pranayama प्राणायाम

pranayama  प्राणायाम

Thanks for all the excellent comments. Because I’m delighted and surprised that there’s an interest in pranayama (breathing practices), that’s where I’ll start.

Pranayama translates from the Sanskrit, प्राणायाम, as “restraint of life force.” Prana is life force, or energy, similar to qi (chi) in Chinese medicine. It is said to travel most easily with the breath, and prana is sometimes translated as breath, or even as spirit. Iyengar says that, “It is as difficult to explain Prana as it is to explain God….prana is the principle of life and consciousness. It is equated with the real Self (Atma)….Chitta [mindstuff, or thoughts] and prana are in close association.”

The suffix -āyāma translates as regulate, restrain, or most commonly, control. In the Indian edition of Light on Pranayama, the opening page explains, “Pranayama, the yogic art of breathing, leads to a control of emotions which in turn brings stability, concentration, and mental poise.” Who doesn’t need a bit of that?

Pranayama Yoga
Pranayama Yoga chart Reproduction of illustration from Yogini Sunita’s, Pranayama Yoga: The Lotus and the Rose: The Art of Relaxation, Walsall, England, 1965

This is a vast topic, and I’d love input from teachers more versed in it than myself. Some argue that pranayama is too powerful for beginners to practice. I disagree. I learned the fundamentals of yoga in a class at IYI that taught three pranayama techniques at the end of every class. When my practice advanced, I explored other classes around the city, and while many were amazing, I noticed that without the pranayama (which is absent in most classes), the classes weren’t as grounding and the effects didn’t last as long.

I don’t want to get into how to do pranayama here. It’s best to learn from a teacher in person, rather than by reading about it. I do think it’s valuable to talk about different types of pranayama and their benefits. The quick parenthetical explanations below are meant as quick descriptors or reminders—not instructions!

In the last post Sarah commented, “I love to do some sort of centering technique before asana to draw my attention to the midline, like nadi shodana (alternate nostril) or a ham-sa kriya (attention up and down the spine). I would love to hear what other people do after asana, if not going right into meditation.”

I, too, like to begin class with pranayama, not only because I find it impossible to squeeze into the end of my short, 60-minute classes. I usually start with a reclined apa japa (simple awareness of breath) or deergha swasam (complete, three-part breath), followed by krama breath on the inhalation (inhale-hold for three steps of inhalation), or a seated nadi shodana, sitali (inhalation through rolled tongue), or kapalabhati (skull-shining, with quick expulsions on the exhalation and natural, small inhalations). It depends on the mood of the class. If they need to settle, I’m partial to nadi shodana. If they need energy or if it’s cold in the room, kapalabhati. If it’s hot, sitali. If they’re a little dull, krama. I haven’t taught murcha (covering the ears) or bramuri (murcha with humming on exhale) yet, but I plan to start, as I love them. I think bastrika is too intense for my short classes, so I don’t teach it. I do teach the bandhas (locks), but subtly.

After asana, I don’t usually have time for pranayama, but in the IYI classes that I mentioned, deerga swasam was taught directly after savasana (corpse pose), followed by kapalabhati, nadi shodana, one minute of meditation, and closing chants (in that order).  If I had time, I’d definitely teach any of the above-mentioned breaths after asana, except kapalabhati or bastrika as there isn’t enough time afterward to ground. I also might add krama on exhalation as well. How do others approach this? And how do you discipline yourself to end in time for pranayama, if time is short?

In comments on the last post, Lauren said that she’s “interested in learning more on the different breathing techniques and how I can incorporate these techniques into my life when I am not practicing.” I’ll speak to this in the next post.

An aside: I imagined that all the unemployed were probably sending people to long term volunteer stays at places like Kripalu and other ashrams. Indeed, the New York Times did a story on it the other day.

Next: how to slide pranayama into your day

12 thoughts on “pranayama प्राणायाम”

  • Thanks for sharing these A, I have also written a few paragraphs mostly responding to your writing 😉

    Pranayama has been so important for me in mastering asanas and becoming more aware of mind stuff. Since studying with Paul Dallaghan and Neil Barker at the Centered Yoga Institute in Thailand I learned of the teachings of Tiwariji that is combined with ashtanga yoga teaching of Pattabhi Jois and makes a great programme for learning yoga at a subtle level, when the body is none else but the channel for pranic energies to meet the mind and transcend (yoke) to realisation of a soul.

