What is Pranayama, How to Begin? History, Types & Benefits

What is Pranayama?

Simply, when you breathe consciously, Its Pranayama, an integral part of Yoga. Understanding the breath is a primary step in knowing.. what pranayama is?

Being a doctor, In this article, I described Pranayama through different approaches of science and philosophy. After reading this article, you would able to understand Pranayama and its importance with benefits. I also created a beautiful infographic of effective Pranayama practice with its benefits.

Let’s understand Pranayama from depth…

Our life begins & ends with the one same entity, i.e., breath. A fully conscious breath can make us realize the movement of a subtlest living cell in our body 1. One can understand breath as a connector among all the cells in the body (almost 37.2 trillion cells)2.

Pranayama Infographic

pranayama-infographic

2 fundamental entities of Pranayama

  1. Prana – Vital life force manifested in the body as breath
  2. Ayama – Action of extending or controlling Prana through breath

So, pranayama is the science of breathing effectively, But what does it mean by effective breathing?

A steady, effortless breath in the hours of calmness is effective breathing. When we are able to feel, even very subtle expanding & contracting movement of abdominal walls with breath entering in & out, it’s because of effective breathing.

With effective breathing, Pranayama let control (Ayama) the movement of “Prana – life force”. Once we got control over our Prana, Chitta (consciousness) automatically stabilizes (Which is the ultimate aim of yogic practices).

Pranayama is the link between the mental and physical disciplines, While the action is physical, the effect is to make the mind calm, lucid and steady.

~ Swami Vishnu-Devananda (Organizer of first teacher training program in the west)

Pranayama Vs. Asana

Asana is the physical practice that makes us aware of whole-body movements while pranayama makes us realize the cause of those body movements.

In Ashtanga yoga, pranayama is practiced at the 4th step, before which, mastery over Yama, Niyama & Asana expected from a yogi.

Then, for further steps of 8 Limbs of yoga, Pranayama prepares a transparent platform for mind & body to attain Samadhi (8th limb) followed by Pratyahara (sense withdrawal), Dharna (Concentration) & Dhyana (Meditation).

Understand Pranayama & Asana using this common analogy.

A Common Analogy to Understand Pranayama & Asana

Consider our physical body – A plastic bottle and Prana within the physical body is like water inside a plastic bottle.

The stability of water inside the plastic bottle depends upon the balance of the bottle itself. If a bottle is not steady, water will stir inside the bottle.

In the same way, Prana can’t stabilize (through Pranayama) until and unless the physical body is stable (through Asana).

Therefore, the practice of asana is very important before pranayama.

Meanings of Sanskrit Term “Pranayama

As yoga has its roots originated from the Sanskrit language, the term ‘Pranayama’ also taken from Sanskrit.

‘Pranayama’ composed of two Sanskrit root words. Different scholars & traditions translated these two root terms of Pranayama in their own way. It’s the following.

1. Pranayama When ‘Pran‘ + ‘Ayama

A Harvard University scholar translated Pranayama meaning by 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 “extension of the life force.

When we inhale, exhale or retained breath in pranayama, the intention behind it is to create an extended space for Prana, through breath. This is called the extension of life force.

2. Pranayama When ‘Prana‘ + ‘Yama

In some yogic texts 3, Pranayama translated into this way – Prana‘ + ‘Ayama

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 life is the manifestation of Prana.
~ Swami Sivananda (In Book, Science of Pranayama)

And, here the meaning of Yama is ‘control’ or ‘restraint.’ 

So, on combining these two terms, Pranayama becomes an activity of “controlling the energy which causes motion of breath, i.e. Prana”

What Is Prana?

The functionality of pranayama depends upon ‘Prana’.

Prana is the fundamental force responsible for the existence of life. It enters into the body through the air we take, the food we eat & the water/liquid we drink.

There are 5 Prana present in the subtle body which travels via subtle energy channels (Nadis).

With the help of pranayama, we control the regulation of 5 Prana. When Prana comes in control with the help of Pranayama, it begins flowing freely without any physical & mental obstacle 4. This freely flowing Prana creates a balance between mind-body & soul.

