Introduction to Pranayama Yoga Breathing

What is Pranayama?

Pranayama is the part of yoga deals with breathing exercises to let us take control over the Prana (vital life-force). While Prana can be understood as the source and cause of movement in our breathing.

The whole concept of Pranayama is based on the link between breath and mind. Breath is said to the vehicle of mind 1, when the breath is slow and deep, the mind happens in its calm state.

If you want a graphical description of what is pranayama, you can checkout the infographic below!

pranayama-infographic

An in-depth expression of Pranayama would be clear to you on knowing the meaning behind this term.

Pranayama Meaning

The meaning of pranayama can be understood by breaking it into two ways;

  1. Pranayama – Pran + Ayama
  2. Pranayama – Prana + Yama

In both cases, Pran & Prana defines the same entity i.e. vital life-force while Ayama means expansion and Yama means control.

According to the first translation (Pran + Ayama), Pranayama means expansion of life-force. By means of expansion, it’s conveyed, Pranayama increases the store to reserve the Prana inside the body by activating it to a higher frequency.

The second translation, however, tells the way pranayama works.

pranayama meaning
Image Source: Canva

According to it, Pranayama means the technique of controlling the Prana. In pranayama practice, by means of controlled inhalation, exhalation, and retention, the purpose is to create an extended space for energy in the form of Prana.

However, interpretations are different, if you will observe, both pranayama meanings serve the same purposes i.e. getting control of breath to expand prana in the body.

What exactly is Prana?

Prana shouldn’t be misunderstood with THE breath but breath is an instant source of Prana.

In his book 2, The Science of Pranayama, Sri Swami Sivananda says;

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.

Pranayama breathing exercises are tools to increase the store of Pranic energy by enhancing the quality of breathing or the way we normally breathe.

There are 5 types of Prana we control by practicing pranayama:

  • Prana Vayu – The Vayu or breath we take in through nostrils.
  • Apana Vayu – The Vayu or breath we expel out.
  • Samana Vayu – The Vayu or breath which remains in the lungs and stomach after full exhalation.
  • Udana Vayu – The Vayu or breath responsible for movements in our limbs and our thought process.
  • Vyana Vayu – The Vayu or breath that distributes energy throughout the whole body & mind.

Enhanced quality of Prana is the only reason you feel supercharged after practicing pranayama. Physically following things make pranayama a good therapeutic practice;

  • Some Pranayama messages various brain centers and control insulin hormone secretion – Beneficial in diabetes treatment.
  • Slow breathing exercises activate the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest function) 3 and lower the production of the stress hormone cortisol.
  • Practicing deep pranayama breathing in headache release the excessive tension in muscles like the neck & upper chest. It gives relief from a tension headache.

You can read more scientifically-proven benefits of pranayama by clicking the link below!

The Fourth Limb of Yoga

pranayama breathing 4th limb after asana
pranayama breathing 4th limb after asana. Image Source: Canva

Pranayama comes at the fourth step in Patanjali’s eight limbs. According to the yoga sutra, before pranayama, Yamas (social ethics), Niyama (personal ethics), and asana (physical posture) should be mastered. Indeed, only when a yogi is fully established in asanas and having control of the body, is considered pranayama practice effective.

Yoga asanas are meant to make us aware of the whole bodily movements at the physical level while pranayama makes us realize the cause of those body movements (mentally).

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 (a disciple of Sivananda Saraswati)

The importance of Pranayama after asana can be understood using this analogy;

Consider the physical body is like plastic bottle which contain some water. The water inside a plastic bottle is like the Prana within the physical body.

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.

Before Pranayama Tips

In simplest words, practicing pranayama is not different from letting watch your breath very consciously. So before you begin practicing any pranayama, you need to keep your time, place, posture, and physical condition in mind.

Keeping such basic things in mind before practicing pranayama can help you reap the maximum benefits of pranayama.

