Introduction to Pranayama

About Prānāyāma


Prānāyāma removes the veil covering the light of knowledge and heralds the dawn of wisdom.

                                                                              -- Patanjali, Sūtra II.52


Prāna means life force and ayama means to expand. Prānāyāma is the expansion of life force through control of the breath. According to the Upanishads, the ancient Hindu philosophical texts, prāna is the essence of life and consciousness, “an exalted knowledge…a road to prosperity, freedom and bliss.”


According to BKS Iyengar, “Prāna is the energy permeating the universe at all levels. It is physical, mental, sexual, spiritual and cosmic energy. All vibrating energies are prāna. All physical energies such as heat, light, gravity, magnetism, and electricity are also prāna. It is the hidden and potential energy in all beings…it is the energy which creates, protects and destroys. Vigor, power, vitality, life and spirit are all forms of prāna.”


Through breath control one can guide the subtle forces that move throughout the body. Prānāyāma is conscious breathing, not deep breathing. Cultivating breath control helps oxygenate the body and rid it of toxins to maintain health and increase longevity. It helps calm the mind and opens it to rejuvenation, concentration and upliftment.


BKS Iyengar writes that: "We all breathe, but how many of us do so correctly, with attention? Bad posture, an ill-shaped or caved-in chest, obesity, emotional disorders, various lung troubles, smoking and uneven use of the respiratory muscles, lead to improper breathing, below one's capacity. We are aware of the discomfort and disability which then arises. Many subtle changes take place in our body as a result of poor breathing and bad posture, leading to heavy breathing, inadequate pulmonary function and aggravation of heart disease. Prānāyāma can help to prevent these disorders and help to check or cure them, so that one can live fully and well."


Prānāyāma practice is the gateway between the outer world and the inner world, between an active āsana practice and more advanced internal practices which lead us into deeper states of meditation. In āsana practice, our will helps us perform. Through this act of will, we tone the body and learn focus, discernment and subtlety. In prānāyāma, however, acts of will squeeze the life out of the breath. Prānāyāma requires a more subtle approach; it requires more observation than action. The practice of prānāyāma starts where Śavāsana (corpse pose) ends.

For this reason, Patanjali cautions students to become proficient in āsanas and especially Śavāsana before beginning prānāyāma. The qualities present in Śavāsana – a lower base metabolic rate of heart, breath and mind – are essential in order to practice prānāyāma.

Vivekānanda observes that prānāyāma practiced improperly or casually may even lead to insanity, as prānāyāma rouses the unconscious mind. Practiced prematurely or mechanically, prānāyāma is not considered a spiritual practice.

BKS Iyengar classifies respiration into four types:


  1. “High or clavicular breathing, where the relevant muscles in the neck mainly activate the top parts of  the lungs
  2. Intercostal or mid-breathing, where only the central parts of the lungs are  activated
  3. Low or diaphragmatic breathing, where the lower portions of the lungs are activated chiefly, while the top and central portions remain less active
  4. Total, or prānāyāmic breathing, where the entire lungs are used to their fullest capacity”


Though there are many variations, all prānāyāma begins with an exhalation (rechaka) and ends with an inhalation (pūraka.) Ending prānāyāma with an exhalation strains the heart. Take a normal inhalation at the end of each phase. Śavāsana is suggested at the end of the each practice. Important prānāyāmas are:


  • Ujjāyī, where the throat narrows to slow the flow of air. The sound that this narrowing of the airways makes is important. Ujjāyī is the foundation for many prānāyāmas. Ud means upward, or expanding.  Jaya means victory or conquest. In Ujjāyī the lungs are fully expanded, with the chest thrust out like that of a mighty conqueror. All inhalations are made with a sibilant “ssss” and all exhalations with an “hhhh.” Ujjāyī breaths are even, slow, deep and steady. In the course of training for Ujjāyī, one first learns to lengthen the time of each out-breath and then learns to lengthen the in-breath. For reclining Ujjāyī, BKS Iyengar says, “First exhale quietly until the lungs feel empty, without pressing down on the abdominal organs. Relax the diaphragm and stretch it sideways, while you breathe in, without inflating the abdomen. Take a slow, deep, steady, sibilant in-breath carefully through the nose, seeing that both lungs fill evenly. Listen to the sound attentively.”  Keep the eyes gazing downward; deep inhalations tend to draw the eyes up.  At the start of the exhalation, the diaphragm is held immobile, then released gradually, exhaling slowly deeply and steadily until the lungs feel empty.


