Somebody asked me to write about pranayama, because they don't get it. So, with pleasure, here it is.
The word pranayama consists of two words: prana, meaning vital energy or life-force (similar to chi in Chinese medicine) and ayama, meaning stretch or extend. It is the practice by which prana may be maximised, contained and channelled within the body by various breathing and breath retention practices. Pranayama involves the regulation of the inhalation, the exhalation and retention (holding) of the breath, after both the inhale and the exhale. This regulation is achieved by modulating the length of the breath and breath retention for a period of time as well as directing the mind into the process. Each component of the breath should be long and uniform.
Desikachar describes pranayama thus: "Pranayama is the conscious, deliberate regulation of the breath replacing unconscious patterns of breathing. It is possible only after a reasonable mastery of asana practice."
Pranayama is therefore the practice of focusing the mind on the breath, thereby increasing our sensitivity to the movement of breath within us. It is the practice of controlling the inhalation, exhalation and retention of breath so as to steady the mind, clear energy channels and to maximise and contain prana (energy) within.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika tells us
"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." II,2
In truth, we know this instinctively. We know that when we are angry or anxious our breath shortens and is shallow; we know that when we are relaxed our breath is longer and tends to move more deeply within our body. Through yoga practice we learn how to manipulate our breath, so that when we are angry and anxious we can replace short breathing patterns with deeper ones which calm our body and mind and help us to maintain clarity even in the most difficult situations. Patanjali writes that "calm is retained by the controlled exhalation or retention of the breath" Yoga Sutras I,34
One of the aims of yoga is to retain energy, rather than allowing it to dissipate; breath control (pranayama) helps us to achieve this.
Pranayama practice also encourages stillness of mind and prepares us for meditation (raja yoga). The goal of yoga is the attainment of a serene mind; pranayama helps us to prepare for that and to retain it once we have achieved it.
There are many different pranayama techniques, which all promise different effects and outcomes. It's worth remembering, before we get too involved in complicated pranayama practices, that one of its chief purposes is simply to give us techniques for following the breath and that this can be achieved with the most basic of breathing practices.
Pranayama is the subtle practice of using time-honoured techniques to deepen our awareness; because it is subtle and because its effects are cumulative it is not often taught in classes in any deep or meaningful way; it is therefore probably necessary to take a course, to ask your teacher to advise you, or to buy a good book to help you to begin your pranayama practice. Pranayama practice is also deeply personal - everyone's experience (even of the same practice) is markedly different - and you may therefore find that you need the support of a good teacher to guide you through what can be a profoundly transformative practice.
Pranayama practice interrupts the disorderly flow of the breath, bringing steadiness to the mind and reducing our susceptibility to distractions, thus leading us on to meditative practices. It is the practice of retaining and maximising our energy so that we may use and direct it in a more positive way and so that we can move through daily life with more clarity and wisdom.
Because finding an appropriate pranayama practice for each individual is important, I am loathe to give a general practice here.
If you are my student and would like to embark upon a personal pranayama practice, please ask me and I will happily advise you.
If you are not my student and you do not have a teacher that you can ask, then I can recommend Swami Satyananda Saraswati's book Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha or Desikachar's The Heart of Yoga, you could also click here for instruction on how to do nadi shodhana, one of the more generally beneficial pranayama practices.
Don't underestimate the power of pranayama; it is a subtle, but powerful practice and can transform the way you practice yoga, the way you think and feel, and the way you act in the world.