Pranayama (devanāgarī: प्राणायाम prāṇāyāma) is a Sanskrit term composed of two words. The first is prāṇa, and refers to the life force or vital energy, and also to the breath. The second word can be ayāma (beginning with short a: “extension”, “expansion”) or āyāma (beginning with long a: “stopping”, “restraining”). Therefore, the composed term can be translated as either extension or stopping of the life force or breath.
Prana in the body of the individual (j1vatma) is part of the cosmic breath of the Universal Spirit (Paramatma). An attempt is made to harmonize the individual breath (pinda-prana) with the cosmic breath (Brahmanda-prana) through the practice of pranayama.
Pranayam in Bhagavad Gita
According to Bhagavad-Gītā As It Is, prāṇāyāma is translated to “trance induced by stopping all breathing”, also being made from the two separate Sanskrit words, prāṇa and āyām.
Pranayam in Patanjali Yoga
Pranayama is the fourth “limb” of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga mentioned in verse 2.29 in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Patanjali, a Hindu Rishi, discusses his specific approach to pranayama in verses 2.49 through 2.51, and devotes verses 2.52 and 2.53 to explaining the benefits of the practice. Patanjali does not fully elucidate the nature of prana, and the theory and practice of pranayama seem to have undergone significant development after him. He presents pranayama as essentially an exercise that is preliminary to concentration, as do the earlier Buddhist texts.
Yoga teachers including B. K. S. Iyengar have advised that pranayama should be part of an overall practice that includes the other limbs of Patanjali’s Raja Yoga teachings, especially Yama, Niyama, and Asana.
Pranayama In Hatha Yoga
The Indian tradition of Hatha Yoga makes use of various pranayama techniques. The 15th century Hatha Yoga Pradipika is a key text of this tradition and includes various forms of pranayama such as Kumbhaka breath retention and various body locks (Bandha). Other forms of pranayama breathing include Ujjayi breath (“Victorious Breath”), Bhastrika (“Bellows Breath”), Kapalabhati (“Skull-shining Breath”, a Shatkarma purification), Surya Bhedana (“Sun-piercing Breath”), and the soothing Bhramari (buzzing like a bee). B. K. S. Iyengar cautions that pranayama should only be undertaken when one has a firmly established yoga practice and then only under the guidance of an experienced Guru.
According to the scholar-practitioner of yoga Theos Bernard, the ultimate aim of pranayama is the suspension of breathing (kevala kumbhaka), “causing the mind to swoon”. Swami Yogananda writes, “The real meaning of Pranayama, according to Patanjali, the founder of Yoga philosophy, is the gradual cessation of breathing, the discontinuance of inhalation and exhalation”.
Eastern Commentary on Pranayama
Pramahansa Yogananda describes Pranayama as follow:
“Pranayama [‘control of prana’ or energy/life-force that sustains life in the body] is the primary art of realization. You cannot find God unless you can master the mortal breath. Breath ties the mind to the sense plane. As your breath becomes calm, your mind goes within. Breathlessness is the way to God. Practice pranayama and you will know how to meditate—how to perceive God and be one with Him.”
Swami Sivananda describes the purpose of Pranayama as follow:
“Pranayama is said to be the union of Prana and Apana. Pranayama, in the language of Yoga, means the process by which we understand the secret of Prana and control it. He, who has grasped this Prana, has grasped the very core of cosmic life and activity. He who has conquered and controlled this very essence has not only subjected his own body and mind but every other body, mind, and power in this universe. Thus, Pranayama or the control of Prana is that means by which the Yogin tries to realise in this little body the whole of cosmic life, and tries to attain perfection by getting all the powers in the universe. His various exercises and training are for this end. Comprehensive knowledge of Prana and its function is absolutely necessary for Pranayama.”
