Prāṇāyāma (Sanskrit: प्राणायामprāṇāyāma) is a Sanskrit word meaning "extension of the prāṇa or breath" or "extension of the life force". The word is composed of two Sanskrit words: prana, life force, or vital energy, (noted particularly as the breath), and ayāma, to extend or draw out. (Not "restrain, or control" as is often translated from yam instead of ayāma). It is a yogic discipline with origins in ancient India.
The breath of life, vital air, principle of life (usually plural in this sense, there being five such vital airs generally assumed, but three, six, seven, nine, and even ten are also spoken of)
The spirit or soul
Of these meanings, the concept of "vital air" is used by Bhattacharyya to describe the concept as used in Sanskrit texts dealing with prāṇāyāma. Thomas McEvilley translates prāṇa as "spirit-energy". Its most subtle material form is the breath, but is also to be found in blood, and its most concentrated form is semen in men and vaginal fluid in women.
Monier-Williams defines the compound prāṇāyāma as "(m., also pl.) N. of the three 'breath-exercises' performed during Saṃdhyā (Seepūrak, rechak (English: retch or throw out), kumbhak". This technical definition refers to a particular system of breath control with three processes as explained by Bhattacharyya: pūrak (to take the breath inside), kumbhak (to retain it), and rechak (to discharge it). There are also other processes of prāṇāyāma in addition to this three-step model.
Macdonell gives the etymology as prāṇa + āyāma and defines it as "m. suspension of breath (sts. pl.)".
Apte's definition of āyāmaḥ derives it from ā + yām and provides several variant meanings for it when used in compounds. The first three meanings have to do with "length", "expansion, extension", and "stretching, extending", but in the specific case of use in the compound prāṇāyāma he defines āyāmaḥ as meaning "restrain, control, stopping".
An alternative etymology for the compound is cited by Ramamurti Mishra, who says that:
Expansion of individual energy into cosmic energy is called prāṇāyāma (prāṇa, energy + ayām, expansion).
Some scholars distinguish between hatha and rāja yoga varieties of prāṇāyāma, with the former variety usually prescribed for the beginner. According to Taimni, hatha yogic prāṇāyāma involves manipulation of pranic currents through breath regulation for bringing about the control of chitt-vritti and changes in consciousness, whereas rāja yoga prāṇāyāma involves the control of chitt-vritti by consciousness directly through the will of the mind. Students qualified to practice prāṇāyāma are therefore always initiated first in the techniques of hatha prāṇāyāma.
Pranayama is the fourth 'limb' of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga mentioned in verse 2.29 in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Patanjali, a Hindu Rishi, discusses his specific approach to pranayama in verses 2.49 through 2.51, and devotes verses 2.52 and 2.53 to explaining the benefits of the practice. Patanjali does not fully elucidate the nature of prana, and the theory and practice of pranayama seem to have undergone significant development after him. He presents pranayama as essentially an exercise that is preliminary to concentration, as do the earlier Buddhist texts.
Many yoga teachers advise that pranayama should be part of an overall practice that includes the other limbs of Patanjali's Raja Yoga teachings, especially Yama, Niyama, and Asana.
Forms of Pranayama
There are over 50 particular Pranayama techniques and forms, these include:
Several researchers have reported that pranayama techniques are beneficial in treating a range of stress-related disorders, improving autonomic functions, relieving symptoms of asthma (though a different study did not find any improvement) and reducing signs of oxidative stress. Practitioners report that the practice of pranayama develops a steady mind, strong will-power, and sound judgement, and also claim that sustained pranayama practice extends life and enhances perception.
Alternate nostril breathing (ANB) prāṇāyāma is also known as Nadisuddhi prāṇāyāma.
Exercises which incorporate the Valsalva maneuver, a moderately forceful attempt to exhale against a closed airway, usually done by closing one's mouth, pinching one's nose shut while pressing out as if blowing up a balloon, have been medically associated in emergency room practice with subcutaneous emphysema, development of pockets of air in the body outside the lungs, for example under the skin or in the abdomen.
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^Bhattacharya S, Pandey US, Verma NS (2002). "Improvement in oxidative status with yogic breathing in young healthy males". Indian J. Physiol. Pharmacol.46 (3): 349–54. PMID12613400.
^Jerath R, Edry JW, Barnes VA, Jerath V (2006). "Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system". Med. Hypotheses67 (3): 566–71. doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2006.02.042. PMID16624497.