Pranayama: The Choice Between Control & Freedom


Photo by Hanri Shaw (

Most of our actions bring with them samskaras – Indian philosophy refers to samskaras as mental impressions or imprints that arise from our actions and stay with us, shaping our experience and our life. It’s a little like ‘karma’ (although this word is spurious and has a lot of different meanings and applications….), basically everything we do will in some small – or huge – way make a difference.

Understanding how powerful each of our actions is often leads us to take a deeper look into what we’re actually doing, why we’re doing it, and importantly for now; how we do it.
The exact same action could be performed by many separate people and all result in a different outcome, and although there are a lot of different factors involved, it’s largely down to how we think about, interpret and therefore carry-out the action. Once again – as with basically everything – it’s all down to the mind, as it is said that our experiences are essentially constructed by our thoughts, memories and samskaras (those imprints left over from past actions).

To focus on one specific yet extremely important subject, we can look at this in terms of the practice of pranayama (yogic breathing practices), yes – breathing is quite important….

The word prāṇāyāma, has been translated by many, and there are two contrasting definitions of the word often brought up. The fact that the practice of pranayama is so important and transformational makes it even more interesting as to why these two different definitions are so different.

Firstly, let’s break the word into its two parts:

Prana = ‘Life force’, ‘breath’, ‘energy’, ‘a universal energy which flows in and around the body and the universe itself’. It’s essentially the life or ‘breath’ behind everything. When written with a lower-case ‘p’, the word refers to our own personal life force / energy / breath, and when written with a capital ‘P’, the reference is towards universal energy.

The meaning of the word Prana/prana is agreed upon in both cases, but the next part of the word is where the two different interpretations totally change the meaning of the word and practice.

  1. Prana-YAMA = Breath control or restraint
  2. Prana-ĀYAMA = Breath expansion or liberation

The word yama translates as ‘control’ or ‘restraint’ (click here for an article I wrote for Ekhart Yoga on the Yamas and Niyamas). If you’ve studied philosophy you may be familiar with the five Yamas; the five moral disciplines or ‘restraints’ found in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. If we think of the practice of pranayama in terms of ‘breath control’, there’s a tendency to over-think things, to breathe aggressively and in a ‘controlled’ way, and also to expect and wait for some sort of immediate result from the pranayama practice. We are essentially controlling the breath in order to control the body, the mind and therefore our experience of life.

Freedom imageThe word ‘ĀYAMA’ translates as the opposite of control and restraint; it signifies freedom, expansion, a literal ‘lengthening’ or liberation. If we think of a pranayama practice in terms of ‘freeing or expanding’ the breath, it’s likely that the way we breathe will be entirely different. We will be freeing the breath in order to free the body, the mind and therefore find freedom in our experience of life.

Freedom, liberation, ‘moksha’ or ‘mukti’ (meaning liberation in life; the idea that we can be free and liberated while still being very much on this earth), often refer to the freedom from samsara (the cycle of birth, death and re-birth) and our samskaras (those habits or impressions left over from past actions).

If this is all a little confusing, think of it as freedom from the craziness, anxiety, suffering and ignorance that stems from our own minds….

As always, we have a choice as to how we practice.

You can choose control.
Or you can choose freedom.

Honestly, a lot of people would probably opt for ‘control’ first, as we are a society obsessed with ‘keeping our sh** together’, maintaining a stiff upper lip, controlling our situations, our actions and the way we come across to others, attempting to control the outcome of a situation in order to ‘achieve’, and generally spending a lot of time in this very compressed state of controlled ‘holding on’. We promise ourselves that one day we’ll actually exhale and relax – ‘once this [insert important event here] is over, I’ll be ok and I’ll relax’….

This cycle is a habit created by ourselves, and it can be changed by ourselves. Indeed, habits are pretty hard to break though…. Again, it’s down to choice; do we want to stay inside this cycle of control, or is freedom a little more appealing? – scary, yet appealing.

This state of needing to ‘be in control’ at all times, to achieve lots and to hold it all together even when things seem like they’re about to fall apart, is very apparent in our physical state and appearance and even more so in the way we breathe. Our own personal prana (remember, this means both breath and life force) is hugely effected by our state of mind.

