Pranayama is the science of stimulating life-currents (Prana) through the control of breathing techniques. The regular and consistent practice of pranayama clears emotional and physical knots of body-mind & creates a pre-meditative platform.1
Our conscious life begins & ends with the one same entity, i.e., breath. Fully conscious breathing can make us realize the subtlest living cell in our body 2. One can understand breath as a connector among all the cells in the body (almost 37.2 trillion cells)3.
Wait..but why we so concern about breath here?
Well because most of the people termed breath as Prana.
The functionality of pranayama depends upon ‘Prana’ – the life force.’
Pranayama is the breathing techniques 4 to regulate & control the flow of Prana. Through the practice of pranayama, the mind relaxes & you can feel lightness in the body.
What is Prana?
Prana is the fundamental force responsible for the existence of life. Prana enters the body through the air we take, the food we eat & the water we drink. It travels in the body via Nadis. Read more about Prana (detailed explanation)
With the help of pranayama, we control the regulation of 5 Pranas which create a balance between mind-body & soul.
Pranayama let Prana flows freely in the body without any physical or mental obstacles.5
Pranayama: A Broader Aspect Than Asana
Asana is the physical practice which makes us aware of whole-body movements. Only after achieving mastery over asana practitioner can begin the practice of pranayama.
Understand Pranayama using this common analogy.
Pranayama & Asana: A Common Analogy
Consider our physical body – A plastic bottle and Prana is water inside a plastic container. Stability of liquid inside the plastic bottle depends upon the balance of the bottle itself. The same way, Prana can’t stabilize (through Pranayama) until and unless the physical body is stable (through Asana).
Pranayama is the 4th limb of Patanjali’s Ashtanga yoga after Yama, Niyama, and Asana. Pranayama prepares a transparent platform for mind & body to attain Samadhi state (the eight limbs of yoga).
Meaning of Pranayama
As we all know, the root of yoga related to Sanskrit language & so the Pranayama also 6. Different scholars & traditions translated Pranayama word in their ways, but the root meaning is always the same.
The first approach to translation
A scholar from Harvard University separated the word Pranayama into ‘Pran‘ and ‘Ayama.’ When the Pranayama is broken up into this way, ‘Pran‘ means life force and ‘Ayama‘ means Extension or expansion.
Hence, compound word Pranayama means “expansion of the life force.”
The second approach of translation
According to Hindu sacred books, word Pranayama can be separated into ‘Prana’ and ‘Yama.’ Here the meaning of Prana is not exactly the breath, but it is named for ‘Energy in the universe – which causes motion of breath.’
Whatever in the universe, moves, works or has a life is the manifestation of Prana. Yoga Sutra – 2.34
Yama means ‘control’ or ‘restraint.’
So, according to the 2nd approach of translation, the meaning of word Pranayama is “control of energy which causes motion of breath.”
History of Pranayama
Significance of Pranayama illustrated in different scriptures from ancient times. Below is some glimpse of scriptures in which pranayama mentioned in historical scriptures.
1. Chandogya Upanishad
‘Prana’ word was used earlier than the introduction of Pranayama, in Chandogya Upanishad. Chandogya Upanishad describes Prana (vital breath) was used as a weapon from gods on demons to get victorious in the war. Prana – the pranic energy equated with the energy of the sun.
2. Bhagavad Gita
The practice of Pranayama is also described in different verses of Bhagavad Gita. Bhagavad Gita 7elaborates nature of inhaling & exhaling breaths. It also describes how restraining over these two breaths can help one to flow awareness in deepening level. Bhagavad Gita chapter 5 highlights how one can control the five senses, mind and intellect by practicing pranayama.
3. Maitrayaniya Upanishad
Maitrayaniya Upanishad 8 composed around 4th century BCE highlights Pranayama at first step in six-fold yoga path.
