The first time I heard the word “pranayama” was seven years ago when I was studying yoga in India at a place called the Yoga Institute. I studied at the Yoga Institute for about six months in total, bouncing between different workshops, training programs, and regularly offered classes, learning about Patanjali’s eight-fold path, the sattvic quality of food, the divinity of selfhood, the trouble with my mind, how to be a better human, the benefits of mundanity, and among many other things, how to breathe properly. Before arriving to the Yoga Institute, like most people, I thought I knew how to breathe. I assumed there was one way to do it, and that I must have mastered it at the ripe old age of infancy. I came into this world and breathed—end of story.
But the story doesn’t end here because not only was I breathing incorrectly, but I was only breathing one way: unconsciously. I had never consciously tuned in to the rise and fall of my chest, the hypnotic whoosh of air when I sigh, or the rapid inhalation and exhalation of anger. When I arrived to the Yoga Institute, my breathing didn’t even align with the movement of my body: when I lied on my back, breathing into my belly, my stomach would fall with every inhale, and expand with every exhale. I didn’t know I was breathing incorrectly until an instructor came over to me one day and told me I was breathing wrong. For the first time in my life, I recognized the error I’d been making for almost nineteen years: my belly should expand with every inhale and fall with every exhale, not the opposite, which is what I’d been doing.
Soon thereafter, I began learning about the power of breathing, and it’s ability to command change. In Sanskrit, the art of breathing is referred to as pranayama. Prana refers to the cosmic energy of the universe, encapsulating both literal and spiritual energy. At first glance, a scientifically-minded person might say, “sure, ‘the cosmic energy of the universe.’ Whatever that means,” and continue on her way, but she would be doing herself a terrible disservice. Prana is an elusive term that’s difficult to describe, and for this reason, easy to dismiss, but it can be traced back thousands of years, intermittently popping up in other places (ever heard of chi?). For such an elusive term, it’s carried a lot of weight for a very long time. If there wasn’t something important about prana, don’t you think yogis would have abandoned it long ago?
The first literary reference to the word “pranayama” can be found in the Upanishads, some of the most important literary products in the history of Indian culture and religion. The Upanishads are part of a larger body of literary work, known as the Veda, and play an integral role in the fundamental scriptures of what people now recognize as “hindu,” and more broadly, the Vedantic tradition. Like many other ancient traditions, the Vedic texts, including the Upanishads, were transmitted orally from one generation to the next for about 1000 years. The two oldest Upanishads—the Brhadaranyaka and the Chandogya Upanishad—probably originated between the seventh and sixth century BCE, with the later Upanishads being created in subsequent years (Olivelle xxxvi).
Thematically, the Upanishads describe the esotericism of existence, and how the cosmological elements that construct the universe can be mastered to attain a higher state of consciousness. In order to understand the transcendent nature of existence, the Upanishads teach practitioners to look inwards, toward the vital powers of the human body—the powers of movement, evacuation, ejaculation, breathing, speaking, thinking, and the five senses—with the most important of these being breathing, thinking, speech, sight, and hearing, altogether known as prana, or “breaths.” The human body is considered to be a microcosmic reflection of the universe at large, with parts of the body representing specific elements of cosmic phenomena: sun from the eye, moon from the mind, wind from the breath, sky from the head, earth from the feet, and so on.
Of the vital powers, breathing is considered to be the most important because it is equated with life itself. Without breath, there is no life. Within the Upanishads, five different kinds of breath have been identified: breathing out (prana), breathing in (apana), the breath that moves up (udana), the breath that traverses (vyana), and the breath that equalizes or links (samana) (Olivelle I). B.K.S. Iyengar expands on the five different variations of breath in Light on Pranayama: the Yogic Art of Breathing:
Prana moves in the thoracic region and controls breathing. It absorbs vital atmospheric energy. Apana moves in the lower abdomen and controls the elimination of urine, semen, and feces. Samana strokes the gastric fires, aiding digestion and maintaining the harmonious functioning of the abdominal organs. It integrates the whole of the human gross body. Udana, working through the throat (the pharynx and the larynx), controls the vocal cords and the intake of air and food. Vyana pervades the entire body, distributing the energy derived from food and breath through the arteries, veins, and nerves. (Iyengar 12)
In addition to breath, the Taittiriya Upanishad also describes these five variations as being associated with different parts of the body (Rhadhakrishnan 57):
According to Samkhya philosophy, the process of evolution follows the law of succession, and from this evolutionary progression, the five organs of perception, the five organs or instruments of action, and the five fine or subtle elements evolve to create an integrated network of change, animated by the life-force of prana. The interconnected evolution of these elements demonstrates the profound connection between every aspect of life. There’s no way to separate one element from another; they’re all parts of the same intricate system of evolutionary progression.
