What Is Pranayama? (Definition, Purpose, History, Stages and Types) • Yoga Basics

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While the practice of pranayama or yogic breathing holds significant importance in the methodology of tantra and hatha yoga, it is not emphasized very much in modern yoga classes. The popularity of western yoga classes is due to its accessibility on focused on physical postures and fitness. While the esoteric practices of breath control often take a backseat to make yoga more welcoming and approachable, this essential component of yogic practice should not be overlooked if one wants to deepen their spiritual awareness and experience the true transformative power of yoga.

The definition of Pranayama

The Sanskrit word pranayama is composed of two parts. “Prana” translates as breath, vigor, energy, power, vital energy or life force1. Prana is the subtle energy that flows through the body in nadis or energy channels. These pathways move and circulate prana throughout the entire body. “Yama” translates to control, restraint, regulation, or discipline2.

Therefore, pranayama is often translated as breath control or the regulation of life force energy. A more thorough definition would be: Pranayama is a collection of different types of yogic breathing practices used to influence the flow of prana in the body, to promote physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

The purpose of Pranayama

The practice of pranayama is a powerful tool to bring balance and harmony to the body, heart, and mind. By directing your attention to the flow and rhythm of your breath, you can train your mind to become more present and self-aware. Conscious deep breathing is also an important connection between the mind, body and spirit, and creates a bridge between our conscious and subconscious realms.

Pranayama can help enhance one’s overall yoga practice by boosting prana life force energy, increasing focus, cultivating vitality, awakening the chakras, promoting inner peace, promoting emotional stability, encouraging detoxification, improving lung capacity, boosting respiratory function, and facilitating a deeper connection with the self. Pranayama is also one of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga3, emphasizing its importance in spiritual development and as a key practice towards achieving Samadhi or enlightenment.

The History of Pranayama

The history of pranayama dates back thousands of years to ancient India, where it was practiced by sages and yogis seeking enlightenment and self-realization. Over time, these techniques evolved and were passed down through lineages of yogis and teachers, each adding their own insights and refinements to the practice.

Through dedicated observation and experimentation, they discovered that by regulating and manipulating the breath, one could experience profound physical, mental, and spiritual benefits. This knowledge was then preserved and further developed in ancient yogic texts, which serve as a testament to the profound wisdom and insights of the ancient Indian yogic tradition.

It is mentioned in various ancient texts, including the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Bhagavad Gita, Shiva Samhita, and Upanishads. An overview of these key texts reveals the importance of pranayama in the history and development of yoga.

  • The Upanishads: These philosophical texts, composed between 800–500 BCE, discuss the metaphysical concept of prana and underscored breathing as a medium to influence one’s pranic energies. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad4 is one of the earliest discusses the concept of Prana (life force) extensively but does not specify pranayama techniques. The Chandogya Upanishad5 mentions breath as a vital force that sustains life and connects all living beings. The Katha Upanishad6 explains the concept of controlling the senses through mastery of the breath. This control over the breath is seen as a means to stabilize the mind and attain higher states of consciousness and spiritual awakening. The Taittiriya Upanishad7 contains more explicit references to breathing and the life forces (Prana), hinting at the need to control such energies, which paves the way for formal pranayama techniques. The Maitri Upanishad8 is a later text which begins to outline more clearly the types and methods of controlling breath. It describes a meditative absorption that integrates the control of breath, leading towards deeper spiritual experiences.
  • The Bhagavad Gita: Although primarily a scriptural dialogue on duty, righteousness, and spirituality, the Bhagavad Gita (circa 2nd century BCE) also touches upon concepts related to Prana. In particular, Chapter 4, Verse 299discusses different yogic practices, including those that involve controlling the life forces (Prana) through regulated breathing. Krishna speaks of yogis who offer inhalation into exhalation and vice versa, describing an early form of pranayama.
  • Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras: Patanjali explicitly discusses various techniques for controlling the breath, which he describes as essential for stabilizing the mind and preparing it for deeper states of meditation (Dhyana). The Yoga Sutras (circa 200 CE) explain how pranayama helps in removing the coverings over the light of knowledge and aids in achieving higher states of consciousness. There are several sutras (II.4910 and II.5011) that detail the processes and effects of pranayama, making it clear that mastering breath is crucial for advancing in the yogic path.
  • Shiva Samhita: This classical hatha yoga text composed in the 17th century CE provides detailed instructions on different breathing techniques12 aimed at balancing the pranic energy within the body and achieving higher states of consciousness.
  • Gheranda Samhita: This classical hatha yoga (circa 17th century CE) text further elaborates on the practice of pranayama13. It outlines various breathing exercises, known as kumbhakas, aimed at purifying the nadis (energy channels) and awakening the dormant spiritual energy within the practitioner.

Over time, the different schools of yoga developed their own unique approaches to pranayama, each emphasizing different aspects of focus, control, and energy manipulation. Some focus on slow, deep breathing to calm the mind and reduce stress, while others emphasize rapid, forceful breathing to energize the body and stimulate the nervous system. Some styles of yoga only use one technique, while others will teach multiple types of breathing exercises to their students.