It explained that the regular practice of Pranayama and concentration on the sacred syllable Om directs ‘Prana’ through the central energy channel (Sushumna Nadi). When energy flows through Sushumna Nadi Kundalini energy activates in the body. Six-fold Yoga worked as resurfacing for Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra which later composed in 2nd century BCE.
How to Begin Pranayama? Breath Training Work
Practicing pranayama is not different from letting watch your breath very consciously. So before you begin the journey of pranayama, let’s do some work to know the breath.
There is a saying ‘Without Breath, There Is No Yoga.’ A guided breath training work can help one to understand the fundamental behavior of their breath. This further can be enhanced with the practice of pranayama to go deeper and deeper in self-knowing process.
Breath training work can understand into following 3 steps.
1. Be Aware of Breath
Breath is a natural process of inhaling and exhaling. Inhalation nourishes and calms our mind while exhalation cleanses and turns out impurities of the body.
‘Being aware of breath’ is the subtlest but essential part to begin pranayama. Breath awareness means consciously feeling the touch of every breath count at nostril one after other, again and again. At a beginner level, you can feel the sense of breath awareness on every inhale and exhale of a minute.
Breath counts of an ordinary person are about 12 – 15 per minute. It becomes 21000 breaths. The practice of breath awareness is about realizing every inhalation and exhalation of a day (21000 breaths).
2. Understand the Breathing Process
Mechanism of human lungs and their working is straightforward when it comes to the understanding breathing process. The diaphragm is a muscle beneath the lungs which expand and contracts in every inhalation & exhalation. In inhalation, lungs expand with fresh air and so the diaphragm contracts. The same way, during exhalation diaphragm muscle, relax, this tends to reduce space inside the lungs. In the reduced area under more pressure air is pushed out of the lungs by its elasticity.
Signs of effective breathing
1. One can feel the deep movements of the diaphragm in the body in standing & laying down yoga poses. It is also called diaphragmatic breathing. It’s a good sign of effective breathing.
2. Depending upon particular asanas one can feel abdominal movements, rib-cage movements along sides and backbone. One should practice a deep breath through the nostrils. This practice will feel you to the actions of the belly, rib-cage.
3. Establish Connection between Inhalation & Exhalation
Inhalation and exhalation are the parallel processes to each other. At the end of every exhalation, inhalation starts, and at the end of inhalation, exhalation begins automatically.
There is a quiet transition zone between inhalation & exhalation. ‘Establishing a connection between inhales and exhale’ is the stage when you feel the presence of this transition zone. As soon you begin to sense this zone in breathing, you can feel – it’s not you who is a breather, but it’s your body.
When you start feeling a quiet transition zone between inhale-exhale, breath goes to the next level which relaxes your mind and body. It’s called natural pranayama.
3 Stages of Pranayama: Inhalation, Exhalation & Retention
Any Pranayama practice comprises 3 stages of Prana movements. These movements are breath in, breath out & a steady transition between inhale-exhale. Patanjali described the nature of these 3 stages in the following Yoga Sutra Verse.
Bahya bhyantara stambha vrittih desha kala sankhyabhih paridrishto dirgha sookshmah. Yoga Sutra 2.50
Meaning – Pranayama consists of 3 stages of the mind-field (Vritti). These three stages are drawing the breath in, throw the breath out and hold the breath in the lungs. Whether a breath will be slow or fast is decided by Space, Time and Number of breath.
Factors affecting the rate of breath in Pranayama
1. Space of the breath
Space of breath is defined as the length covered by breath whether it draws in the body, throws out or held up in some part of the body. It is measured in angulas or Finger-width. During inhalation & exhalation, a difference comes in the length of a breath. The cause of this difference is the 5 elements which predominate at each other according to the time.
The length of breath in a different time, when
Earth element predominant – 12 angulas or Finger-width
Water element predominant – 16 angulas or Finger-width
Fire element predominant – 4 angulas or Finger-width
Air element predominant – 8 angulas or Finger-width
Ether element predominant – 0 angulas or Finger-width
2. Time of the breath
Another factor which affects the breath rate is ‘Time of breath.’ Time of breath is basically the duration for which Prana is held or suspended in a certain part of the body. Sometimes it also includes the inhale & exhale duration. It is measured in the matras or Seconds.
