What is the real meaning of pranayama?

Swami Satyananda: Pranayama is a greatly misunderstood term. People translate it as ‘breathing exercise’. Of course the practices do improve the introduction of oxygen into the physical body and the removal of carbon dioxide. Of this there is no doubt, and this in itself brings about wonderful physiological benefits. But pranayama is not simply a respiratory exercise, or an exercise of the breath.

Pranayama does not mean controlling the life force. Pranayama does not mean controlling the breath.

Then what is pranayama? Pranayama means conveying the life force to every nook and corner of the body. It is actually a process which awakens the dormant prana, the sleeping vital energy in the physical body. It is part of a total system of reintegration, rebalancing and re-harmonizing of body and mind, a system which purifies and strengthens, and thereby eliminates physical and mental tension and weakness. Simultaneously, pranayama awakens the inner awareness. The practice of pranayama recharges the energy in the physical body which is then conducted by ida and pingala nadis in the form of electrical impulses to all parts of the body, including the brain. Scientists have observed that when pranayama is practised both hemispheres of the brain are active and there are great changes in the brain’s electrical impulses.

What is the meaning and significance of the word pranayama?

Swami Satyananda: Prana, means far more than breath. ‘Prana’ plus ‘ayama’ gives ‘prana-ayama’. Ayama is a Sanskrit word which can be defined as follows: stretching, extending, restraining, expansion (of dimensions in time and space). Thus, pranayama means to extend and overcome one’s normal limitations. Pranayama uses the breathing process as a means to manipulate all forms of prana within the human framework, whether gross or subtle, but it is chiefly concerned with influencing the subtle forms of prana. Pranayama provides the method whereby one is able to attain higher states of vibratory energy. In other words, one is able to activate and regulate the prana within the human framework and thereby make oneself more sensitive to vibrations in the cosmos and internally.

Pranayama is a method of refining the makeup of one’s pranic body, one’s physical body and also of one’s mind. In this way, it is possible for a practitioner to become aware of new dimensions of existence. By making the mind calm and still, consciousness is allowed to shine through without distortion. In Yoga Chudamani Upanishad (v. 89) it is written:

Chale vaate chalo binduh nishchale bhavet;

Yogee sthaanuttva- maapnoti tato vayum nirundhayet.

When the prana moves, the bindu also moves. When the prana remains steady, then the bindu is also steady. Thus the yogi becomes steadfast and firm. Therefore, the prana should be controlled.

What are the main purposes of pranayama?

Swami Satyananda: The first purpose of pranayama is to supply energy to the nervous system. The second purpose is to awaken kundalini. The third purpose of pranayama is to awaken the sleeping centres of the brain. It is said that thought influences prana, and prana influences thought. According to the yogic texts, the purpose of pranayama is to handle the mind. The scriptures on yoga make it clear – mind and prana are interacting. When the mind is restless it affects the prana; when the mind is peaceful, calm and tranquil, there is automatic equipoise in the prana. The reverse is also true. When the pranas are agitated the mind is agitated. When the pranas are controlled, the mind is controlled. In Sage Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (2:53) it is said:

Dharanasu cha yogyata manasah.

And fitness of the mind for concentration (develops through pranayama).

Therefore, if pranayama is correctly followed, one can attain the highest steps in yoga.

What have scientific studies revealed about the effects of conscious breathing on the brain?

Swami Satyananda: The brain consists of the frontal brain and the posterior brain. The posterior brain is the instinctive, or primitive brain. The frontal brain is the seat of total consciousness. When one breathes without awareness, the breath is registered in the posterior brain. This is called involuntary breathing. When one is aware of breathing and consciously witnessing the whole process, it is called voluntary breathing and it is registered by the conscious brain, the frontal brain.

This difference seems to be simple, but its effect is great. Throughout life, most people breathe unconsciously, just like animals and children. A few people who have started practising yoga are the exception. The moment one becomes aware of the breathing and begins to conduct and control the breath in a particular fashion, the frontal brain immediately registers the influence. This fact has been revealed by scientific experiments and has led to the conclusion that conscious breathing has an entirely different effect on the brain from unconscious breathing. Through unconscious breathing the whole body is supplied with prana, but this supply is insufficient for its evolution and growth.

This means that pranayama is not only a breathing exercise or breath control, it is a system for training the different centres in the brain. An example of voluntary breathing is alternate nostril breathing. Scientific studies have observed that when one breathes in the left nostril, activity increases in the right hemisphere of the brain, and when one breathes in the right nostril, activity increases in the left hemisphere of the brain. When the breath is held, both hemispheres of the brain are equalized.

It has also been observed that the breath which goes through the left nostril has a slightly lower temperature than the breath which goes through the right. This concurs with the yogic understanding that the left nostril is related to ida nadi, the flow of mental energy, while the right nostril is related to pingala nadi, the flow of vital energy. Ida is the lunar force, which is cool, while pingala is the solar force, which is hot.

In scientific experiments related to stress, ECG (electro-cardiograph) and EEG (electroencephalograph) are used to record heart rhythm and brainwaves, and GSR (galvanic skin response) to measure electrical activity of the skin. It has been found that the practice of pranayama results in a synchronous flow of alpha, delta or theta waves, which harmonizes the activity of the brain. The tensions recorded during periods of beta activity reduce when alpha, theta or delta waves replace the beta activity. When the alpha waves manifest in the brain, tensions in the body are lowered and the heart becomes free from stress-related pressure.

From Conversations on the Science of Yoga – Hatha Yoga Book 5, Pranayama