Pranayama is a conscious prolongation of inhalation, retention and exhalation. Inhalation is the act of receiving the primeval energy in the form of breath, and retention is when the breath is held in order to savour that energy. In exhalation all thoughts and emotions are emptied with breath. The practice of pranayama develops a steady mind, strong will power and sound judgement.
It is as difficult to explain prana as it is to explain God. It is the energy permeating the universe at all levels. It is physical, mental, intellectual, sexual, spiritual and cosmic energy.
All vibrating energies are prana. All physical energies such as heat, light, gravity, magnetism and electricity are also prana. It is the hidden or potential energy in all beings, released to the fullest extent in times of danger. It is the prime mover of all activity. It is energy which creates, protects and destroys. Vigour, power, vitality, life and spirit are all forms of prana.
According to the Upanisads, prana is the principle of life and consciousness. It is equated with the real Self (Atma). Prana is the breath of life of all beings in the universe. They are born through and live by it, and when they die their individual breath dissolves into the cosmic breath. Prana is the hub of the Wheel of Life. Everything is established in it. It permeates the life-giving sun, the clouds, the winds (vayus), the earth (prthvi), and all forms of matter. It is being (sat) and non-being (asat). It is the source of all knowledge. It is the Cosmic Personality (the purusa) of Samkhya philosophy. Therefore, the Yogi takes refuge in prana.
Prana is usually translated as breath, yet this is only one of its many’ manifestations in the human body. If breathing stops, so does life : Ancient Indian sages knew that all functions of the body were performed by five types of vital energy (prana-vayus).
Prana moves in the thoracic region and controls breathing. It absorbs vital atmospheric energy. Apana moves in the lower abdomen and controls the elimination of urine, semen and faeces. Samana stokes the gastric fires, aiding digestion and maintaining the harmonious functioning of the abdominal organs. It integrates the whole of the human gross body. Udana, working through the throat (the pharynx and the larynx), controls the vocal cords and the intake of air and food. Vyana pervades the entire body, distributing the energy derived from food and breath through the arteries, veins and nerves.
In pranayama, the prana-vayu is activated by the inward breath and the apana-vayu by an outward breath. Udana raises the energy from the lower spine to the brain. Vyana is essential for the function of prana and apana it is the medium for transferring energy from the one to the other.