The essence of our existence is more subtle than its substance. The body in substance is made of various elements: earth, water, fire, air, and ether. But the essence of the body is invisible energy. The essence of everything is energy. Modern physics also recognizes that what appears as matter is simply a play of condensed energy. In yogic terminology, that dynamic energy is called “pran.” Pran is the self-animating life force in the universe that can act independently in the presence of consciousness. The breath (air element) both carries and activates pran in the body, but it is not pran itself.
What is the meaning of pranayam? The two Sanskrit words “pran” and “ayam” make up the word pranayam. Ayam means extension, expansion, or dimensions. So the word pranayam means the dimensions or the expansion of pran. Quite often, this word is broken slightly differently. When we say “prana,” the second word is “yam.” Yam means restraint or control. But the correct pronunciation is pran plus ayam. Pranayam, therefore, does not mean the control of pran; one can not control pran directly.
Pranayam is the foundation of yoga. Asan or posture practice is meant primarily to improve the quality of breathing. That is why in yoga, there is a great emphasis on the coordination of breath with asan practice. A combination of postures is practiced repeatedly, with the breath being coordinated with physical movement. Such coordination between breath and body movement should also be practiced at other times. It should become natural and effortless. The breath becomes naturally linked with all activities, movement, restful periods, and thoughts. How you feel, what you do, how you think, the quality of your actions, and the quality of your thoughts, can all be regulated by pranayam. The presence and absence of your thoughts also depend on the depth and movement of pran. Pran is also the beginning of inner yoga. Antarang, or the inner part of yoga, begins with pranayam. The practice of dharana and dhyan, or concentration and meditation, depends primarily on the practice of pranayam. If the flow of breath is not harmonized, meditation is impossible. Meditation is not simply sitting, closing the eyes, and trying not to do anything. Often we associate meditation as something we are trying to do.
Sometimes we associate relaxation with meditation. In fact, all these practices of asana and pranayam are designed to lead to one goal. This goal is the state of being when meditation happens. Asana means the ability to sit comfortably and be still. To be able to sit still and comfortably is the whole purpose of the 84 million asanas. The most crucial groundwork for pranayam is to improve the quality and pattern of breathing. Avoid shallow and erratic breathing; adopt deep and rhythmic breathing. Among all living beings that slow breathers (turtles, elephants) have longer life spans than rapid breathers (dogs, rabbits). And deep breathers are more energetic. Deep and slow breathing can be acquired by pushing the diaphragm down while inhaling and allowing the abdomen to expand, increasing the lungs’ breathing capacity. This kind of diaphragmatic breathing is the foundation of pranayam practices.
Deep breathing also allows 5-6 times more air intake than the average shallow breath. But the energy level harnessed is many times more than the increase in the quantity of breath. Research by Dr. Vishakha Thakar (a microbiologist at the National Institutes of Health) has confirmed that deep diaphragmatic breathing can increase the body’s energy level up to 20 times more than the energy level produced by the average breath. This indicates a nonlinear relationship between the quantity of breath and the level of energy associated with it. And the additional energy made available by deep breathing can be fruitfully utilized for physical wellbeing and spiritual growth.
There are over 100 pranayam techniques. All of these techniques are basically to bring awareness to the breath. The process of breath awareness begins with the awareness of body parts through which the breath passes. So becoming aware of the breath starts with becoming aware of the nostrils first and the breathing passages afterward. It becomes more and more subtle. Then one becomes aware of the lungs, and the diaphragm pushing down, and the expansion of the abdomen. So all the inner parts of the physiology that the breath touches come into the awareness. Then comes a subtler stage of awareness that is the movement of breath and not the friction. First, the friction, which is gross; then the movement of breath which is subtler. Then finally comes the awareness of pran in the breath itself.
Practicing pranayam is a prerequisite to meditation; it allows even and deep breathing from both nostrils. Shallow and erratic breathing creates disturbances in the body and the mind. So the two hemispheres of the brain and the two sides of the body need to be harmonized. Otherwise, it will be an irritation that prevents entering the state of meditation. Throughout the day, the breath flows more freely during specific periods from one side, then switches to the other. When the switch occurs, the alertness of the body also shifts. There will also be times in the day, very brief moments when both nostrils are flowing evenly, and harmony has been achieved.
Before asana practice, the breath flow is distorted or uneven; after asana practice, the breath will have less distortion and flow more evenly. That is why meditation is more likely to happen after asana and pranayam practice. Particularly after the practice of pranayam, the breath is even more harmonized. Therefore the time after pranayam practice is the best time for meditation. However, if you are in tune with your breath and body, then that sequence is not necessary. Even if your breath is generally disturbed, you may still find short periods during the day, morning or evening when your breath is more even and balanced. Take these rare opportunities to sit for meditation, don’t wait for anything else. If meditation is attempted without those qualities being present, the awareness will be drawn to the body’s condition and state of mind. So the period of meditation becomes the process of physical adjustment and relaxation, and meditation doesn’t really happen. For meditation to happen, it has to be effortless. If you find you are trying to meditate, then you are not really meditating. When you are fully prepared, meditation becomes a happening rather than a doing. When all the conditions of your body, mind, and breath are mature enough, meditation will happen effortlessly, thoughtlessly, and sometimes even breathlessly. And that is the doorway to self-realization, knowing yourself, becoming fully, purely, and cosmically conscious. When we study the life journey of great souls and sages, we discover their main secret was the practice of pranayam.
It is said that before Buddha reached the state of nirvana, he practiced postures and austerities for many years, but nothing really happened. Sitting next to a tree, he became deeply aware of his breath. Breath awareness is what led him to nirvana. Even western mystics and saints have reached that state through breath awareness, because becoming aware of the breath is the same as becoming aware of the present moment. Breathing happens only in the present- never in the past or future. When attention is focused on the breath, the mind disappears or becomes quiet and thoughtless. All thoughts relate to the past or the future. The present moment entails no thinking and is therefore timeless or eternal.