The ancient practice known as Prāṇāyāma is a form of Ashtanga yoga focused on developing mastery of the breath rather than the body. The phrase is composed of two Sanskrit words: Prana, meaning breath or life force, and Ayama, meaning to extend or draw out. Thus, Prāṇāyāma is the influence of life force through the art of conscious breathing.
The Bhagavad Gītā mentions this yogic breathing method in verse 4.29, translating Prāṇāyāma as “trance induced by stopping all breathing”. While the abeyance of breath is one element that can be employed to assist in spiritual practice, Prāṇāyāma offers a more diverse array of breathing techniques; all of which can take the disciplined yogi on an ineffable journey of self discovery.
Prāṇāyāma is fourth in the eight limbs of Yoga as laid out in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. According to these central Sutras, the masterful direction of prana awakens the kundalini and clears the mind of the practitioner, allowing one to access limitless knowledge from the universal mind.
Prana is the cosmic energy that engulfs the universe. This energy animates even our physical bodies and is deeply involved in the function of the respiratory system. Breath is the simplest way to access the flow of prana, which can be directed by coupling each breath with the mind’s visualization. When prana is circulated through the body, it clears away stagnant energy and activates the chakras, enabling greater spiritual insight and mental clarity.
The three first motions of Prāṇāyāma are the inhale, the exhale, and the moment in between. The duration of these steps in succession can vastly affect the flow of prana within the practitioner, and changing the timing for any of them can subtly alter the state of consciousness after a certain degree of repetition.
The Ujjayi or “Victorious” Breath is a popular Prāṇāyāma technique commonly used with Asanas, or yoga poses. The technique encourages the practitioner to breathe deeply and smoothly through their nose and into their diaphragm as they transition into each Asana. While creating a narrow throat passageway, the inhalations and exhalations must be balanced and controlled, invoking a rushing sound similar to an ocean wave. This practice is meant to clear out toxins, oxygenate the system, generate body heat and gather prana.
The fourth and final motion is concentrating the prana into one place, whether in the body or external to it. This step is the practical key to many forms of esoteric energy work, as there are diverse traditions who rely upon visualization and breath to manipulate unseen forces.
When the fourth motion is mastered, the Prāṇāyāma practitioner can empty their mind of all sensory stimuli at will. This momentous achievement leads to the ultimate control of the physical body, according to Swami Vivekananda:
“When the Yogi has succeeded in preventing the organs from taking the forms of external objects, and in making them remain one with the mind-stuff, then comes perfect control of the organs, and when the organs are perfectly under control, every muscle and nerve will be under control, because the organs are the centres of all the sensations, and of all actions.
These organs are divided into organs of work and organs of sensation. When the organs are controlled the Yogi can control all feeling and doing; the whole of the body will be under his control. Then alone one begins to feel joy in being born; then one can truthfully say, “Blessed am I that I was born. “ When that control of the organs is obtained, we feel how wonderful this body really is.”Swami Vivekananda, 96-97
The breaths vital role in our continued consciousness is more than a survival mechanism. This intuitive instinct is a deeply esoteric symbol for the fluctuating pattern intrinsic to all life.
The most mundane action that we all perform to sustain our material existence in every moment is certainly taken for granted, but the yogis of ancient India understood that buried within this mundane action was a priceless gem, hidden in plain sight.
What we perceive as mundane is in reality a powerful magic. Breath is the magic of animating life. To master breath in essence is to master life, and through the art of Prāṇāyāma, this mastery is within our reach; all you need to do is breathe.