Pranayama is a Sanskrit word that is often translated as breath control or the restriction of breath (prana = life force, vital energy, breath; yama = restrain, control). However, when combining two words in Sanskrit in which the last letter of the first word (prana) and the first letter of the second word (ayama) are the same (in this case, the “a”), one of them gets dropped. Given this, pranayama is often misinterpreted; in contrast, ayama means to extend, expand, or draw out, and pranayama really means the expansion of breath or life force.
This is worthy to note since a lot of people think of pranayama as vigorous breathing techniques, when, if not practiced properly, can lead to an increase in blood pressure, anxiety, or insomnia.
When not aware of the breath, there is a tendency to stress breathe: short, shallow breaths that use only a small percentage of our lung capacity. We do this because being stuck in traffic jams or answering countless emails stresses us out. It takes awareness and practice to relax the shoulders and abdominal region in order to also relax the breath.
Let’s go back to the definition of pranayama as the expansion of breath or life. If the breath is not relaxed first before we try to add breathing techniques, we are meeting tension with more tension, and where there is hardness or tension there is no life. It is for this reason I consider breath observation the start of any pranayama practice. Like yoga, pranayama practice is neutral; it meets us where we are, we just have to tune in to know where that place is.
You can spend years or lifetimes observing your breath, which is not a bad thing in my opinion. Practicing pranayama in this way stills the mind, and when this happens, we can turn the energy we normally spend engaging with the outside in.
Note: If you feel ready to take your pranayama practice deeper, please do not do so alone. Seek the guidance of an experienced pranayama teacher.