In the previous article on Aṣtānga Yoga, the importance of Ᾱsanas was understood. Prāṇāyāma is like the leaves in a tree, which nourishes the tree; Prāṇāyāma nourishes the cells, organs, intelligence and even consciousness.
It is very difficult to define or describe Prāṇa. It can only be understood by the Sādhaka. It is the energy through which the entire universe upholds. It is in different forms and is used to fullest extent when required.
According to Praśnopaniṣad, Prāṇa is considered to be the principle of life and consciousness.
Prāṇasyedam vaśe sarvam Tridiveyat pratiṣṭitam
Māteva pūtrān rakśasva Śrica prajnān ca videhina iti. (Praśnopaniṣad)
According to the mantra, Oh Prāṇa, who govern the entire universe; please protect us like how a mother protects her child.
Prāṇa is broadly understood as breath but it is just one of the many manifestations. It is co-related as breath because once there is no Prāṇa, there is no life as one stops breathing, one stops living.
The Prāṇa and the citta are in constant association. The relationship between Prāṇa and citta is understood breathing. When the breathing is controlled, relaxed then the desires are controlled and the senses are in the right path and the mind is like a calm ocean. Similarly, if the desire is forced, the breathing is uneven and the mind is agitated like an ocean with waves.
Prāṇa classifies itself into five categories: Prāṇa, Apāna, Udāna, Samāna and Vyāna. They are classified so just for the better understanding of the functions of Prāṇa. Prāṇa prevails in the respiratory system and is responsible for respiration. Apāna moves in lower abdomen and is responsible for excretion. Samāna is responsible for digestion by invoking the gastric juices. Udāna moves in upward direction and is responsible for vocal cords and intake of food and air. Vyāna moves throughout the body and is responsible for circulation and the sthāna of Vyāna is said to be Hrudaya.
Prāṇa then further sub categorises as Upa Prāṇas. They are Nāga, Kūrma, Kṛikara, Devadatta and Dhananjaya. Nāga is responsible for relieving of pressure from abdomen through belching. Kūrma is responsible for preventing foreign matter enter the body through the movement of eye-lids. Kṛikara is responsible for prevention of unwanted substances entering the body through sneezing and coughing. Devadatta is responsible for inducing sleep through yawning. Dhananjaya is responsible for production of phlegm and nourishment of the body.
Prāṇāyāma: Prāṇa is the life force and āyāma means expansion, extension, stretch, length, restraint or even control. Hence, Prāṇāyāma means expansion or restraining of Prāṇa. B.K.S. Iyengar describes Prāṇāyāma as the science of breath, which leads to the creation, distribution and maintenance of vital energy.
Patanjali in his sūtras describe Prāṇāyāma as –
Tasminsati śvāsapraśvāsayorgativicchedaḥ prāṇāyāmaḥ (Patanjali Yoga Sūtrās 2.49)
The above sūtra means: Prāṇāyāma is the controlled intake and outflow of Prāṇa with retention in a firmly established posture.
Before starting Prāṇāyāma, the practitioner has to understand the process of breathing. Breathing is an involuntary process which takes place in every living form from a single celled organism to humans. By Prāṇāyāma, the practitioner can increase the rate and depth of breathing. The process of breathing consists of three facets namely inhalation (pūraka), exhalation (recaka) and retention of breath (kumbhaka). In Prāṇāyāma, there are no sudden movements during inhalation and exhalation but complete awareness of gradual expansion of the lungs. During exhalation, when done gradually, there is sufficient time for the cells to reabsorb the Prāṇa for the maximum extent. The retention of breath should not be done initially, instead one should master the breathing smoothly. Once this is established, one should attempt at Kumbhaka and this can be practiced by counts which can be increased gradually.
The retention of breath is again divided into 2 types namely the Antar Kumbhaka and Bahya Kumbhaka depending on when one is holding the breath. In Antar Kumbhaka, one holds the breath after inhalation and in Bahya Kumbhaka, one holds the breath after exhalation. There is another type called as the Kevala Kumbhaka. This is the objective of performing Prānayāma. This type of Kumbhaka happens automatically after the Prānayāma is performed for a few seconds and the time duration of the Kumbhaka should be increased during regular practice. In Kumbhaka, the self is united with body and this is achieved because of the union of body and mind in inhalation, exhalation and retention of breath. Inhalation is receiving energy in the form of breath and exhalation is removal of toxins from the system.
Prānayāma is a bridge between the physical and spiritual. Prānayāma can be mastered only through practice and when Prānayāma is effortless. Patanjali describes the benefits of Prānayāma in the sūtra tataḥ kṣiyate prakāśa āvaraṇam (PYS 2.52) according to which the practice of Prānayāma destroys illusion, ignorance desire, and delusion and allows the inner light of wisdom to shine.