Pranayama is the practice of conscious breath control. The word 'Prana' relates to the life force or the vital energy. 'Ayama' relates to the conscious control of that life force and to the extension and expansion of the vital force. Prana must not be misunderstood as being the same as oxygen as it is different to oxygen. Prana is in food, water, air, fire, stone, etc. Prana is present in all forms of life be it animate or inanimate forms of life. Prana is the subtle life essence (the thread of life) that pervades all of the universe. Prana supports and maintains life. At the time of birth prana enters the body giving life and lustre to the body, at the time of death, prana departs leaving the body lifeless and pale. From this understanding we can see that there is something more subtle and more precious that keeps all of our vital organs and limbs functioning and co-ordinating.
Pranayama techniques are designed to activate and regulate the life force. The power of pranayama practice is in the breath retention, however, in order to be able to perform breath retention the practitioner needs to practice exercises to strenghten the lungs and condition the body in preparation for the more advanced practices of pranayama.
According to yoga, lifestyle has a profound effect on the prana and the subtle body. Physical activities such as exercise, work, sleep, diet and sexual relations, irregularities in lifestyle and stress affect the way prana flows and the way it is distributed throughout the body. Other major factors that influence the flow of prana on a mental level are thought, emotions and imagination. This often manifests itself as 'feeling of lethargy' 'low energy levels' or a general feeling of 'energy depletion'. Long term depletion of energy can result in devitalization of organs and limbs and bodily systems.
The breath is the most vital process of the body as it influences all of the cells in the body and is directly linked to the performance of the brain. Rhythmic deep slow breathing promotes a calm, contented state of mind, whereas short irregular breathing leads to physical, emotional and mental blockages which result in inner conflict, imbalanced personality and disordered lifestyle.
Many people spend a lot of time and energy looking for ways to improve their health, but very few people understand the power of the breath. The breath, the life force is within you, it is all around you, you simply just need to know how to use it properly to bring yourself to a state of radiant health.
When the breath is unsteady, everything is unsteady; but when the breath is still, all else is still. So one should control the breath carefully. Inhale slowly and exhale likewise, neither retaining the breath excessively nor beyond your capacity. Do not exhale too rapidly. Inhalation gives strength and a controlled and purified body; retention gives steadiness of mind and longevity; and exhalation is totally purifying.