Pranayama is a practice involving the controlling of the breath. The word pranayama is made up of two words, Prana meaning a subtle life-force providing energy for body and mind, and ayama which represents the control we may have in directing prana. Prana is the life-force or energy which links the physical and astral bodies, and the breath the movement of prana around the body.
The breath is easily affected by our emotions and mental processes. As we become upset or agitated, our breath quickens and when we are happy and calm, it slows. The breath is influenced by the mind, so therefore, the mind can influence the breath. Becoming in tuned to our breath, we focus on our self and can bring our Self into a state of awareness and connectedness with the Universe. The goal of pranayama is to control the mind, suspending mental activity to a state of stillness.
Having established a firm, seated posture, one then regulates the life-force by natural voluntary suspension of the breath after inhalation and exhalation – this is pranayama.Patanjali – Yoga Sutras
There are many ways to practice pranayama, most of which involve a temporary pause in the movement of breath. The basic movements are: inhalation (purak), exhalation (rechak) and retention of the breath (kumbhak).
Patanjali describes four types of breath suspension:
- Bahya kumbhaka / External breath retention – a pause after a slow, long exhalation
- Abhyantara kumbhaka / Internal breath retention – a pause after a deep, prolonged inhalation
- A pause between the inhalation and exhalation
- Keval kumbhaka – the spontaneous suspension of breath which occurs while concentrating on something external or internal, which comes with prolonged practice of pranayama.
How to practice:
- Alternative nostril breathing – Nadi shuddhi
- Skull-shining breathing – kapalabhati
- Fire wash – agni sara dhauti
- Horse mudra – Ashwini mudra