On Yoga Terms and Philosophy: What is Pranayama?

On Yoga Terms and Philosophy: What is Pranayama?
[Eighth article in a series]
by Alice Koh


“He who knows Prana knows Vedas” is the important declaration of the Srutis (most authoritative, ancient religious text). You will find in Vedanta Sutras: “For the same reason, breath is Brahman”

Prana is not breath as it is believed, but a force like electricity, heat, light and magnetism. It is an invisible force, an invisible intelligent force that fills the whole universe. How can we effectively explain the subtle force that permeates our atomic being and that can be controlled by our mind (consciousness)?

Thanks to Semyon Kirlian’s invention in 1939 of a photographic technology that could capture actual visible life force or “auras” around objects, we can now look into important considerations of a person’s spiritual, emotional and physical states. Diseases have different frequency patterns and Kirlian’s research has shown that changes in the pranic field precedes the onset of diseases.

Prana flows through channels in our body called Nadis (think of the blood vessels through which blood flows). But unlike blood vessels which are gross, nadis are subtle pathways. There are 72,000 nadis within our body. The 3 fundamental ones are Ida, the left channel and Pingala, the right channel. Both lie along the sides of our spine and Sushumna runs along the centre of the spinal column.

Sometimes the nadis become blocked. The flow of prana becomes impeded. This will have direct impact on our physical and delicate bodies.

In Chapter 2 verse 4-10, Hatha Yoga Pradipika stated: “When the nadis are impure, breath cannot penetrate into the sushumna. Then the yogi achieves nothing, nor can he reach the state of deep concentration (unmani avastha)."

Therefore, it is important that one learns to regulate or manipulate the flow of prana by purifying it or unblocking the nadis by doing asanas and pranayama.

“Prana” refers to the universal life force; “Ayama” means to regulate or lengthen. Pranayama, though it is said to be the science of breathing, is much more than just the inhaling and exhaling of air. However, breath is the key pillar of prana through which the vital energy flows within.

Prana is said to be located in the heart and nerve channels of the spinal cord. It is found outside of us and within us via the breath we inhale as Sun Energy, Moon Energy, Cosmic Energy and Cosmic Intelligence. So, its center is here outside of us and within us. It is everywhere!

There are 5 principles of prana vayus. They are categorized as follows:

Prana Vayu – “forward moving air”; moves inward toward the center of the body. The “seat” is in the heart.

Apana Vayu – “downward and outward moving air”. The “seat” is in the core of the pelvis, corresponds with Muladhara chakra.

Samana Vayu – “balancing air” that controls metabolism and digestion. The “seat” is in the navel.

Udana Vayu – “that which carries upward”. The “seat” is in the throat.

Vyana Vayu – “outward moving air” some said in the blood as its energy is pervasive throughout the whole body.

The main function of prana is the giving of life force and of energizing it and maintaining itself in this conscious universe. Your brain sends electrical pulses due to prana; the heart beats because of prana; the lungs inflate and deflate because of prana; the stomach ingests and breaks down food because of prana. Prana never stops, it is moving even as we sleep.

Prana, then, can be defined as this life-giving energy that is pervasive and all encompassing.

Pranayama consciously manipulates this subtle life force within our body. It has a direct impact on our nervous, muscular and circulatory system. Therefore, it is important to practise pranayama under the guidance of a teacher.

Pranayama is the exercise of bringing the mind under our control and not the other way around. It is believed that in dominating the mind, one can also dominate the body. One does this by studying our regular breathing.

Notice how the rhythm, intensity and depth of breath differ in people who are in rage, in love or in sickness. These are all mental activities that affect the quality of our breath and note, it is the heart that dictates the speed of the heartbeat and therefore the different types of responses to breathing these emotions.

Through the control of your heartbeat you can affect your blood flow. You can also energize this blood flow and direct it to parts of the body that needs healing.

This vital force rests in the spinal cord and its nerve channels. The brain sends electrical signals (organic ignition) to the lungs. The lungs begin to work, depending on the state of emotion the person is in. The brain also sends electrical signals to the heart. If he is agitated, the heart will send the blood to circulate more rapidly than if he is at peace.

According to B.K.S. Iyengar, “Pranayama is a conscious prolongation of inhalation, retention and exhalation.” Pranayama is the means of attaining high states of awareness through the retention of breath (kumbhaka).

According to Bhagavad Gita, pranayama is translated as a “trance induced by stopping all breathing.” Together with visualization, the prana is pervasive throughout the body and at the same time, it can be consolidated and channeled into the sushumna to the crown chakra which brings one to enlightenment.

The whole universe contains this life force. In other words, there is nothing in the universe that is dead matter. Thus the rhythm, the dance, the movement, the attraction and push of the planets.

Look how a human cell perpetually vibrates, how it seeks those who are similar to it and fights those who are not. This intelligent cell therefore is alive and filled with prana.

Think of a car runs by fuel but most importantly by electricity. You can put all the fuel it needs, but without the ignition (firing of electricity), the car will not move. You can say that this combustion is Prana, the life force of the car. You as a driver is the mind; you drive the car and go wherever you wish to go.

Prana, then is the intermediate between the mind and the body. It is not the mind and it is not the body but it is that which follows the dictates of the mind to move the body.
Once prana leaves the body, the body ceases to move.

Pranamaya is the control of this life force through proper breathing and through visualization. It is a profound meditation.

And “from Him springs forth the breath of life” (Mundaka Upanishad 1:1:3).