What is prāṇāyāma?
Prāṇāyāma is the effort or practice of controlling the breath in order to access the vital energy that sustains life. The breath is something that is at once deeply personal and universal. Every sentient being shares the experience of breathing, albeit in different ways.
Prāṇāyāma is a combination of prāṇa, or breath/life-force and ayama, or control. Thus, prāṇāyāma can be understood as breath-control, or life-force control. It is a central component within the earliest Indian philosophical traditions of meditation and yoga. In the great epic Mahābhārata it is listed as one of two types of meditation (dhyāna) and as an aṅga, or limb, of yoga in several of the early Upaniṣhads and in Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras. In the later medieval haṭhayoga tradition it is again a central component of practice and the well known Haṭhayogapradīpikā, a synthesis of earlier haṭhayoga traditions, an entire chapter is devoted to prāṇāyāma.
Breathing is an automatic function of the body that many of us do without giving it much attention. The breath fluctuates in relation to a host of circumstances. A moment of relief might inspire a deep breath or sigh. A fearful moment can result in shortness of breath or holding the breath. Exercise can lead the untrained athlete to breathe heavily, with exhaustion. And, in time, the trained athlete can learn (unconsciously or consciously) to find a fullness of breath that supports intense exercise. In a host of daily tasks, awareness of how we breath provides feedback for how the mind and inner consciousness are functioning.
For most of us, momentary circumstances, emotions, and bodily experience set the rhythm for the breath. In this way, the breath is at the mercy of our wandering, busy mind. For centuries Indian sages have developed techniques to utilize the breath to shift and gain insight into the mind and physical body.
Prāṇāyāma is often associated with tapas, or ascetic practice, and is understood to generate internal heat and thereby purify the body. Because of this potential to purify and heat, texts that mention prāṇāyāma and/or describe breath control practices often caution that it is an advanced technique and that it should be learned directly from a trusted teacher.
Different schools vary the order of the techniques, with differing results. Yet, the basic practices remain similar across traditions including concentrated inhales, exhales, and holds, rapid fire breath, slow cooling breaths, and controlled alternate nostril breathing. These techniques lead to different states of mind, but within most traditions the goal of prāṇāyāma is purification for the purpose of enhancing meditation and opening the individual towards the possibility of liberation.
From the perspectives of western science and religion, breath control is a revolutionary tool that can mediate pain and anger, improve cognition, and regulate bodily functions. If you do a physical practice with a controlled and coordinated breath (like many popular vinyasa style practices) you can experience the preliminary effort and benefit of prāṇāyāma. However, traditional prāṇāyāma is a seated practice where the body is held as still as possible. The goal of prāṇāyāma is to control the individual experience of breathing in order to access the vital, and universal energy of life.
Tarka, vol. 16, https://www.embodiedphilosophy.com/issue/on-prana-pranayama/
The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary. Edwin Bryant (2009)
Roots of Yoga. James Mallinson and Mark Singleton, eds. (2017)