Prāṇāyāma is one of the eight limbs of yoga in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and a significant body of techniques in most yoga traditions.
The word prāṇāyāma is derived from the root words prāṇa and yāma. Prāna is the life force energy that is often associated with breath, and yāma means "constraint". Therefore a frequent translation of prāṇāyāma is "breath constraint". While it is true that prāṇāyāma techniques involve manipulation of the breath there is another translation that is equally, if not more valid. Note that Prāna has a short a at the end. Joining it to the word yama should yeild a a compound word with a short a in the middle, prāṇayāma. Instead it is prāṇāyāma. In Sanskrit to put an "a" at the beginning of a word is a negator. So ayāma is to free, expand, liberate. And when a word ending a joins with a word beginning with a they combine to form ā. Prāṇāyāma is therefore just as legitimately understood to be the combination prāṇa and ayāma, to be translated as "to liberate and expand the life force energy". This is important as it significantly adjusts our rudder, or internal compass, about what it is we are aiming to achieve.
Prāṇāyāma techniques clear obstacles in our body which hinder the free flow of breath and energy. These obstacles can be physical, but can also be deep psychological impressions and psychic knots. Specific techniques target different aspects of the blockages typically present.
Some prāṇāyāma techniques are easy and quite safe for anyone to do; others come with a list of contraindications, and these are the ones you might not meet in most yoga classes. Some just need to be practiced on an empty stomach and are therefore early morning practices.
You should always learn yoga techniques, particulary the more delicate or advanced techniques, from a teacher who is competent to teach that technique, so always ask questions. In the wrong hands, at best you will simply not learn the technique correctly and it will be ineffective, at worst you could come to harm. Prānāyāma is certainly in the category of needing to be learned from someone who is competent.
Here is a list of the Sanskrit names of some prāṇāyāma techniques. See how many you have heard of already. If it is hyperlinked, there is already another article on it. This will grow over time, so keep checking back.
(Author: Tina Shettigara)