The Sanskrit word pranayama is usually translated as “the science of breath,” but this is a limited interpretation. Pranayama literally means “the ayama (expansion or manifestation) of prana (pra: first unit; na: energy). Prana is the vital energy of the universe. According to one of the schools of Indian philosophy, the whole universe was projected out of akasha (space) through the energy of prana. Akasha is the infinite, all-encompassing material of the universe, and prana is the infinite, all-pervading energy of the universe—cosmic energy. All the diverse forms of this universe are sustained by it. Pranayama is the science which imparts knowledge related to the control of prana. One who has learned to control prana has learned to control all the energies of this universe—physical and mental. He has also learned to control his body and mind.

Prana is all-pervading cosmic energy.

Pranayama is one of the rungs on the ladder of raja yoga. The first four rungs are referred to by some as hatha yoga, or physical yoga, and the last four rungs are known as raja yoga, or the royal path. The first four rungs are yama (restraints), niyama (observances), asana (posture), and pranayama (breath control). The four higher rungs are pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (the superconscious state; the ultimate freedom from the cycle of birth and death).

Prana in the Human Body

All aspects and principles that constitute the universe, or macrocosm, are embodied in all the microcosmic forms that constitute the universe, just as the mighty ocean is completely represented in a single, small drop of water from that ocean. The human body is sustained by the same prana that sustains the universe, and it is through the manifestation of prana that all body functions are possible and coordinated.

According to the ancient manuals of yoga, the cosmic force of prana in the human body is recognized and subdivided on the basis of the 10 functions it performs. Of the 10 pranas, there are five major and five minor ones. The major pranas are udana, prana, samana, apana, and vyana. Although the word prana is applied to all 10 pranas, one of the five major pranas has also been given the name prana for reasons which will soon become clear.

Udana rules the region of the body above the larynx and governs the use of our special senses. Prana rules the region between the larynx and the base of the heart. It governs speech and the vocal apparatus as well as the respiratory system and the muscles associated with it. Samana rules the region between the heart and the navel and governs all the metabolic activity involved in digestion. Apana has its abode below the navel and governs the functions of the kidneys, colon, rectum, bladder, and genitals. Vyana pervades the whole body and governs the relaxation and contraction of all muscles, voluntary and involuntary, as well as the movement of the joints and the structures around them.

The ocean is represented in a single drop of water.

The energy of prana is subtle in form. Its most external manifestation is the breath, and of the five major pranas in the human body, prana is the energy that governs the breath. It is through the control of respiration that the yogi proceeds to control the other subtle energies of prana, which may explain the use of the same word for the universal energy as well as for the specific prana governing respiration. The importance of this specific prana in allowing us access to the subtler energies of the cosmic prana is also seen in the fact that what we call death results from the cessation of respiration.

From Breath to Cosmic Energy to Freedom

The sequence in which one proceeds from control of the breath to control of the cosmic energy is clearly illustrated in the following story that Swami Vivekananda tells in his book on raja yoga.


There once was a king’s minister who fell into disgrace and was imprisoned at the top of a tall tower. The minister asked his faithful wife to come to the tower when darkness had fallen and to bring with her a long rope, some stout twine, string, silken thread, a beetle, and some honey. Though bewildered by this strange request, the good wife did as he bade her. The minister then asked his wife to tie the silken thread to the beetle, to smear some honey on its horns, and then to set it on the tower wall with its head pointed toward the top of the tower.

The beetle, enticed upward by the sweet smell of the honey, slowly made its way to the top of the tower, pulling the silken thread behind it. The minister took hold of the silken thread and then asked his wife to tie the string to the other end of the silken thread. Using the silken thread, he drew up the string. In like manner, he used the string to draw up the stout twine, and the twine to draw up the rope. Then he descended to freedom, using the rope.

In our body the breath is like the silken thread, enabling us to skillfully grasp the string of the nerve impulses; from this we grasp the stout twine of our thoughts, and finally we grasp the rope of prana, thus gaining our ultimate freedom.

Editor’s note: In the next post in this series, Swami Rama explains how pranayama allows us to grasp the string of nerve impulses.

Source: Science of Breath by Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballentine, MD, and Alan Hymes, MD
Further Reading

Science of Breath

by Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballentine, MD,
Alan Hymes, MD

This book presents knowledge and practices regarding the breath in a way that can be applied to personal growth. It is a masterful guide to systematically identifying bad breathing habits, replacing those habits with healthy breathing patterns, and developing control over pranic flow. Learn how to develop and master the link between your body and mind through the understanding of the breath.

More in this Series

The Science of Breath: Portal to Higher Awareness