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 vital energy known as pranamaya kosha. The breath that carries the vital energy, 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 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, less distracted, and relaxed breathing. Slow, rhythmic, effortless breathing relaxes the body. The two support and loop into each other.
We have described simple and effective practices of pranayama. More advanced techniques and breath retention are not given as they are best learned under the supervision of an experienced yoga teacher.
In the breathing practices, becoming sensitive and aware of the breath and prana are important first steps. These steps deepen and lengthen the breath, slow the heartbeat, create a peaceful stillnesss in the body and mind, and can help lower blood pressure. For people suffering from high blood pressure, anxiety, insomnia, Parkinson's, MS, and other chronic or terminal illnesses, these pranayama breathing techniques may be very helpful. They may also be beneficial in managing pain as the mind and body begin to release stress and relax.
Breathing is done through the nose, unless stated otherwise. Never go beyond your comfort zone. There should be no strain, tension, or feeling of discomfort during the practice. If that happens, stop the practice.
For further information, please refer to the article What is Pranayama?.