To demonstrate the theory of cosmic evolution according to Samkhya, I made a flowchart (below). Samkhya is a dualistic philosophy with purusha and prakrti as the defining characteristics of reality, working in accordance with one another. Purusha is unfaltering consciousness—the light within all of us (known as atman), and prakrti is primordial matter, composed of the three gunas: sattva (purity, lightness), rajas (energy, heat), and tamas (lethargy, darkness). With the presence of consciousness, the three gunas are animated, constantly shifting and changing, evolving and dissolving. According to Samkhya, we mistakenly believe our changing, illusory reality (maya) is the true reality because the light of purusha is buried beneath sheaths of matter. The point of yoga, the experiential companion to Samkhya, is to unpack these layers and return to the source.
The experiential—or yogic—aspect of Samkhya philosophy teaches us that patient, disciplined physical and mental practice can lead practitioners to profound mastery over the different sheaths of the body. As the chart (above) demonstrates, the components of the universe are grouped into categories of five, which are reiterated by the five variations of breath. By practicing pranayama, the fourth limb of the eight limbs of yoga, a practitioner is training to have control over each of the five components of her existence. The speaker in the Taittiriya Upanishad describes it like this: “Clearly, this whole world is fivefold. By means of the fivefold one surely secures the fivefold” (Olivelle 182). By practicing how to breathe, we’re able to unify ourselves with the five categories of existence, which will, in turn, lead us to unity with pure consciousness.
Among the five different kinds of breath, prana is the most commonly referred to, frequently used as a generic term for breath, which is also synonymous with life itself. The central concern of the Upanishads is to understand how the different elements of the universe are linked together, creating a web of relations. This, I would argue, is the definitive concept of the Vedantic tradition. The things we perceive as separate are, in fact, connected, and the practitioners who can experience the interconnectedness of cosmic energy will transcend this realm, moving on to a life of eternal bliss.
As I laid out earlier, “cosmic energy” is synonymous with “prana.” Understanding and mastering the ebb and flow of breath within our own minds and bodies is a microcosmic path to mastering the ebb and flow of the energy permeating the entire universe. The prana carried into our bodies when we breathe is the same energy as the prana that powers a lamp, creates wind, or blossoms into a flower. It is the physical, mental, intellectual, sexual, spiritual, and cosmic energy of everything in existence (Iyengar 12). For this reason, learning how to breathe is an important part of Patanjali’s eightfold path towards enlightenment, connecting the physical realm, in the form of asanas (postures), to the spiritual realm, in the form of pratyahara (sense withdrawal) and beyond, eventually leading to samadhi, or the transcendent experience of oneness with the cosmic universe. The art of breathing—or pranayama—is a fundamental building block towards a practitioner’s understanding of the impermeable connection between every component of life.
When we’re born, we’re given a temporary vessel—a body—to carry ourselves through this world. A body that, according to the Vedantic tradition, is meant to be used as a tool. We carry every element of transcendence within us, but we must learn how to recognize these qualities, and slide into union with them, creating a harmonious network of connectivity. At the core of our being, we are God. Or, as Rumi, the Sufi mystic, puts it: “I searched for God and found only myself. I searched for myself and found only God.”
Iyengar, B.K.S. Light on Pranayama: The Yogic Art of Breathing. The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2013.
Olivelle, Patrick, translator. Upanisads. Oxford University Press, 1996.
Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli and Charles A. Moore, editors. A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy. Princeton University Press, 1954.