‘Pranayama’ is most often translated as ‘breath control’ (Sanskrit: ‘prana’ – universal, vital life force, ‘yama’ – to control). This definition, however, can be quite misleading and discouraging, especially to those of us who don’t have that much experience with Yoga practices or aware breathbreathing.

I struggled with it for a long time, understanding ‘control’ to mean that the ‘conscious me’ is in command and dictates the rules. The truth is, 99% of the time the ‘conscious me’ has no idea what she’s doing, so her trying to take over the command of the breath meant doing a lot of random, irregular practices with no tangible results. Of course, avoiding the ones for beginners, because they are boring – and why not start from breath retentions straight away? I can do it! :)

Then suddenly a very profound question was posed to me. This question, or rather the answer to it, that slowly stated forming in my head, completely changed my understanding of what Pranayama is and why it should be taken easy and step-by-step. The question was:

– ‘Do we breathe?…’

The answer seems simple and rather obvious but please, follow me through this thread of slow and patient reasoning:

Ask yourself right now: “Am I breathing?…” If your answer is “Yes”, put it under test: exhale deeply and hold the breath. See how long it takes you until you have to breathe in. And at some point, you will have to breathe in, I promise you.

Saying: ‘I breathe’ or ‘I am breathing’ suggest that you perform a certain action, that it is in your power and control. But can you say that the breath is under your control? You can slow its rhythm down a bit, but if your lungs are not prepared through certain exercises, you won’t be able to keep it at that pace very long – it will speed up again after a while, and possibly to an even faster rhythm than the one before you started. How do we propose to control it, then?…

We do not say: ‘I beat my heart’ because that one thing is obvious to us: the heart does the job, whether we want it or not, and the heart may quit beating without asking for our opinion or consent. With other functions, such as breathing, digestion or even thinking (which is a much more complex issue and won’t be discussed in detail in this article), we are not so clear in our speech. We try to take credit for what is being done independently from our will or volition. The words we use direct our thoughts, and so we end up taking these proceskapalabhatises for granted, while what we should feel is tremendous gratitude. Someone or something is taking care of us, of our most basic and vital functions. We do not realize how close to physical death we are all the time – one lack of inhalation, one broken heartbeat away… Something makes sure that life, and prana, flows.

I propose to stop trying to control. Leave the control to whatever or whoever has been taking care of it our whole lives. Instead, lets try to make the process easier, smoother and more balanced (or in other words, stop impeding and interrupting!).
Being reluctant to define Pranayama as ‘breath control’ – at least at the basic level of the practices we learn and perform during Yoga classes – I prefer to see it as a process of learning and creation. It is an art of discovering and understanding your breath, realizing and experiencing what prana is, feeling the energy that enlivens your body and gives you such a potential to experience this magnificent world.


Instead of fighting with your breath, trying to submit it and bring it under control during your Pranayama practice, try to approach it as a creative art: the breath being your tool, your paint brush, your instrument. You will need to learn to use it first, but once you have, you can create the most beautiful forms of self expression. Let your brain and analytical thinking rest for a moment (as you would when painting, playing music, dancing or performing any other act of creativity), and let the feeling and intuition guide you to the depth and source of your energy. Allow it to take control over your cognitive mind for a moment, and you may experience glimpses of meditation.
Drop the idea of fighting and conquering. Embrace the simple art of doing. Breathe like you love – with true joy and amazement. And be open to whatever results from this experience.