“Prana” means life force or breath, “ayama” means to extend. Practicing pranayama is to build and regulate the prana in the body. It is a technique used to release blockages within the physical and emotional bodies, and to align the mind/body/spirit, which is the intention of yoga itself. Most often, when students of yoga discuss pranayama or an instructor in class asks students to practice a particular technique, it is usually the breath, and occasionally a bandha.

Breath is a tangible way to connect to the moment. By incorporating pranayama with the postures, it can give us the opportunity to move into deeper layers on the physical level, as well as the mental and emotional levels. Why is it that one of the first things that are taught in an anger management class is counting to ten and taking deep breaths? Physically, it brings more oxygen into the cerebral cortex, which often shuts down during a flight/fight response. If the breath can be controlled, then so can the mind. If the mind engages in anger or fear, then our breath reflects that emotion by shallow breath or holding the breath, and the body responds by shutting down non-vital systems. Once this happens, then Prana (the universal life force) becomes blocked.

Prana is often used to define all that we bring into all the bodies through the five senses, and how we allow it to leak out, thus changing our experience. What we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell can add to or detract from our reserves of Prana (this life force that animates the body). If we see atrocities, hear the lyrics in particular music, taste only rotten food or junk food, feel the pain of a lash or shackles, or smell any number of odors that engage the gag reflex, Prana is not being managed in our body. I gave up following the news because I didn’t want those images and soundbites in my mind. I became a vegetarian for ethical and environmental reasons and that I didn’t really care for meat to begin with. I endeavor to keep myself from situations where my physical body may be harmed. Though there are several smells around, I generally don’t have scented candles or incense and I don’t wear perfume or body spray. These are my choices and I feel a difference when I don’t manage Prana as successfully. I can become emotionally upset and physically ill. Someone else may have no issues with the news or rap music or horror films. For them, managing Prana is different.

Breath connects the mind to the body, and the body to the mind. This is one reason why instructors often remind students to breathe. If we encounter an asana pose that is difficult and fear arises, then we often hold the breath. If we breathe while in that pose, or change the breath to long, smooth inhales and exhales, then we’re able to move past the fear. By focusing on the breath it takes our attention away from the thought or emotion of fear. This shift to conscience breathing allows us to change old patterns and habits and replace them with new awareness.

There are several techniques in which we can use the breath to not only focus the mind, but to cool the body, to heat up the body and wake up the mind, to change the state of the mind, and to clear energy blockages. There are precautions in beginning a pranayama practice, such as if one with high blood pressure. Perhaps beginning with an instructor rather than reading about a technique from a book would be advisable. 

Are there certain pranayama techniques or tips that you use? Please leave them in the comments!

In Yogis All: A Journey of Transformation, Volume I, I included a few poems about pranayama. It can be viewed on my site: