According to Hindu philosophy the whole nature is made up of two main elements or substances, akasa or ether and prana or energy. From a western point of view, it could be said that these two correspond to the elements of matter and force studied nowadays by modern scientists.
In India prana is said to be the subtle vital force or life energy within us and without us. Some have described it as all the energy that is manifested by the universe put together, including both mental and physical forces. The source of this force is Atman or the universal self, which bonds the astral and physical bodies.
Yama on the other hand, means self-control, and within the context of pranayama it stands for the mastery over prana. According to Hindu spiritual teacher and Yogi Sri Swami Sivananda, that person who conquers prana does not just conquer his or her own existence at a physical and mental level, but he or she also conquers the entire world. This is why for a yogi the complete universe is his or her own body.
Being explained in practical terms, pranayama is therefore the regulation of the breath or the control of the prana through the conscious alterations of inhalation and exhalation. These breath control techniques can be best applied after having learnt to remain steady while carrying out a posture or seat.
Once you manage to control your external breath, you will be able to control your mind; because they are both a different side of the same coin. Our breath is the external physical manifestation of prana, whereas our mind and thoughts are an internal and abstract representation of it; consequently an adjustment in either one of them will immediately have an effect on the other.
In Sri Swami Sivananda’s book The Science of Pranayama he mentions five essentials to practice pranayama correctly. The first one is to find a good place for your practice. This place must be a solitary, beautiful and pleasant spot where you won’t be disturbed. The second prerequisite is timing. As stated by Sivananda, Pranayama is best practiced during the morning, whenever you are not feeling too hungry and not after having a heavy meal. You should also be aware of the food you eat; it is preferable to ingest moderate, substantial, light and nutritious foods.
When it comes to figuring out what are the most suitable foods for your own personal physical needs and character, Sivananda recommends following your instincts. Finally, he says, one must be patient and persistent with the practice and that a purification of the Nadis must be carried out.
Padmasana or Lotus Pose as well as Siddhasana or the Perfect Pose are recommended as the best Asanas or poses for contemplation, but you can also use the Svastikasana or Prosperous pose and Samasana or Equal pose for when practicing pranayama. The idea is to be sitting in a comfortable position that will allow you to focus on your breathing.
A pranayama practitioner should always be kind, should speak the truth, should be honest, and should develop patience, faith, devotion and mercy.