Pranayama is a compound word comprising two words, Prana and Ayama.
Prana is the vital energy, that which distinguishes animate things from inanimate things. Animate things absorb energy from their surroundings, metabolise, feel, act and grow, have a beginning and an end. For us this happens through the in-breath and out-breath. This kind of breathing is characteristic to the biological world. This movement of breath signifies the existence of Prana in the embodiment. The departure of Prana marks the end of respiration too, hence the death of the living being. The closest equivalent of the word Prana in Latin is anima, from which the word animals is derived, that which has Prana. The sanskrit word for animal is Praani.
The yogic texts define Prana as Vishva Chaitanya Shakti: the illuminating (animating) power of the Universe. Prana is mystical and mysterious. It is so present that we ignore it. Fraught with obscurity, Prana is difficult to decipher in the beginning. To understand that which is so subtle, our intelligence, attention and observation needs to become extremely subtle.
It is important to note that for a layman, breath and prana are synonymous. However, breath is the vehicle of Prana. Prana is seated in breath, and is subtler than breath. Therefore breath becomes the vehicle for us to study Prana. And it is only with time spent observing the body-mind, body positions, sense organs, mental states, bio-energy within the body, physiological functions and their relationship to breath that we can get closer to directly perceiving and hence getting closer to understanding Prana and its all pervading force. It will hopefully become clear in the course of time. All understanding goes from gross to subtle.
We can say that Prana is central to all living, breathing, metabolising, acting and feeling beings from birth, and that which uninterruptedly keeps its presence until the last breath. Prana departs from the embodiment with the death of the individual being. The prefix ‘pra’ represents that which precedes the breath.
We not only live by Prana but all that we do with the body and in the body, mentally, sensorially, cognitively, psychically, emotionally, intellectually, whether voluntarily and involuntarily, is because of Prana. Respiration is invariably linked to Prana. This fact logically brings us to see that all our actions and activities have a direct concomitance with breath.
At a gross level of understanding, Prana, chaitanya shakti and respiration are all
considered indistinct. But as we dig deeper in our explorations, we discover that there are subtle distinctions. Owing to this lack of clear distinction and to the subtlety of their differences, the neophyte considers regulation of breath as Pranayama. With time and practice, this illusion will be unveiled to the inner eyes of a dedicated and sensitive practitioner. Regulation of breath is also a very superficial endeavour. The encounter with Prana is quite something else.
However, breath and Prana being so close to each other, we deal with the breath and breath conjoined action. And this is so essential to understanding Yoga.
Prana being so subtle, requires immense sensitivity, and this sensitivity cannot be forced. It is hence the reason why we are so prudent with Pranayama. All ancient texts warn the practitioner to not take up Pranayama until the effort in the asana becomes effortless. In other words, one has to find stability and benevloence of spirit, before coming to Pranayama. Breathing has to be first studied in the asanas. For this we need to find ease in the asanas. For this we need to overcome the struggle in the asanas. Therefore we strongly advise, as the ancient scriptures and Yogis of the past do, to have a careful, patient and prudent approach to Pranayama.
The myriad range of physical postures in yoga have different breathing patterns and impact on the body-mind. Standing, sitting, prone, supine, inverted poses, backward extensions, forward extensions, lateral extensions, rotating asanas and so on, create expansion, extension, churning, opening, lengthening, strengthening, rejuvenating, revitalising, quietening and sensitivising of the body, mind and intelligence. All these positions provide a fabulous canvas to carry out the study of breath and breathing. Let this first be attempted before we jump hastily into Pranayama or meditation. Yoga is a slow process and needs to be approached prudently with competent teachers.