The Definition of Pranayama
Pranayama (prana = energy + yama = control) is a type of meditation technique that involves various ways of controlling the breathing, with the goal being to withdraw ones senses from the outside world. This helps one to raise one’s prana (or Kundalini energy in this case) up the deep spine to the spiritual eye or sixth chakra, which brings one to enlightenment. Kriya Yoga is one such technique, made well known by Paramhamsa Yogananda in Autobiography of a Yogi. (1)
It is also the fourth limb of spiritual advancement as laid out in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. According to Patanjali, while practicing pranayama techniques:
The emphasis while breathing (and therefore in the flow of the life-force) may be more on inhalation, on exhalation, or on stillness. It may be on space entering the body (rather than on the body’s breathing); on the timing of the inhalation and exhalation (whether rapid or slow), and on the number of counts in each inflow and outflow — whether the flow be short or long. (2)
How Pranayama Works
The prana or energy travels upward through the ida nadi. With this upward movement, the breath is automatically drawn into the lungs. As a result, the mind is drawn outward to the world of the senses.
The energy then travels downwards through the pingala nadi. When the energy is going down, it is called apana rather than prana. This downward movement is accompanied by physical exhalation, and signifies a rejection of external circumstances.
One manifestation of this cycle is the association of inhalation with excitement and happiness, and exhalation with defeat and depression. Happiness and sadness must always follow each other when the cause of each is external circumstances, which are always changing.
However, through pranayama techniques a person can instead redirect the energy through the deep spine in between the ida and pingala, called the sushumna. When the level of energy in the sushumna reaches the top of the spine and goes into the spiritual eye, or sixth chakra, one becomes enlightened. (1)
Guided Pranayama Meditations
Here are videos of Nayaswami Gyandev, co-founder of Yoga Alliance, demonstrating various pranayama exercises. Watch videos.