Pranayama is a Sanskrit word (prana--life force, ayama--elongate) that is commonly translated as breath control, breathing exercises, science of breath, or expansion of vital energy or life force. In our opinion, pranayama is a sum of those translations. It relates to the body or sheath of the life force called pranamaya kosha. The breath that carries the vital energy, that is the basis of all life, becomes the object of awareness and the portal to the inner Self or Great Being.
According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, pranayama is the gap between inhalation and exhalation, when there is no breath. Developing that gap promotes focus and concentration.
Awareness is the core of meditation. As with asana, which is conscious movement of the body, pranayama is conscious breathing or breathing with deep awareness (mindfulness, being in the present moment, being a witness). Conscious breath leads us to the source of our Being and helps us deeply, intuitively, understand the body-mind. Breath is the umbilical cord that links us to higher consciousness. As we long as we hold on to it, we will not lose ourselves. This, in itself, can be a practice in meditation. We can only breathe one breath at a time. Meditation happens one breath at a time.
Having acquired a stable asana, the next step is breath awareness. The first step is important. An erect, relaxed physical posture that keeps the body upright and anchored facilitates more efficient and relaxed breathing. Slow, rhythmic, effortless breathing relaxes the body. The two support and loop into each other. Relaxed, rhythmic breathing releases mental tension and emotional anxiety. It creates an atmosphere of peace and stability in the mind.
A traditional hatha asana combines body movement with specific pranic movement that directs and infuses prana in a particular part of the body. The infusion helps relieve tension by removing pranic energy blockages. The removal of energy blockages can heal that area.
There is widespread understanding of the link between the breath and the mind. Breath is a barometer of mental and psychic state. By developing a simple practice of conscious breathing, we can at least begin to lessen anxiety and stress, increase our breathing capacity and energy level, and begin a process of enduring relaxation. A relaxed mind is sharper, clearer, more focused, stable, and cheerful. Asana increases physical resilience, pranayama begins to increase mental resilience.
Developing the pause between inhalation and exhalation, and exhalation and inhalation (kumbhaka) promotes focus and concentration. Concentration (dharana) is the next step toward meditation. How can this be done? It is done through first making the breath relaxed and rhythmic through silent observation. Then slow down the breath. Again, this happens with silent, sustained observation. Finally, elongate it. Elongating inhalation and exhalation also elongates the pause between the two. That pause is the portal to meditation.
Hatha yoga describes many pranayamas with steps on achieving this end and also pranayamas to regulate and heal the body. The science of healing with prana is called prana vidya.
The awareness of breath and pranic energy leads us into a whole universe within. All that exists in the macrocosm is the physical manifestation of the inner cosmos, created by pranic energy. Prana is the link between the two, giving physical substance to the mind. The mind is also a product of pranic energy.
Many meditation practices in Buddhism, Islam, Judiasm, Tao involve the breath.