Prana refers to the life-force or the vital energy, which is responsible for all the functions, physical and mental, in the human being. Ayama refers to the ability to control your body by stretching, expanding, and elaborating. Hence, pranayama refers to the control of prana by stretching it. Breathing is the means through which control of prana is brought about. While in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, breathing is emphasized in pranayama practices; in Hatha Yoga, retention or kumbhak is emphasized. In fact, Swatmarama in Hatha Pradipika refers to eight varieties of kumbhak, instead of pranayama. These eight varieties are as follows:
In addition to these, Swatmarama also refers to nadi shodhana pranayama (alternate nostril breathing) or anuloma viloma pranayama. In one of the shlokas, Swatmarama says that all types of diseases can be eliminated by proper practice of pranayama; all types of diseases can be attracted by improper practice of pranayama. This fact brings to fore the importance of learning pranayama under proper guidance.
Pranayama involves three elements: purak (inhalation), kumbhak (retention), and rechak (exhalation). Kumbhak practices are accompanied by bandhas with the intention of awakening and raising the kundalini.
Swatmarama also emphasizes the invariable connection between prana (breathing) and the mind. When one works, the other also works; when one stops, the other also stops. In fact, looking at the breathing pattern of a person, one can infer the his/her state of mind.
Pranayama is considered in our scriptures as ‘parama tapa’, i.e., ‘the highest form of tapa practice’. Pranayama purifies all impurities in the body.
When we come to generic kinds of pranayama, we speak about agarbha (without chanting of mantras or prayers) and sagarbha (with chanting of mantras or prayers) pranayama.
Swatmarama talks of two types of kumbhak: sahita kumbhak and keval kumbhak. Sahita kumbhak refers to antara kumbhak (internal retention of breath) and bahya kumbhak (external retention of breath). Keval kumbhak is the kumbhak which can be performed by an adept yogi at will, and for any duration of time without there being any emphasis on inhalation or exhalation prior to the kumbhak.
Effects of PranayamaPranayama practices have effects on all dimensions of human personality. On the physical side, breathing practices directly affect the respiratory mechanism and the organs involved, and make them healthy and effective. Because oxygen intake is crucial for a healthy body, when breathing improves general health of all body systems improve. Hatha Pradipika asserts that proper practice of pranayama can eliminate all types of diseases. Also, the Pancha Pranas in the body enable all the functions – physical, physiological and mental – to happen in an optimum manner. There is an invariable connection between the mind and breathing. Every state of mind is reflected by a corresponding change in the breathing pattern. Hence, when breathing is controlled (lengthened and made rhythmic) the state of mind is also automatically controlled. Pranayama practices bring about a mental state of calmness and peace. The bandhas accompanying pranayama practices go a long way towards the spiritual dimension by enabling the raising of the Kundalini. Thus, pranayama practices have physical, physiological, mental and spiritual benefits as their effects.
Generally speaking, pranayama practices increase the store of prana thereby increasing energy levels and also increase awareness levels.