Here are a few things to watch;

  • See if your back is straight, the chest is expanded well, and all body muscles are relaxed. If comfortable sit in a meditative pose like ‘easy pose’ or ‘lotus pose’, if not comfortable in a cross-legged pose, sit on a chair. A good posture is necessary for breath management, volume, and resonance 4.
  • Take a few deep gentle breaths after getting comfortable in your sitting posture. Ensure your breathing is happening at the normal rate; neither fast nor slow.
  • Check if both your nostrils are flowing equally by placing a finger at bottom of the nostrils. It’s preferred to practice pranayama at brahmamuhurta (an hour and a half before sunrise) because this time both nostrils flow equally and Prana without any much effort flows through Sushumna Nadi.
  • Make sure before practicing any pranayama your bowel and bladder are empty. There must be a gap of at least 4 to 6 hours between your last meal and pranayama practice.
  • Check your room if it’s well-ventilated or not. If not, go for some open space like upstairs or ground where the air is fresh enough.

Pranayama (Breathing Exercises) Types | How to Do

There are several breathing exercises in yoga that enable Prana flows freely by regulating inhalation, exhalation, and breath retention – called Pranayama breathing.

The traditional hatha yoga practices comprise 8 pranayama breathing exercises, also called kumbhakas.

These 8 traditional Pranayama combinedly called Sahita Pranayama – Pranayama which requires efforts to perform.

1. Surya Bhedana (Right Nostril Pranayama Breathing)

surya bhedna pranayama

Surya bhedana means ‘sun piercing’. Sun represents Pingala Nadi or right nostril in our body, so this pranayama called right nostril breathing.

How to Do:

  • Sit comfortably in a cross-legged pose
  • Make Vishnu mudra with your right hand
  • Close your left nostril with the right ring-little finger
  • Take a long deep breath in through the right nostril
  • Hold the breath in for few seconds
  • Exhale out through the left nostril by closing the right nostril with thumb
  • Repeat the procedure 10 times – inhale right nostril and exhale left nostril

2. Sitkari Pranayama (Hissing Breath)

sitkari pranayama

Sitkari is cooling pranayama breathing in which a hissing sound is produced when we inhale by joining upper and lower teeth.

How to Do:

  • Come in a comfortable sitting posture
  • Bring your upper and lower teeth together in one line
  • Open your lips comfortably
  • Inhale through open lips and teeth into the mouth with a hissing sound.
  • Keep the breath inside for a few comfortable seconds
  • Close your lips and exhale out through your nostrils
  • Repeat the procedure 10 times.

3. Sitali Pranayama (Cooling Breath)

sitali pranayama

Sitali means soothing cooling effect. In this pranayama, breath is drawn in by making kaki mudra like mouth, as taking a sip through a straw.

How to Do:

  • Come in a comfortable sitting posture
  • Curl your tongue from the sides into a U-like shape.
  • Inhale through the curled tongue
  • Retain breath inside for 6-8 seconds by locking ching in Jalandhar bandha
  • Release the bandha, withdraw tongue inside, close your mouth then exhale out through nostrils.
  • Repeat the procedure 6 times in one sitting.

4. Bhramari Pranayama (Humming Bee Breath)

brahmari pranayama

Bhramari is called to the humming sound of a bee. In this pranayama breathing, with the exhalation, a ‘hmmmmm’ like buzzing sound is produced from the back of the throat.

How to Do:

  • Sit straight and bring your hands in Shanmukhi Mudra
  • Breath in through partially opened nostrils
  • While exhaling, create a ‘hmmmmm’ like buzzing sound from the back of your throat. keep exhalation as long as you can.
  • Feel the soothing vibration inside your head.
  • Repeat the process 5 times, then release your hands from mudra.

5. Bhastrika Pranayama (Bellows Breathing)

bhastrika pranayama

In Bhastrika pranayama breathing, the abdominal wall expands and contracts with inhalation and exhalation like a bellows in a burning furnace. It induces immense fire in the body so also called ‘breath of fire‘.

