The word pranayama is not a single word but rather a combination of two Sanskrit words: prana and ayama. Prana could be translated as vital energy or the cosmic energy that causes any kind of movement. Even the movement of the electrons around the nucleus within an atom is caused by the movement of prana. Wherever you see movement, even thought-movement, it is caused by prana.
Prana works in different ways. Your breathing is prana and your digestion is prana. When we talk about prana in the physical body, the different functions of that prana get different names. But, they are all one and the same current or force. The upward moving energy is called prana. When the energy goes down, it’s called apana. There are pancha (five) pranas: Prana, Apana, Vyana, Udana, Samana. The sum total of energy is called “Cosmic Prana.”
Ayama means: control, regulation, or mastery. Unfortunately, the moment we say “control,” people very often misunderstand this to mean retention. Pranayama doesn’t mean retention of prana; it means to direct it as you want. Pranayama has three major aspects: The inhalation (puraka); the exhalation: (rechaka); and the retention of the breath (kumbhaka). One can retain the in-breath or the out-breath or both. Retaining the breath in any form should only be done with proper instruction and after practicing pranayama for some time.
If the breath is retained inside, it’s called antara kumbhaka—inner retention. If it is retained outside, it’s called bahya kumbhaka. If the retention happens automatically without your effort, it’s called kevala kumbhaka. Our main aim in developing a consistent pranayama practice is to achieve kevala kumbhaka. The breath should just stop without any effort—an effortless suspension. To have that effortless retention, you first use your effort to retain and to regulate. And the main purpose of pranayama according to time-tested experience, as well as the scriptures, is to purify the system.
Pranayama purifies the system—the physical and the vital bodies. And another important benefit is to calm and balance the mind. For instance, whenever you are upset, tense, worried, or bothered, just take a few slow deep breaths with full attention on the movement of the breath and you will easily bring the mind into a very calm state. The movement of the breath and the movement of the mind go together and are interdependent.
This reminds me of Thirumalar, a great saint and a Tamil Siddhar from South India. In one of his verses he said that wherever the mind goes, the prana follows and vice-versa. If you regulate the prana, you have regulated the mind. The same way, if you could regulate the mind, you have regulated the prana. To give an example, suppose you are quite seriously thinking of a problem or reading something and trying to understand a particular passage. Your mind is deeply concentrated on that. If, all of a sudden, you were to just divert your concentration to your breath you would be surprised to see that you were not breathing at all—the breath had basically stopped.
This is the very reason why we meditate: To achieve the stillness of the prana. That is why you are asked to sit quietly, steadily, without any movement of the body when you meditate. Not even the blinking of the eyelids so there is no movement of the body, no movement of the thought and with that steadiness, the prana also becomes still. Then you have physical, vital, and mental stillness. You may ask: “So what do I achieve by that?” The achievement is that there will be no wastage of prana in your body. In that stillness, a kind of static energy is built up and a heat is produced.
Have you noticed sometimes that if you sit quietly meditating for a period of time that you may begin to perspire because of the heat that builds? It is that heat that goes and works on the entire system and that kindles up the psychic forces. The major part of those forces are called kundalini. So, it’s not by violent movement you rouse it up—as you may have heard—but by stopping all the movements and building up that static heat within. To achieve that, pranayama helps.