History of Pranayama

history of pranayama

Pranayama has the same origin in history as yoga has. Breathing techniques of pranayama has been developed by ancient sages of India around 6000 years ago.

They observed the relation between breath counts and individual lifespan of creatures in nature. It made them realize, controlling breath counts can be a good idea to increase the life span of an individual. This is why Swami Sivananda has said:

A yogi measures the span of life by the number of breaths, not by the number of years.

The significance of Pranayama illustrated in different scriptures from ancient times. Below are some Hindu scriptures in which use of term pranayama can be seen in different places.

1. Chandogya Upanishad

Chandogya, one of the oldest Hindu Upanishad, composed around 8th to 6th century BCE 5. In this text, the use of the term ‘Prana’ can be seen clearly. It was used before the introduction of term ‘Pranayama’ anywhere in history.

This text described:

‘Prana’ used as a weapon by Gods against demons in the war. When all the body & sense organs on deities request get failed to stand against evils in the war, Gods revered the ‘Prana’. Demons weren’t able to take a stand against Prana.

It’s the reason ‘Prana’ is the lord of all body as well as sense organs of body, because it didn’t get affected by good or bad (God or Evil) in war.

In this text, The energy of Prana (pranic energy) also equated with the energy of the sun. This is the reason, with austerity or tapas (by yogic practices) body is able to generate heat in the body (like sun energy).

2. Bhagavad Gita

The practice of Pranayama is also described in different verses of Bhagavad Gita.

Bhagavad Gita 6 elaborates nature of inhaling & exhaling breaths. It also describes how restraining over these two breaths can help one to flow awareness at a deep level. Bhagavad Gita chapter 5 highlights how one can control the five senses, mind and intellect by practicing pranayama.

3. Maitrayaniya Upanishad

Maitrayaniya Upanishad 7 which is 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 Prana 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

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.

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 at the end of the day (in 24 hours).

The practice of breath awareness is about realizing every inhalation and exhalation of a day (21000 breaths).

2. Understand The Anatomy of Breathing

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 with every breath.

While inhalation, lungs expand with fresh air and so the diaphragm contracts. The same way, while exhaling diaphragm expands, this tends to reduce (contracts) space inside the lungs. In reduced space & more pressure inside the lungs, the air is pushed out of the lungs by its elasticity & inhalation takes place. In this way, the breathing cycle keeps running.

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 very little transition zone (of nanoseconds) 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 transition zone between inhale-exhale, breath goes to the next level which relaxes your mind and body. It’s called natural pranayama.

Breath Regulation In Pranayama

Any Pranayama practice comprises 3 stages of Prana movements. These movements are, Inhale…Holding breath in…Exhale…Holding breath out

  • Breath in (Purak)
  • Breath out (Rechak)
  • A steady transition between breath in and out (Retention of breath – kumbhak)

Patanjali described how to regulate these 3 stages of breath through 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 mind fluctuations (Vritti). These three stages are drawing the breath in, breath out and holding the breath. Regulation of these 3 stages is achieved by the following 3 factors.

  1. Space
  2. Time
  3. Number of Pranayama

1. Space of the breath

Space of breath is defined as the length covered by breath whether it draws in, throws out or held up in some part of the body. Unit of its measurement is angulas or Finger-width.

The place or space of breath in 3 stages are as follows:

  1. During Exhalation – Breath lies in 12 angula length measured from the tip of nostrils.
  2. While Inhalation – Breath ranges from the top of the head to the bottom of the feet.
  3. During Retention – Space of breath is combination of space of inhalation and exhalation.

Space of breath while inhaling & exhaling is not always remained the same. Space of two consecutive inhale or exhale varies in accordance with 5 elements which predominant at the time of practice.

The space of breath in a different time, when:

  1. Earth element predominant – 12 angulas or Finger-width
  2. Water element predominant – 16 angulas or Finger-width
  3. Fire element predominant – 4 angulas or Finger-width
  4. Air element predominant – 8 angulas or Finger-width
  5. Ether element predominant – 0 angulas or Finger-width

2. Time of the breath

The duration to which Prana inhale, exhale or held in some part of the body is measured in matras (approx 1 second), called time of breath.

