Pranayama (Yogic Breath-Work) is one of the most central practices of Hatha Yoga tradition. Traditionally, one of the purposes of pranayama techniques is to harmonize the pranic system (energy system). Although in Hatha yoga tradition, it is used for activation of chakras (energy/psychic centers) and purification of energy channels as well.
All these processes which involve various pranayama techniques eventually lead to an experience of steady mind and enhanced concentration. In one of the most popular traditional texts on Hatha Yoga; Hatha Yoga Pradipika, purpose of Pranayama is described as follows-
‘When prana moves chitta (mental force) moves. When prana is without movement chitta is still. By steadying the prana yogi attains steadiness and should therefore restrain the vayu (air)’. II/2
Concept of Body-Mind-Energy Triad
Hatha yoga as an offshoot of Tantra philosophy and lineage, is based on monistic metaphysics. Tantra essentially believes that this world of differentiated reality is essentially made up of one vibrant underlying energy principle. And secondly same essential energy is inherent in each speck of this universe. Based on this metaphysics, Hatha Yoga believes that both mind and the body are expressions and interplay of energy and consciousness. In tantra energy and consciousness are used interchangeably. As a tradition of energetics Hatha Yoga doesn’t recommend controlling the mind directly rather it says if want to tame the mind then control and harness the energy or pranic system in the body. Because ultimately both body and mind are functions of energy system. Therefore whatever changes or alterations happen in the realm of energy, will bring about a corresponding alteration in the state of consciousness and physical realm of body.
In pranayama a practitioner comes in contact with the different dimensions of energy (gross to subtle). And through pranayama one establishes control over the life force or prana which eventually lead to the control over the functioning of the mind body complex. In the whole of the pranayama process different techniques of breathing are used.
Psycho-therapeutic significance of Pranayama
Whenever the problems of mind management come we find that the practice of pranayama can serve as a potent tool to manage the problems of the mind and emotions. Because the breathing the process which can connect one to the different levels of functioning. And the breathing is also responsible for mobilizing the energies of the body. According to the science of yoga the energy is that aspect which keeps the mind and the body running.
The practice of pranayama has its own psychotherapeutic values. The reason is the use of various breathing techniques which bring about a qualitative change in the patterns of thoughts, feelings and emotions. In many somatic psychotherapeutic schools the therapists use breathing to change the patterns of awareness in the individuals. In different branches of Somatic-psychotherapy, such as Bioenergetics, Aqua therapy, Primal therapy etc, therapist uses the appropriate breathing technique to transform the mental state of the patients. It has been observed by these therapists that there is a connection between the nature of feelings, thoughts and the breathing patterns. If there is a change in the state of feelings and the thinking and feelings the breathing patterns are also altered. For example visualize a situation when we are in the state of anger, then what happens with our breathing patterns? How does it behave? We find that the harmonious flow of the breath is lost, it becomes arrhythmic, interrupted and tense. Now if we think about the state when we are relaxed, we would observe that in this state of harmony, the breath also becomes relaxed and harmonized and follows a constant rhythm. Based on the above observations the somatic psychologists concluded that there is a definite relationship between the states of mind and the breathing patterns.
There are various techniques of Pranayama some of them are activating, heating and invigorating, some are balancing, harmonizing and pacifying and some of them are cooling in nature. In the tradition of Hatha yoga Pranayama is the link between energy and consciousness. Through this tool the state of consciousness is altered and the practitioners access the hidden dimension of prana.
Besides the techniques now another important and unavoidable aspect of the whole process is the approach that decides where the practice and the technique will lead you to. Like any other yogic practice Pranayama needs proper centering of the self to go deeper levels of experiences and therefore it is equally important that the practitioner gives time to settle in properly and finally starts journeying within.