    Among the earliest pranayama lessons that I learned was through the CD by Richard Freeman (do you remember it was your gift Cocco when you were in Bishkek in summer 2004)… It was such an amazing experience to hear this amazing voice and to settle into a new way of breathing…

    I am teaching pranayama to people in my YogaSangha Vejeetaria in Bishkek since Autumn 2008. I can see some subtle changes in how asana improves and how people become so much deeper in touch with how to do yoga and why they actually want to do yoga. I use mostly chants throughout the class, and nodi shodanah, shitali and bramaari pranayama – as I mostly have beginners in class. Kaphalabati and bandhas I do not teach yet, but intend to do when my class matures a bit into ashtanga yoga.

    Looking forward to reading more on paranayama

  • I agree. For me pranayama techniques take the experience of a yoga practice or class to another level. Whether it’s meant to be uplifting, meditative or balancing the effects of pranayama enrich the experience, work on deeper subtle levels and undoubtedly generate a more holistic approach to the study of yoga.

  • It was good of you to recommend learning pranayama from a teacher. So many people get the idea that yoga is a technique or even an exercise regime that can be learned from any source (book, DVD, class, etc.). Pranayama and the rest of yoga is energy work and energy transmission from a teacher can mean the difference between empty ritual and potent practice. As you described in your history of experiencing classes without pranayama, the empty ritual is not satisfying once you’ve tasted the real thing. Why deny that experience to any of your students? That to me is what provides the determination to include time for subtle practices (pranayama, meditation) in even a short class.

  • As my practice progresses I am finding that asana is becoming less of a focus compared to pranayama. For me pranayama is focused on cultivating more space to breathe, more space, particularly in the core of my body, for my consciousness to reside. After a good pranayama practice my whole body is able to breath more freely in ways that are just not possible without the practice. The very act of being able to take a full breath brings with it such joy and freedom it connects me with the feeling of really being alive.

    From my experience teaching pranayama I find that my average student needs a lot of instruction on how to breathe. For this reason I like to begin class with teaching the breath, either on the back or seated. I always like to include some asana that highlights the breath in different areas of the torso and to direct the students’ focus there. For instance a short sequence of side bends, eagle arms, and a shoulder opener with breath directed to side ribs, upper back, and chest respectively. I also find krama (3 part) breath to be very effective. After a full breath has been established then I feel I can move onto more pranayamas like nadi shodhana, usually at the end of class. I then teach my whole asana class with reference to this smoothed, relaxed full breath, and that each pose should be approached in a way that does not jeopardize it.

    I emphasize the breath so much because at one point in my practice I discovered that I was compromising my breath with the way I practiced asana. I was engaging the upper abdominal muscles to compensate for a weak deeper core. The result was that I was perpetuating a tightness in my midsection and diaphragm that was preventing me from breathing fully.

    From my experience teaching I can see a lot of people repeating this mistake because of lack of awareness. Many of my students find taking a full breath is quite challenging, especially to breathe with the diaphragm. This is because pranayama is not just breath work. It is dealing directly with life force and the ways in which we unconsciously block its flow. It is emotional work as well.

    Without going on too much of a tangent, all the unprocessed emotional experiences that we have in life stay lodged in the body, particularly in the breath. When we practicing pranayama, we are learning to unwind all of the old knots in our energy structure. This has ramifications not just on the mat but in our whole approach to life and to relationships with others! Many many times I have practiced pranayama and felt a greater openness and aliveness only to feel myself close up again due to my own unconscious ways of dealing. No matter how much I want the effects to remain permanent, the process remains a gradual retuning of the breath and the nadis and takes dedication and consistency.

    For my personal practice my favorite pranayamas are nadi shodhana and bastrika. With nadi shodhana I find my focus is an important factor in the effects I receive. Despite being taught to focus my attention in the brow center, I find nadi shodhana most satisfying when I can feel a full breath in from my pelvic floor to the top of my ribs. I usually visualize my breath beginning down in my pelvis and moving all the way up my torso. For me, and I suspect many others as well, tuning into the movement of my diaphragm is extremely important.

