Prana = Life Force, vital energy, breath
Yama = Extension, stretch, restrain or stop
Breath is the life force of Yoga, it is what makes the postures (Asanas) we create with our bodies ‘Yoga’ and not just a series of physical exercises. Prana is most commonly interpreted as breath but it is much more. It is the energy in all things – it is physical, mental, sexual, spiritual and cosmic. Whether you call it Prana, Chi – as the Chinese do - or simply Bioenergy, most cultures and ancient traditions have their definition and interpretation of prana. As a Westerner I tend to think of prana as the Soul – something that is beyond the physical and the mental - an energy within us that cannot be created or destroyed.
Focusing on the breath relaxes the mind and brings awareness to the body. Pranayama is the control of the breath, but more than that, it aims to awaken the prana within us.
“Since prana is energy and life force, pranayama means the extension and expansion of all our vital energy.” B. K. S. Iyengar
Just as when our breathing pattern alters when we are stressed or anxious, so our mood can be altered for the better by controlling the breath.
Just as important for me as the philosophical interpretation of prana, is the physiological importance. From this point of view, breath is as important to yoga as it is to any other form of physical exercise. Taking deep breaths ensures that oxygen is flowing efficiently around the body, pumping away from the heart to all the vital organs and muscles, and then back again. The body needs plenty of oxygen in order to perform to the best of its ability and achieve peak performance.