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Breath is a bridge between the body and mind and one of the 3 sources of (prana) vital energy in the body. Pranayama is the practice of building, moving and directing that energy via the breath using the concentration of the mind. Pranayama is referred to as the "inner fire ceremony", purifying our thoughts, mind and life. Pranayama practices play an essential role in purifying the energy channels (nadis), oxygenating the blood, increasing blood flow to the brain, calming the mind and nervous system, cultivating and channeling prana (energy/life force), cleansing toxins and helping digestion.
As our thoughts effect our breathing patterns (and prana) we can also control our thoughts by our conscious breath. Where the mind goes prana goes. When we breath consciously we are bringing our senses inward, guiding and controlling the prana which produces calmness, stillness, and effects us on subtle levels influencing our psychic and spiritual state which brings us to higher states of awareness.
Our pranic breath has inner wisdom and has subtle effects on our consiousness. Patanjali describes pranayama as the gap (retention) between our controlled inhales and exhales. This retention assimilates the prana and stills the mind.
There are many different pranayama, advanced pranayama and concentration methods across the many yogic traditions to guide the prana in certain energy cooridinates for specific purposes and may include the use bandha, mudra, mantra, nada, and bodily postures as well as conception. Pranayama is the doorway to meditation/advanced states of consciousness.