Pranayama can be divided into 3 categories based on the time of the breath.

PranayamaInhale (Seconds)Retention (Seconds)Exhale (Seconds)
Inferior (Adhama)124824
Medium (Madhyama)249648
Superior (Uttama)3212864

In normal breathing, The classical ratio of Inhale: Retention: Exhale should be 1: 4: 2

Suppose you draw breath in for 12 seconds (matras) then you should throw the 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.

3. Number of Pranayama

The last factor that affects breath regulation in Pranayama is ‘Number of Pranayama’. Number refers to how many times you have performed the pranayama, for a long or short duration.

With more number of pranayama, the effort to cease the breath inside or outside lowers and thus we get control over breath regulation through pranayama. In one sitting, 80 number of pranayama is expected from a yogi.

In this way, Pranayama should be practiced in the morning, noon, evening and midnight at 4 times. So, the total number of pranayama in one day is 320 (80*4).

Types of Pranayama

The first time in Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a text composed around 800 years ago by sage Swami Swatmarama Suri, 8 types of classical pranayama had mentioned.

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.

The following are 8 types of pranayama mentioned in Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

1. Surya Bhedana

surya bhedna pranayama

‘Surya’ means Sun & ‘Bhedana’ means Piercing.

It’s also called Right nostril breathing. Surya Bhedana pranayama let sun energy enters our body. In yogic science, the right nostril is considered the entrance of solar energy while the left nostril is of moon energy.

Read more: How to Do Surya Bhedana Pranayama & Its Benefits

2. Sitkari

sitkari pranayama

Sitkari means sipping sound.

The sound produced in 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.

Read more How to Do Sitkari Pranayama & Its Benefits

3. Sitali

sitali pranayama

Sitali means soothing effect. In Sitali pranayama, Breath is drawing in as taking a sip through a straw.

Read more: How to do Sitali Pranayama & Its Benefits

4. Brahmari

brahmari pranayama

Brahmari is the humming sound of a bee.

Exhalation in brahmari pranayama is done with the ‘hmm’ sound introduced from the back of the throat.

Read more: How to Do Brahmari Pranayama & Its Benefits

5. Bhastrika

bhastrika pranayama

In bhastrika pranayama with inhalation and exhalation, the abdominal wall moves in and out like bellows. It is also called the bellows breath.

Read more: How to Do Bhastrika Pranayama & Its Benefits

6. Murcha

murcha pranayama

 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 Murcha Pranayama & Its Benefits

7. Ujjayi

Ujjayi pranayama

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 Ujjayi Pranayama & Its Benefits

8. Plavini

Plavini pranayama

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.

Read more: How to Do Plavini Pranayama & Its Benefits

Benefits of Pranayama

The practice of regulating the breath could have a great healing effect on the body. Pranayama has a lot of benefits which science has proven. I have now published a research article on 14 scientific Benefits of Pranayama. You can also read my article on 46 scientific proven benefits of yoga.

In this article, I have mentioned scientifically proven,

  1. Physical benefits of Pranayama (ex. weight loss, glowing skin, Maintain lungs, immunity boost etc)
  2. Benefits of Pranayama for brain (ex. concentration improve, sleep disorders, stress reliever, increases grey matter etc )
  3. Spritual Benefits of Pranayama (ex. grow spiritually, enhances clairvoyance & sixth sense etc )

Click here to read: Scientifically proven benefits of Pranayama

Conclusion

Breathing exercises of Pranayama provides you a path from physical to the spiritual journey of yoga. Controlling the breath is the easiest way to stop the thought patterning of mind and once it’s mastered, a person can clearly see what’s going beyond mind.

References

  1. What is a cell https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov
  2. Approx 37.2 trillion cells in our body https://www.tandfonline.com
  3. The Science of Pranayama books.google.co.in 
  4. Pranayama discussion on Quora https://www.quora.com
  5. Chandogya Upanishad https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chandogya_Upanishad
  6. Bhagavad Gita PDF http://www.dlshq.org
  7. Maitrayaniya Upanishad PDF http://geocities.ws

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