  • Viloma, or interrupted breaths. Loma means hair and “vi” is a negation: viloma means against the natural order of things. In Viloma, inhalation and exhalations are not continuous processes, they are interrupted by pauses. Viloma always begins with Ujjāyī breathing, then proceeds with interrupted breaths. One variation begins after an Ujjāyī exhalation, where one inhales for two or three seconds, pauses and holds the breath for two or three seconds, and so on until the lungs are completely full. This may involve anywhere from four to six breaths. The abdominals are drawn into the spine and upward. Exhalation in the same manner follows, gradually releasing the grip of the abdomen, as in Ujjāyī, until the lungs feel completely emptied. This is repeated for about ten minutes or for as long as there is no strain.


  • Bhrāmarī, where deep inhalations are done as in Ujjāyī and deep exhalations are made with a humming sound. Bhrāmara means a large black bumble bee. This prānāyāma is done lying or sitting, and it is not advisable to hold the breath.


  • Digital Prānāyāma (alternate nostril breathing, or Nādī Śodhana) uses the fingers to close off the nostrils. It is often likened to learning to become a master musician. One or the other of the nostrils is blocked at a time. BKS Iyengar likens it to learning to become a master musician. He writes, “Nādī Śodhana prānāyāma is one of delicate adjustments. The brain and fingers must learn to act together in channeling the in-and-out breaths while constantly in communication with each other.” It is suggested not to practice this breathing technique until the fingers are well versed in relation to the breath movements and nasal membranes.


  • Bhastrikā, vigorous, forceful in-and-out breaths as if using bellows, where exhalation sets the pace. Bhastrikā means bellows. The nostrils are always kept open. One technique is to take a short, strong breath and exhale it with a quick blast. One quick in-and-out breath taken together is one blast of Blastrikā. Four to eight of these blasts completes one cycle, after which several Ujjāyī breaths rests the lungs. Then comes a deep breath and rest in Śavāsana.


  • Kapālabhāti, a milder form of Bhastrikā, where the inhalation is slow and the exhalation is vigorous, with a split second of retention after each out-breath. It is suggested to do Kapālbhāti if Bhastrika is too strenuous.


Approaches to prānāyāma vary widely, depending on the style of yoga.  For example:


  • In the Ashtānga approach, Ujjāyī breathing is integrated into the first vigorous practice series. Later, Viloma, Digital Prānāyāma, Bhastrikā and Kapālbhāti are incorporated.


  • In the Iyengar tradition, prānāyāma is only introduced after the student is securely grounded in āsana and is taught in a slow and methodical way. Students are first taught to observe the breath in a reclining position, then Ujjāyī and Viloma are shown, also reclining. Only later are seated prānāyāma introduced and more advanced techniques are then presented.


  • In the Viniyoga style, pioneered by T. Krishnamāchārya and his son T.K.V. Desikachār, the flow of the breath and the movement of the spine are integral, so awareness of breath is discussed early on. Here, progressively lengthening the inhalation and exhalation are important aspects right away.


  • In the Kundalini style, brought to the West in 1969 by Sikh master Yogi Bhajan, prānāyāma is incorporated directly into the practice of āsana, chanting, meditation and cleansing practices. In Kundalini, the breath is emphasized more than alignment or technique. The Breath of Fire, similar to Kapalābhāti, is introduced early on, as well as elongating inhales and exhales, and alternate nostril breathing.


BKS Iyengar says, “The ancient yogis discovered prānāyāma to make full use of [their] energy…Full use of this absorption and re-absorption of energy will allow one to live a hundred years with perfect health of body, clarity of mind, and equipose of spirit. That is why the practice of prānāyāma is considered to be a great science and art.”




  1. Georg Feuerstein, The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, (Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 2003)
  2. B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Prānāyāma (New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing, 1998)
  3. BKS Iyengar, The Tree of Yoga, (New Delhi, India: Harper Collins India, 1995)
  4. B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patanjali (San Francisco, CA: Thorsons, 1993)
  5. Geeta Iyengar, Yoga, A Gem For Women (Spokane,WA: Timeless Books, 1990)
  6. Swami Vivēkānanda, Rāja Yoga: Conquering the Internal Nature (Kolkata, India: Advaita Āshrama, 2002)



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