    When practicing bastrika I find bandhas very useful for isolating the prana in my torso and heart center, and giving enough time for the prana to filter into my system. But doing bandhas right is very subtle and difficult to teach. In my mind both asanas and pranayama are amazing if practiced correctly, but if practiced with too much intensity or strain can end up perpetuating the same physical and emotional blockages that have brought many people to the mat. To be gentle and focused is the biggest lesson I have learned from yoga and what I most want to convey to my students.

  • PS. I do not agree with you definition of pranayma as “restraint.” While its true that using one’s energy efficiently does involve some restraint, I find that for me pranayama is more about opening the flow of prana. For that reason I like the definition “stretching the life force.”

    • Thanks for these! Ben—”restraint” is a direct translation from the Sanskrit, so regardless of whether we define it that way, it is what “ayama” means in Sanskrit. And if we step back from our tendency to view restraint negatively, restraint can simply mean restraining our habitual patterns of breath. Love your comments. ~A

  • As I said to you in class, and as a student not a teacher, I personally don’t love the breathing exercises but I think it depends on the exercise. I enjoy the idea of focusing on the breathe and find it very meditative but struggle with certain types – like the one where you block of your nose with your thumb and ring finger and alternate the breath I find it very hard to keep my arm up for the time needed and so I get distracted from the meditative side of the breathing exercise and focus more on the pain I feel in my upper back/shoulders. That was true of the bee buzzing breathing exercise we did today as well. On the flip side breathing exercises we do laying down (longer exhales, holding breaths, or filling different parts of your body with air) are all great. I think there is already a struggle that occurs to quiet the mind with breathing exercises that if there’s a battle against your body as well it makes it much harder to remain focused on breathing. I know that’s not very yogi of me to refer to it as a battle…

  • Natasha, I love your comment. Thanks for this. Yogis battle (prep: warrior 1/2/3). The Bhagavad Gita is all about battle–if, when, and why someone should battle, inner battle as well as out. It’s extremely valuable to hear this info. I had no idea aching arms was an issue, and I am sure you are not alone. I wonder if this would be better at the end of class, when you are more open, or perhaps worse, because you are tired. Perhaps I’ll try doing shorter sessions, or suggesting you stop if it becomes a battle, and shift to a different type. Regardless, try to avoid struggling to quiet your mind. Thoughts are natural and they’re going to come up. Don’t berate yourself, just notice, “Oh look, I’m off again” and come right back to the breath. Gently. Look at each thought as an opportunity to practice coming back to the breath. If you body gets in the way, rest it. I’ll also teach the version w/o the arm lifted. I also wonder about teaching these while resting on the back. Anyone done this? Thanks, Natasha!

  • Hello Anastasia. Thanks for the comment on my site if you still need help with the thirteen theme I might be able to help.

    By the way interesting blog Im very much interested in Yoga cause well I need flexibility training right now and strength training to get better at dancesport and it would do wonders for my posture too

    • Hi MK. Thanks for the offer. I fixed thirteen, but didn’t end up using it. Might for something else. There were problems with the rich text adding code. So glad you are interested in yoga. It’s great for both flexibility, strength, and yeah, posture too. Join us on the blog if you’re inspired or have questions. ~A

  • it has been a pleasure and very enlightening reading the posts. thanks everyone.

    my experience with pranayma is a developing one. When i first started practicing yoga i was quite unaware of all of the elements involved other than the physical movement….for lack of a better description i started doing yoga in a gym-rat manner. i contemplated how many calories were burned and if my abs were getting enough of a workout. i spent very little time or effort contemplating breathing. that was over six years ago.

    Now yoga is a very different experience. after suffering from nerve damage in my arm, i had to slowly rebuild not only my mobility but also my approach to yoga. it could no longer be vinyasa-flow-dvd-nysc style. i had to slow down and really pay attention to movement and alignment. What allowed me to attend to these focal points was breathing and i feel that my yoga practice has deepened and improved because of it.

    whoa, sorry for the slight tangent. anyway. I prefer classes and yoga sessions that include pranayma. i feel that they are healthier and more balanced than those that do not. i also practice pranayma at home on a daily basis which i find to be very beneficial. i practice Kaphalabati every morning. love it. if anyone has suggestions for pranayma moments throughout the day please share.
    amy h

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