“The breath is one of the best means for observing yourself in your yoga practice. How does the body respond to the breath, and how does the breath respond to the movement of the body? The breath should be your teacher.” (T. K. V. Desikachar - The Heart of Yoga)
The word Pranayama in its most simple understanding means breath control.
Prana = ‘breath’ or in a wider understanding prana means ‘that which is infinitely everywhere’, referring to cosmic energy
Ayama = ‘restrain’, ‘suspension of breath’, ‘stretch’, ‘extend’
T. K. V. Desikachar describes pranayama as regulated breathing technique.
In ancient texts such as the Yoga Yajnavalkya it is discussed that someone who is troubled, restless, or confused has more prana outside of the body than inside. This happens when we feel unwell and too little prana in the body can manifest itself in physical discomfort, the feeling of being struck or restricted. It can also make us feel we lack of motivation to do anything or even feel depressed.
So our aim with both our Pranayama and Asana practice is to bring our bodies along with our breath into balance, to create more space for breath and attain more harmony. With our pranayama practice we are aiming to concentrate more and more prana within the body.
One description of yogi is “one whose prana is all within his body”. When we practice pranayama, we work with the breath to reduce blockages in the body. The way to influence prana is happening through the breath and mind. Our mind and state of mind is closely tied to our breathing patterns. When we are nervous, anxious or stressed, our breath shortens, becomes shallow and rapid. When we are in a state of balance, our breath is deep and long. Vice versa we can effect our state of mind by practicing pranayama, consciously taking control of our breath, elongating it and creating more space for it. Our intention is to regulate the breath so to calm and focus the mind for meditation.
Who can practice pranayama?
Everyone who is able to breathe comfortably can practice pranayama to a certain extent. Although there are some cases when it could be difficult due to illnesses of the respiratory system (such as asthma or a bad cold) and depending on the technique there are of course contraindications, but a simple Sama Vritti (equal breath) or Dirga Pranayama (three part breath) can be practiced in most cases. But if you are unsure or experiencing difficulties always talk to your teacher.