Pranayama (Sanskrit ‘prana’ – life force, to breath + ‘ayama’ – extend, stretching) is a composite word that, within yoga, means breathing control. This fourth branch aims to master the respiratory processes of the body, whilst also recognising the connections between breathing, mind, body and emotions. As such, pranayama is also intended to control the vital life force (prana) that we consume and use, to train the body to utilise this as effectively as possible.
Within the Yoga Sutras, pranayama and asana are considered the highest form of purification and discipline for the body and mind, both in preparation for and during meditation. Both practices combined produce the heat effect of tapas, beginning the purification of the body and mind.
There are a variety of pranayama breathing techniques to be employed and practised, with benefits to be gained. For example, pranayama breathing techniques have been reported in several studies to be advantageous in helping with a range of stress related illnesses and respiratory problems.
However, because of the nature of pranayama, it is important that these techniques should only be undertaken after extensive practice with an experienced yoga teacher.