Pranayama can be divided into 3 categories based on the duration of holding (Seconds).
Inferior (Adhama) Pranayama – 12 seconds (matras) of breath in
Medium (Madhyama) Pranayama – 24 seconds of breath in
Superior (Uttama) Pranayama – 32 seconds of breath in
The classical ratio of Inhale: Retention: Exhale is 1: 4: 2
Suppose you draw breath in for 12 seconds (matras) then you should throw breath out for 24 seconds & hold it for 48 seconds. It is called the Inferior pranayama.
After practicing inferior pranayama for almost 1 month, middle pranayama should be approached. Then after 3 months of practice, the practitioner should begin practicing superior pranayama.
Types of Pranayama: 8 Classical Kumbhaka
Hatha Yoga Pradipika – A text composed by Swami Swatmarama Suri (800 years ago) 9mentions eight classical pranayamas. Swami Swatmarama recommends pranayama should always be practiced under the guidance of a Guru as it can have some adverse effect if not done correctly.
Swami Swatmarama commonly used the word ‘Kumbhaka’ in place of Pranayama because Kumbhaka means ‘Restraining the breath.’ Pranayama formerly practiced making our lungs able to restrain the breath for an extended period.
Following are 8 classical pranayama mention in Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
1. Surya Bhedana
‘Surya’ – Sun & ‘Bhedana’ – Enter. This pranayama let sun energy enters our body. In yogic science, the right nostril is considered the entrance of solar energy while left nostril is of moon energy. Surya bhedna pranayama also called as Right nostril breathing. Read more How to do & Benefits.
Sitkari means sipping sound. This sound of sitkari pranayama letting fresh air enters through our mouth while teeth closed. Sitkari pranayama can be practiced after asana practice & in hot weather to cool down body temperature & relax the mind.
How to do:
- Sit comfortably on the ground
- Bring your upper & lower front teeth in contact with each other
- Touch your tongue at upper teeth palate
- Now Inhale through the mouth with a hissing sound
- Hold the breath in for few seconds & exhale through the nose
- Repeat steps 4 & 5 for 3 minutes
Sitali means soothing effect. In sitali pranayama, Breath is drawing in as taking a sip through a straw.
How to do:
- Sit in a comfortable pose
- Bring your tongue near the lips
- Curl the sides of your tongue to make a rolled passageway for air
- Now breath in through mouth (you will feel a cold air)
- Breath out hot air through the nose
Brahmari is the humming sound of a bee. Exhalation in brahmari pranayama is done with ‘hmm’ sound introduced from the back of the throat.
How to do:
- Sit in any comfortable pose
- Block your ear points with thumb and place the index finger on the forehead
- Shut your eyes with rest of the fingers
- Now inhale through the nose (mouth closed)
- While exhaling makes a sound of ‘hmmmm’ (like a humming bee). Focusing on this sound resembles the sound of ‘OM’
- Practice it for 4-5 minutes daily
In bhastrika pranayama with inhalation and exhalation, the abdominal wall moves in and out like bellows. It is also called the bellows breath.
How to do:
- Sit in any meditative posture (like ease pose )
- Make a feast of both arms and place them in front of the chest.
- With complete Inhalation raise hands up and open the feast
- Now exhale rapidly with a hissing sound and bring hands down in front of shoulder
- It’s the one round of bhastrika breath.
- In the first cycle, perform 10 bhastrika breaths.
A beginner shouldn’t go beyond 3 cycles of bhastrika breath
Murcha means faint. In this pranayama, the practitioner holds the breath for a prolonged period while chin locked near the thyroid gland. Breath held until the practitioner reaches a state of almost fainting. Read more How to do & Benefits.
