Pranayam, also called Pranayama, is an ancient tradition of breathing techniques designed to improve the lives of those who practice it. It’s part of the yogic tradition of ancient India that dates back thousands of years. For centuries, millions of people have used Pranayam to attain peace, happiness and many other wellness benefits. The best part is once you learn the simple techniques you can practice it anywhere, anytime. It’s free and your own body provides everything you need to do it.
Although Pranayam is rooted in Hinduism and is also present in Buddhism, it need not have any religious attachments in order to practice it. The name Pranayama comes from two Sanskrit words: Prana, meaning breath and yama which means control. In Sanskrit, though, the word prana actually has as many as 14 different meanings. All the definitions revolve around the concept of life force. It’s often interpreted to mean breath because in the yogic tradition the breath is known to be one of the life force’s key material forms. Other definitions of the word yama also refer to growth or expansion so Pranayam can also refer to expanding or growing the life force.
Becoming aware of your breath and eventually mastering it means becoming more aware of yourself. It means mastering yourself. This practice can change your life in ways you can’t imagine. “Breath is life and breath is the one thing that accompanies us all through our lives,” says Yossi Dayan. “From the moment we’re born until the day we’re gone we’re always breathing. This is the closest thing to us. It’s even closer to us than our mind. The breath is always there and always ready to help us if we know how to do it.”
"The more you control the breath, the more you control the mind. The more you control the mind, the better life is."
Pranayam relies on the deep connection that exists between the breath, the mind and the body. As Yossi teaches, “The more you control the breath, the more you control the mind. The more you control the mind, the better life is.” In addition to developing mastery over the mind, Pranayam also has beneficial effects on the body. Read our page on all of Pranayam’s health and wellness benefits for more information.
The basic idea is that it’s very difficult to master the mind. Furthermore, not being able to attain mastery over the mind directly causes many of the problems afflicting people all over the world. The breath, on the other hand, is much easier to master. We have the ability to direct our breath to follow patterns and if we develop discipline, we can practice these techniques regularly. Pranayam is all about the effects that breath-control has on the mind.
“The mind and the breath are intertwined so they affect each other all the time,” explains Yossi. “Usually it is the mind that dictates how the breath is. It’s in control. If you are agitated, for example, your breath will be short and erratic. If you’re at peace your breath will be long and smooth and easy.”
“So it’s like an equation. If you breathe in long and deep and steady, your mind will follow because of that connection. Controlling the mind is always good. The mind is very useful for humans to live in the physical world but when one is looking for something deeper than that, the mind can be a kind of hurdle. It will always take your attention to forms and objects.”
"When you are at the source of breath, all the beings who breath are one with you."
History of Pranayam
The concept of prana meaning life-force dates back many thousands of years but it wasn’t until around 700 BCE that we see references to using breathing techniques to enhance and expand prana. A hymn in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad speaks of using the breath to help understand and connect to the divinity and immortality that underlies our material world.
Breathing practices are also referenced in the Bhagavad Gita which is dated to somewhere between the second and fifth centuries BCE. It was sometime around 400 BCE when the Maitrayaniya Upanishad spoke of Pranayam as part of a larger yogic system that included sensory withdrawal (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), reasoning (tarka) and union (samadhi) as well as breath control (pranayama).
A version of Pranayam more similar to what’s known today was introduced sometime during the first four centuries CE as part of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a text that combined many earlier yogic teachings. The six-part system described in the Maitrayaniya Upanishad was enlarged to include physical postures (asana) plus ethical and social rules (niyama), becoming the so-called “eight limbs of yoga” we’re familiar with today.
“When the breath wanders, the mind is unsteady, when the breath is still, so is the mind still.” Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Light on Hatha Yoga is a fifteenth century Hatha Yoga manual by Swāmi Svāmārāma. It is a definitive reference text for Hatha Yoga and Pranayam.
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What is Pranayam Breathing?
History, Tradition, Modern Innovation
Pranayam is Control of Breath, Energy, Life-Force