.

Pranayama appears in many of the earliest Indian scriptures, in which a huge range of purposes are detailed. The practice may be used for purification, achieving liberation, focussing the mind, steadying the body or as an adjunct to other techniques such as mantra chanting and meditation.

Pranayama also features as the fourth limb of Patanjali’s ashtanga system, the prominent eight-limbed path of yoga. According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, pranayama is a preparatory practice, required prior to the more advanced techniques of pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation), leading to the ultimate stage of samadhi (enlightenment).


Yogapedia Explains Pranayama

Experiences in life can cause stagnation in our system whereby this energy becomes blocked. When prana becomes weak or builds up in an imbalanced way, we experience fatigue, lethargy and lack of direction. This may be experienced as a general feeling of low energy, but it is also understood to be the root cause of disease.

In yoga, prana is symbolized by the breath, a tool through which it can be controlled, manipulated and moved. For thousands of years, yogis have developed techniques to work with this energetic system through the practice of pranayama, as a means of cultivating balance and wellness in body and mind.

Pranayama uses deliberate control of the breath in order to extend and expand vital life force energy. Not only does pranayama have the potential to steady the mind, but the practice has far-reaching physiological benefits such as increased heart rate variability, improved oxygen saturation and overall re-balancing of the nervous system.

Although prana operates within the subtle body known as the pranamaya kosha (a complex network of channels and vortices distinct from the physical body) it penetrates and impacts all five koshas or sheaths of the self.

Prana is believed to travel along pathways called nadis. While there are said to be 72,000 of these channels within the pranamaya kosha, pranayama tends to focus on three primary nadis; ida, pingala and sushumna, corresponding with the left, right and central line of the body respectively.

These channels converge at various energetic vortices known as chakras, and energetic locks (bandhas) and seals (mudras) can be used in addition to pranayama as a means of moving, locking and sealing prana.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is one of the first texts to give detailed descriptions of pranayama techniques, including suryabheda, ujjayi, sitkari, sitali, bhastrika, bhramari, murcha and plavini, each with their own specific benefits. The Gheranda Samhita later added sahita and kevali to this list. The four discernable stages of Pranayama are:

  1. Puraka (inhalation)

  2. Antara Kumbhaka (the mindful pause after inhalation)

  3. Rechaka (exhalation)

  4. Bahya Kumbhaka (the mindful pause after exhalation)

Kumbhak or breath retention is considered to be a more advanced technique, not to be practiced until the practitioner has mastered other forms of pranayama.

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