The state I’m talking about is known as ‘Frozen Breathing’, and I’ll let Donna Farhi explain further from her text The Breathing Book:

photo 2 (5)
Movement of the breath in ‘Frozen Breathing’. Image from ‘The Breathing Book’ by Donna Farhi

“You may have noticed that on a very cold day you brace yourself by contracting the muscles through your body. When you contract your muscles you are actually breathing very shallowly. In frozen breathing the entire outer later of the body contracts and suppresses the rising movements of the breath, much like a snake might squeeze its unfortunate prey. Imagine your body has two layers; a softer core that is undulating and expanding with the breath: and a firmer musculoskeletal covering that acts as a container for the soft contents. When you breathe freely the inner contents and the outer container move with one another…. In frozen breathing the outer container remains very rigid. Very little movement is seen on the surface of the body and the body appears ‘frozen’”.

The body is often referred to as a ‘container’ for our life, our breath, or our truest self. By keeping the container rigid, un-moving, contracted and controlled, we essentially keep our life and ourselves very much contained and contacted also….

To continue a little further with Farhi’s example:

“This pattern is very common in people who are very ‘goal orientated. “Getting there” always supersedes “being here”. Such a person appears smaller than they really are, especially in the way they draw their shoulders in towards each other….. Such a person is often also concerned with getting things right and achieving his goals, , that he is willing to literally stop breathing to get there. The root of this pattern is fear – fear of not being good enough, fear of not getting there, and fear of not becoming someone”.

FEAR. Because that is it isn’t it? Fear is the reason we feel the need to control so much, to become attached to people, places and things, to chase things, to want more and more and more until it becomes actually impossible to keep any of our sh** together at all and things get very messy. On the surface everything remains calm though of course; because we’re ok, everything is ok, it’s under control.

photo 1 (7)
Movement of the breath in ‘Free Breathing’. See how the whole body is involved in the breath. Image from ‘The Breathing Book’ by Donna Farhi

Taking a huge breath in and out – one that expands from the inside all the way through the body to the tips of the fingers and toes and seemingly beyond, and then dives back into the soft central core – can be scary if we have never had the experience of actually letting go of things a little. This is why many people experience unexplainable tears appearing during a Yoga class, because it’s usually the only place we’re encouraged to ‘breathe it out’ and actually to breather properly, deeply and fully.

I am not asking us all to inhale, exhale, let go of everything and let life collapse around us. (Although sometimes that can be the most healing thing of all….) It takes a long time ot pick up the pieces, and no one wants to clean up after us.

The practice is in changing our perception one little piece at a time; and starting simply with a pranayama practice; the way we breathe, can have profound effects.

As you breathe in and out and pay attention to it, you are already practicing pranayama, either by simply breathing through the nose, or with a specific pranayama practice such as ujjayi breath, or particularly simhasana or ‘lion’s breath’. (Note the interesting similarity between ‘simha’ meaning lion and ‘simba’ – the lion character from the film The Lion King….. the ancient Sanskrit language came before the release of The Lion King in 1994 by the way….*Read a deeper exploration into this below). Perhaps this time though, think of what you’re doing not as ‘breath control’, but ‘breath expansion’, ‘freeing of the breath’, or even ‘liberation of life force’. This can help to change the pattern of frozen, fixed and rigid breathing to one of undulation, expansion and contraction, a breath filled with life and a life filled with prana.

As you practice this, notice any subtle differences this has to your mind, body and perhaps the way you feel afterwards throughout the day. Practice this regularly and continue to notice how changing our perception of the word pranayama, changing the way we breathe, or even how changing your own habits from ones of control and rigidity to ones of freedom and liberation changes our experience of life on and off the Yoga mat.

* The Sanskrit language is far more than words; each Sanskrit letter and full word holds not just the word it is describing, but the essence of that very thing. This ancient language is vibrational – meaning that the pronunciation and tone of voice is important in imparting the real sense of the word. The word ‘Simha’ is often translates as ‘Lion’, and the actual word ‘Simba’ (yes, as in Simba from the Lion King….) translates as ‘power’. So many words are derived from the ancient Sanskrit language, and it is highly likely therefore that the word ‘Simha’ as is used in ‘simhasana’ or ‘lion’s breath’ holds the essence of something that it ‘powerful’…. Like a lion!

It’s a theory but this goes to show how fascinating this language is, and how many codes are hidden within it!

3 responses to “Pranayama: The Choice Between Control & Freedom”

  1. […] armour, and to express our vulnerability freely. But as I also mentioned just last week in THIS piece, the ability to ‘let go’ – even just a little bit – leads to freedom…. If we only […]

  2. […] Pranayama: the choice between control & freedom […]

  3. […] practicing specific breathing techniques, or pranayama (translated as either breath-control or breath-liberation depending upon your understanding – […]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: