Pranayama - The Richness of the Breath
It all begins and ends with a single breath for us, and life, in many ways, is what happens in the breaths between. The richness of the breath as a practice is ever unfolding. For those new to posture based yoga, establishing an ongoing awareness of breath can be the bedrock of your progressing physical practice, helping cultivate coordinated movement, healthy alignment, and strength. For the seasoned practitioner, breath focused practices often becomes the territory of deeper wisdom and personal insight beyond āsana and meditation alone. That said, what Prāṇāyāma ‘is’ and what it is used for has changed many times over and is as nuanced as it is ancient.
What is Prāṇāyāma though?
Breath based practices in yoga often fall under the umbrella of ‘prāṇāyāma’, sometimes translated as ‘breath control’. As always with translated Sanskrit, the translation is multifaceted and problematic. ‘Prana’ can be taken literally to mean ‘to breathe forth’, but equally to read as ‘breath of life, breath, respiration, vitality, vigor, energy, power, and spirit.’ ‘Ayāma’ can encompass ‘to stretch, extend; restrain, stop; expand, lengthen either in space or time’. Ayāma stems from the root word ‘yama’, to “rein, curb, bridle; a driver, charioteer.” As such, ayāma is often given as ‘control’, but as many practitioners will note, using too much force to dominate the breath can often backfire, causing pain and disruption - be is physiological or psychological. Richard Rosen in his seminal text, The Yoga of Breath, offers instead that we think of prāṇāyāma “as the process of expanding our usually small reservoir of prana by lengthening, directing, and regulating the movement of the breath and then limiting or restraining the increased pranic energy in the body-mind”.
How has this concept changed over time?
What is interesting is how little focus prāṇāyāma tends to get in the average yoga class at your local studio. As Dr James Mallinson writes in Roots of Yoga, “Today, the physical practice of yoga is popularly identified with bodily postures, but in pre-modern India it was breath-control that was the defining practice of physical yoga”.
In the 4th century CE, prāṇāyāma is cited as one of the 8 limbs of yoga in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra (Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali). Several later commentaries would argue that out of all eight limbs, prāṇāyāma may be the most important, for without the breath there is no life with which to practice. Other commentators, however, argue that each limb is built upon and dependent on the limbs before it, “without cultivating yamas and niyamas….there can be no meditation and thus no serious practice of yoga”, at least as prescribed by Patañjali. Here prāṇāyāma as breath control, is concerned chiefly with yoga’s higher aims.
However, in later Tantric texts such as Hemacandra’s Yogaśāstra, the focus could be said to be more rudimentary, as prāṇāyāma simply becomes a method of purification, a way to cleanse the energetic channels (nadis) of the energy body. Indeed, in haṭhayoga texts this is often the primary aim. By the time we reach the Haṭhapradīpikā in the 15th century CE, the different methods for this purification are both detailed and diverse, several of which are still practiced today even in your local studio - if your teacher is quirky enough.
In addition to this though, there are many traditional warnings that come with the practice, the HYP proceeds to caution us, “Just as lions, elephants and tigers are gradually controlled, so the prana is controlled through practice. Otherwise the practitioner is destroyed. By proper practice of prāṇāyāma, all diseases are eradicated. Through improper practice, all diseases can arise”. Prudence and an experienced teacher are therefore advised.
How to progress our practice, then?
So where do we as modern practitioners fit into all this? Do we view prāṇāyāma simply as a practice to help regulate the nervous system, or to support āsanas (postures)? Or do we view it, as many earlier texts indicate, as a powerful technique towards liberation in and as of itself? It’s often heard commented, that a regular prāṇāyāma practice can be harder to develop and maintain than either a meditation practice or an āsana based one. Whatever point in your yoga practice you are at, the breath is fundamental and prāṇāyāma has deep treasures to offer those who are curious, patient and diligent. Seeking out a skilled and knowledgeable teacher is an advisable step; with clear guidance the subtleties and warnings of these practices can be navigated, and deeper personal practice may then develop.
Bryant, F, Edwin, The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, (North Point Press, 2009). Mallinson, James; Singleton, Mark. Roots of Yoga (Penguin Classics).
Svatmarama, Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika (Bihar School of Yoga)
Rosen, Richard. The Yoga of Breath: A Step-by-Step Guide to Pranayama. Shambhala.
Iyengar, B.K.S. Light on Prāṇāyāma (Harper Thorsons, 2013).