The four parts yogic breathing

four parts of pranayamafour parts of pranayamaIn the practice of pranayama, the breathing practices are described with four distinct parts. Awareness of these is essential for understanding and learning the subtleties of each technique. Mastery over these stages improves mindfulness, mental focus and control over the breath.

1. Puraka (Inhalation)

Puraka is characterized by a gentle and controlled inhalation of breath that brings oxygen and prana (vital life energy) into your body. Correctly practicing puraka involves focusing on silent, effortless breathing that naturally expands your diaphragm and chest in a manner that maximizes energy intake without strain. Techniques that have a longer duration of the inhalation create an energizing, invigorating and uplifting effect on the body and mind.

2. Antara Kumbhaka (Pause After Inhalation)

Antara Kumbhaka is the retention of breath after the inhalation of Puraka. For beginners, this will be a short pause of holding the breath for 1-2 seconds. The breath is held comfortably without strain or movement. While the breath is in Kumbhaka feel the stillness, silence and introspection that this stage creates. Advanced practitioners can hold their breath in for longer durations, gradually increasing their lung capacity and strengthening their respiratory system. Longer holds can be combined with one or more bandhas to harness, control, and direct the prana within the body.

3. Rechaka (Exhalation)

Rechaka is the stage of controlled exhalation following the retention of breath. During this stage, focus on releasing the breath slowly and steadily, allowing for a complete expulsion of air from the lungs. Techniques that have a longer duration of the exhalation calms the mind, promoting relaxation and mental clarity.

4. Bhaya Khumbaka (Pause After Exhalation)

Bhaya Kumbhaka is the retention of breath after the exhalation of Rechaka. For beginners, this will be a short pause of holding the breath for 1-2 seconds. External breath retention helps in improving mental focus, balancing the flow of prana, and enhancing the capacity of the lungs. This stage allows the practitioner to experience a sense of emptiness, inner stillness and peace within, as the body prepares for the next inhalation. Advanced practitioners can hold their breath out for longer durations, gradually increasing their lung capacity and strengthening their respiratory system. Longer holds can be combined with one or more bandhas to harness, control, and direct the prana within the body.

Types of pranayama practices

There are a diverse range of yogic breathing exercises available, each offering its own unique breathing patterns, focus, benefits, and opportunities for inner exploration and growth. They are categorized below based on their level of difficulty and their effects on the subtle body and mind.

The 4 limbs of pranayama

Understanding the four limbs or stages of pranayama will give you a framework to deepen and progress through your practice. Each phase brings its own insights and challenges, guiding you towards profound transformation on your yoga path. Do not attempt to jump ahead to more advanced stages without first mastering the basics of each stage.beginner stage of pranayamabeginner stage of pranayama

1. Beginners Stage: Arambha Avastha

In Arambha Avastha, you lay the groundwork and foundation for the practice. This phase focuses on understanding the basics of breathing and the techniques of the beginner level practices. With proper guidance and mindful awareness, you’ll learn how to take a proper diaphragmatic deep breath and correct any dysfunctional or habitual breathing patterns. This stage can take up to one year to fully embody the yogic breath, depending on your dedication and consistency in practice. It is crucial to cultivate patience and persistence during this initial phase, as it sets the tone for the subsequent stages of pranayama.

2. Intermediate Stage: Ghata Avastha

As you progress beyond the beginner stage, you’ll start feeling the subtle energy of prana affecting your body, emotions, and thoughts. Conscious, slow, deep breathing becomes a part of your daily life, helping you be present, calm and grounded throughout your daily life. This stage involves refining your breath control, increasing lung capacity, and developing a sense of inner awareness and concentration. You will begin exploring more advanced techniques and incorporating breath retention (Kumbhaka) into your practice. It is essential to work closely with a knowledgeable teacher to progress safely and effectively in this phase.

3. Advanced Stage: Parichaya Avastha

In the advanced stage of Parichaya Avastha, you delve deeper into the subtle aspects of your breath, prana, chakras, and the energy flow through the nadis. As you practice with a heightened level of sensitivity and refinement, you can harness the power of pranayama to purify the body, balance the mind, and awaken the spiritual energy within.

4. Mastery Stage: Nishpattya Avastha

The pinnacle of pranayama practice is the Nishpatti Avastha, where you attain mastery over the subtle energies within and transcend the limitations of the physical body. At this stage, your breath becomes a vehicle for transcending the ego and connecting with divine awareness. Hunger, thirst, and worldly desires no longer dictate your actions as you experience a profound spiritual awakening through your dedicated and sustained yoga practice.

Final thoughts

A regular pranayama practice holds the potential to elevate every aspect of our being — physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Whether you incorporate pranayama in a yoga class or practice it on its own, the benefits of conscious and mindful breathing are vast. Learning and practicing these various techniques requires dedication, patience, and consistency. If you have the commitment and enthusiasm to master the four parts of the breath and proceed through the four limbs of pranayama, you will undoubtedly experience a profound transformation in your life.

Disclaimer

The content presented here offers insights into the practice of pranayama and its historical significance in yoga traditions. It is intended for educational purposes to deepen understanding of yogic breathing practices. However, it is essential to consult with a qualified yoga instructor or healthcare professional before attempting any new breathing techniques, especially if you have underlying health conditions or concerns. Practice pranayama mindfully, carefully, and at your own discretion.

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