Pranayama – An introduction

Pranayama has been defined in Patanjali’s Yogasutra as: “Tasminsati svasaprasvasayorgativicchedah Pranayamah.” It implies that Pranayama is that by which the movement of breath during inhalation and exhalation is controlled. “Pranayama” is derived from the combination of the two words “Prana”  and ” Ayama“. “Prana” means life, vitality, breath, respiration or strength . “Ayama” means control, regulation,  length, restraint or expansion. Slowing down of the breath is the first stage in Pranayama. Control of breathing is to shift from involuntary to conscious control of breathing. In this process, awareness is built. This is the second step in Pranayama. “Pranayama” hence implies expansion and control of breath. It has three components :

  • Inhalation (Puraka)
  • Exhalation (Rechaka)
  • Kumbhaka  The state of retention / holding of breath.

There are two types of Kumbhaka:

  • Antara Kumbhaka Here the suspension or holding of breath is after full inhalation and before exhalation.
  • Bahya Kumbhaka  or Shunyaka In this state breath is suspended after full exhalation and before inhalation.

Both of these are called Sahita Kumbhaka.

Automatic effortless stoppage of breath at any stage of breathing is called Kevala Kumbhaka.

These two types of Kumbhaka involve forceful holding of breath. While the third, just occurs.  Hatha Yoga texts use the former types of Kumbhakas as an integral part of all Pranayama practices. It is for this reason that it is believed by many people that forceful Kumbhaka is mandatory part of all Pranayamas. However, Patanjali includes Pranayama techniques with or without Kumbhaka by using the term Viccheda.

Pranayama is the cutting off of the course of breathing in and out.

Conscious control to break the involuntary breathing cycle which is going on automatically is the key feature of Pranayama not only by holding the breath (Kumbhaka) but also by slowing the inhalations and exhalations. There are two views regarding interpretation of Viccheda as either complete stoppage of breath or just the reduction in speed. Stoppage (Kumbhaka) occurs at its extreme ends.

Vasistha in his famous “Yoga vasistha” focuses on the second process of Pranayama accomplished through slowing down of Puraka and Rechaka. So, it can be clearly differentiated that there are two distinct school of thoughts pertaining Pranayama; the first in which forceful Kumbhaka is a mandatory part of all Pranayama techniques which will be called as Hatha Yoga school and the second school in which forceful Kumbhaka is not at all used, but all emphasis is given to elongating the breathing process and promoting Kevala Kumbhaka called Vasistha school.

Pranayama should be done cautiously according to one’s capacity and  limitations. It needs constant practice to master slow, deep, rhythmic inhalations and exhalations. Before attempting Kumbhaka one should have reasonable command over inhalations and exhalations. It renders the subject fit for concentration. Improper practice of Pranayama may lead to several disorders.