This practice consists of throat contraction to fill the lungs with fresh air through both nostrils. Ujjayi pranayama a.k.a Victorious Breath. It’s beneficial for people who have insomnia and mental stress. Read more How to do & Benefits.
In plavini pranayama, the stomach is filled with fresh air through the mouth. Air held into the stomach. This results in a bloated stomach & hence practitioner feels like floating (Plavini) over a water body.
How to do:
- Sit up tall in Padmasana
- Make jalandhara bandha (lock chin to chest)
- Inhale deep with the both nostrils
- Hold the breath in as long as you feel comfortable
- Release the chin lock and exhale completely out
- Repeat the same steps for 10-15 times
Benefits of Pranayama
A simple breath of an ordinary person is different from the conscious breath 10 of a Yogi. A Conscious breath comprises prolonged exhalation & retention of breath which draws our awareness inwardly to the body & mind. On the other hand, regular breath generally happens with repetition of asymmetric inhale & exhale which bring our physical senses & so the awareness to the outer world.
The practice of pranayama let this conscious breath becomes a part of our regular breath. Pranayama in itself is a physical activity, but it affects at the mental level also. In this way, Pranayama establishes a bridge between the physical (asanas) & mental (meditation) aspect of yoga.
Following are some of the scientific benefits of pranayama, which can help you improve physical as well as mental health.
1. Create a pre-meditative environment for body & mind
Concentrating mind during meditation practice could be a headache for you if you’re a beginner in yoga. Practising pranayama relaxes the brain centres of mind & eventually helps you to take control over wondering thoughts of the mind. Once thought-patterns of mind are stable, meditation becomes an easy phenomenon.
2. Detoxify the internal body
Yoga comprises many techniques for washing the internal body. Breath is a great source of detoxification in the body. Different pranayama practice like Kapalbhati emphasizes on exhalation so that impurities of body flushed out. In this way, space for fresh air increased in the body.
3. Reduces the risk of hypertension
Hypertension, also known as high blood pressure, is the condition in which blood pressure consistently elevated in arteries. Pranayama practice opens the different nadis blockages in the body. Now the circulatory system found a new way through which blood can flow. In this way, blood pressure is reduced at a very great extent with the practice of pranayama.
4. Improves physical fitness
As asana is good for your physical fitness, pranayama is the same as well. ‘Prana’ is the fundamental unit behind the working of every single cell of the body. Fitness of the body depends upon the cell. With pranayama practice, we can redirect the flow of ‘Prana’ in even remote cells of the body. In this way, physical development of the body would increase exponentially with pranayama practice.
5. Increase demand for oxygen-rich blood
In Hatha Yoga Pradipika, pranayama is called Kumbhaka (Breath Retention) practice. When we hold the breath for an extended period, oxygen demand automatically increased in cells in order to create energy for the body. This oxygen-rich blood helps in curing the skin disorders & better functioning of the brain.
6. Increases the life span
The life span of every individual depends upon the limited number of breath counts. Some creatures with higher breath rate consume these breath counts in less time, tends to shorter life span while others with lower breath rate live longer.
You can imagine it by this fat. Tortoise breathes at a rate of 3-4 breath/minute & lives an average of 200 years while a normal human breathes at a rate of 12-15 breath/minute and lives only an average 79 years.
Breath regulation practice of pranayama can consistently let us watch our breath. In this way, we can optimize the breath counts in an effective way & life span can be extended as well.
- Health impact of Pranayama by Pallav Sengupta in NCBI [source]
- What is a cell [source]
- Approx 37.2 trillion cells in our body [source]
- Proper breathing & its benefits [source]
- Pranayama discussion on Quora [source]
- Root of Yoga & Pranayama related to Sanskrit [source]
- Bhagavad Gita PDF [source]
- Maitrayaniya Upanishad PDF [source]
- Hatha Yoga Pradipika PDF [source]
- The Science of breathing [source]