Pranayama - what is it and why do we practice it?

In my first yoga teacher training, despite the best efforts of our tutors, I now know (though I didn't at the time) that I just didn't "get" pranayama.  It felt too slow and I often ended up gasping and having to take extra breaths.  But in 2001 I  discovered that Philip Xerri was going to run his year-long Pranayama Foundation Course in Edinburgh.  It's not an exaggeration to say that it completely changed my practice - and of course my mind, which is intimately connected with the breath.  Philip himself encountered  pranayama originally with Phil Jones in Wales, and went on to train in India with Swami Gitananda.  Philip would tell us stories of how Phil, an ex- miner, survived on very little remaining lung tissue because of his pranayama practice.  Philip gave us a daily practice schedule, building up progressively,  that would often take 45 minutes.  Three quarters of an hour of conscious breathing in different patterns!  But I became utterly involved, and the time flew.  

Since then, and particularly since becoming involved in Satyananda Yoga, I've done other valuable courses, including Swami Vedantananda's 6-month Pranayama Sadhana course, using the Yoga Chudamani Upanishad as its main text. Now pranayama and I are good friends; the kind you turn to for varying needs - comfort, energy, quietness, enlivenment, and sometimes natural "highs" that are perfectly legal! 

The word pranayama comes from two Sanskrit words - prana meaning energy or life-force; and ayama meaning extending or enhancing.  Prana is energy which manifests and is responsible for the action and motion of physical organs; and also for the motion of mind, in the form of thoughts, feelings, emotions, behaviour, attitudes - in fact all inner and outer activity.  Pranayama practices enhance life force.  They are at the heart of hatha yoga practice.   

In his book Prana Pranayama Swami Niranjanananda writes

“The medium of pranayama is the breath.  The practices 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 both the gross and subtle levels. Once this has been achieved, prana can be guided further by the practice of prana vidya.  (page 106).

"We inhale, we take in prana.  We hold our breath in, we harmonise, channel and balance the prana we have received.  And we exhale. Inhalation, retention and exhalation simply represent, not the breathing technique, but a process that affects our pranic body, the pranamaya kosha."  (But the koshas are a topic for another blog!)


Some quotes from ancient texts:

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali - a text of classical or raja yoga - written down, it is believed, around 2000 years ago:

 “Once firm posture has been acquired, pranayama is the regulation of inhalation and exhalation. {Pranayama} manifests as external, internal and restrained movements of breath." Chapter 2 v 49 & 50

"Or {stability of mind is gained} by exhaling and retaining the breath".  Chapter 1 v 34

Yoga Rahasya is a text said to date back to the 9th century CE but rediscovered and edited in modern times. 

“One whose mind is stable has happiness and tranquillity.  For him everything is easily achievable.   For people who are agitated by objects of the senses, pranayama is the best solution”.

Hatha Yoga Pradipika - approx 13th century CE

Chapter 2 verse 2

“When the breath is unsteady, the mind is unsteady.  When the breath is steady,the mind is steady, and the yogi becomes steady.  Therefore one should restrain the breath."

Yoga Chudamani Upanishad -Probably composed around 700 CE.  Name means Crown Jewel of Yoga.  121 mantras dealing with the practices of kundalini yoga.  

“Just as the lion, elephant and tiger are brought under control slowly and steadily, similarly the prana should be controlled, otherwise it becomes destructive to the practitioner” (verse 118)


And finally I hope Philip doesn't mind my taking from his website

"Pranayama is initially the process whereby this immense {cosmic} energy is accessed directly by the systematic application of structured breathing practices.  Continuing pranayama practice utilises this connection with the primary cosmic force to profoundly influence the individual on all levels - physical, emotional, energetic, mental and spiritual."