Western Commentary on Pranayama
In his book “Tree of Life” Israel Regardie elaborates on the importance of Pranayama practice for a magician as follow:
“It is that branch of the eight-limbed Yoga which is called Pranayama, a practice yielding to whomsoever pursues it a threefold harvest. First, the intake of large quantities of oxygen and prana has an unmistakable effect on the endocrine glands. It is indubitable that the interstitial glands particularly receive a tremendous stimulus. As a consequence, from a purely physical point of view, the entire personality is flooded with a wealth of creative energy bound to react favorably, when conserved, on the mind and Will and every other aspect of the human constitution. In fact, one may go so far as to state that this creative energy, physical though-it-may seem, goes to form the basis of the spiritual vision. Secondly, in his Raja Yoga the late Swami Vivekananda provides an admirable explanation of the effect of regulated rhythmic breathing, which strengthens and stimulates the Will into a most formidable concentration of power. Briefly, his theory is that by making all the cells in one’s being vibrate in unison, a powerful electric current of Will is established in the body and mind. And the means for establishing this unison of vibration is a rhythmic intaking and exhalation of the breath.
Ignoring, for the purpose of argument, the theory that Pranayama does have any such effect as is outlined in the former paragraph, and barring all mystical theory from consideration, there is yet another result which can be doubted by none. Any individual who has attempted Pranayama steadily for even a few moments will understand at once what is meant. Anything more tedious and laborious and heart-breaking than this simple set of exercises could hardly be imagined. For the Magician to seat himself quietly for two or three hours during the course of each day for a period of say three or four months, making the attempt to breathe in a measured regulated rhythm, simply observing carefully the inhalation and exhalation of the flow of breath, is one of the most arduous tasks of which the human imagination can conceive. It calls for the exertion of the utmost will-power, and the gritting most firmly of the teeth in the determination to continue. In doing this, the individual is brought sharply to face the inertia and lassitude of the body, requiring no little austerity and self-conquest and adamant will-power to persist in that appointed task to which he has vowed himself. If the Practitioner obtained no technical book-described result whatsoever, such as the slowing of the motion of the mind or the occurrence of various psycho-physiological changes, he will at least have gained an immeasurable increase in will-power and indomitability of purpose in having trained himself to overcome the slothfulness of bodily circumstances and the mental inertia and opposition to training. ” To learn self-conquest is, therefore, to learn how to live, and the austerities of stoicism were no idle boast of liberty. . . . To resist and overcome nature is to achieve for oneself a personal and imperishable existence; it is to set oneself free from the vicissitudes of life and death.”l It is an acknowledged and demonstrable fact that the discipline and patience imposed by Pranayama, apart from all Yoga theory, will stand the Magician in good stead when the more complex and difficult tasks of Magic are forced upon him.”
Pranayama & Kundalini Rising
One of the methods of awakening kundalini is through pranayama. When a sufficiently prepared aspirant practices pranayama in a calm, cool and quiet environment, preferably at a high altitude, with a diet only sufficient to maintain life, the awakening of kundalini takes place like an explosion. In fact, the awakening is so rapid that kundalini ascends to Sahasrara immediately. Pranayama is not only a breathing exercise or a means to increase prana in the body; it is a powerful method of creating yogic fire to heat the kundalini and awaken it. However, if it is practiced without sufficient preparation, this will not occur because the generated heat will not be directed to the proper centers. Therefore, Jalandhar, Uddiyana and moola bandhas are practiced to lock the prana in and force it up to the frontal brain. When pranayama is practiced correctly, the mind is automatically conquered. However, the effects of pranayama are not that simple to manage. It creates extra heat in the body, it awakens some of the centers in the brain and it can hinder the production of sperm and testosterone. Pranayama may also lower the temperature of the inner body and even bring down the rate of respiration and alter the brain waves. Unless you have practiced the Shatkarmas first and purified the body to a degree, when these changes take place, you may not be able to handle them. There are two important ways of awakening kundalini – one is the direct method and the other is indirect. Pranayama is the direct method. The experiences it brings about are explosive and results are attained very quickly. Expansion is rapid and the mind attains quick metamorphosis. However, this form of kundalini awakening is always accompanied by certain experiences, and for one who is not sufficiently prepared mentally, philosophically, physically, and emotionally, these experiences can be terrifying.
Therefore, although the path of pranayama is a jet set method, it is drastic and is considered to require persistence & discipline.
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Kundalini Tantra by Swami Satyananda Saraswati. ISBN 8185787158 .