How to Do:

  • Sit tall in a comfortable cross-legged posture
  • Inhale raise your hands up over the head. Lengthen your spine and feel the opening of chest
  • Exhale, pull hands down to the shoulder level and make a fist with your hands.
  • Inhale and exhale in this manner in fastly – 20 times
  • Relax, watch your breath and come out of the pose.

6. Murcha Pranayama (Swooning Breath)

murcha pranayama

Murcha is a breath-holding pranayama exercise in which a practitioner holds the breath for a prolonged period by locking the chin in Jalandhar bandha. It increases lung capacity.

How to Do:

  • Come in cross-legged posture, hands resting on the knees
  • Inhale, lifting your head up and lengthen the throat muscles
  • Exhale, bring your head in down in throat lock
  • Hold the breath inside the lungs to the point you’re about to feel lightheaded.
  • Release the throat lock and breath out complete air from lungs
  • Inhale and exhale in this manner for 5 rounds

7. Ujjayi Pranayama (Ocean Breathing)

Ujjayi pranayama

Ujjayi aka ocean breathing exercise is the best pranayama for sleep and alleviating mental stress. In this pranayama, during exhalation, a soothing sound like ocean waves approaching shore is produced through a constricted throat. It’s also called victorious breath.

How to Do:

  • To perform Ujjayi, sit in padmasana or sukhasana.
  • Seal your lips, constrict your throat muscles, imagine a hole in your throat.
  • Inhale through your nostrils, feel the air is passing through the hole in the throat
  • Exhale out the complete air producing the sound ‘HHHHHAAAA’ through the constricted throat
  • Repeat this procedure for 3 to 5 minutes.

8. Plavini Pranayama (Floating Breath)

Plavini pranayama

Plavini is an advanced breathing exercise of pranayama in which firstly air is inhaled into the stomach then retain inside for some time. It results in a bloated stomach which gives the practitioner a feeling like floating on the water surface so also known as floating breath.

How to Do:

  • Come in a cross-legged posture
  • Inhale and fill your lungs, abdomen with fresh air. Expand your chest to fill air beyond normal times
  • When you inhale fully, then lock your throat in Jalandhar bandha
  • Feel the excess air inside the abdomen resulting in inflated abdomen organs
  • Then slowly release the Jalandhar bandha and breath normally
  • Repeat breathing in this manner for 5 times.

Apart from traditional pranayama exercises, there are many other pranayama breathing practiced by yogis. One can try different pranayama keeping their needs and expertise level in mind. For example, a beginner in yoga should never try pranayama which demands holding the breath for an extended period like Murcha & Plavini (described above).

Here are 14 Types of Pranayama and Their Effects on The Body!

However, a few pranayama techniques can easily be performed by a person who’s new to yoga. Such breathing exercises don’t require any expertise on breath control hence one can easily perform with simple guided instructions. For example; alternate nostril breathing (Nadi Shodhan Pranayama), Anulom Vilom, Kapalbhati, & Sama Vritti are easy to perform, hence a beginner can try!

History of Pranayama

history of pranayama

The description of different breathing exercises of pranayama can be seen in ancient Hindu texts which are dated around 6000 years ago.

Ancient yogi’s very basic idea behind inventing different pranayama techniques was to increase the vitality and life span. Yogis of ancient times observed the relation between breath counts and the individual lifespan of creatures in nature. It made them realize, controlling breath counts can be a good idea to increase the life span. 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.

~ Swami Sivananda

Here are some ancient scriptures which give an idea of pranayama history;

1. Chandogya Upanishad

Chandogya is one of the oldest Hindu Upanishad 5 in which the use of the term ‘Prana’ happened. It was used before the introduction of the term ‘Pranayama’ anywhere in history.

Chandogya Upanishad describes:

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

The superiority of ‘Prana’ makes it the lord of all body as well as sense organs. It didn’t get affected by good or bad (God or Evil) in war.

Through breath regulation in pranayama, one can control the Prana and so all body organs, senses, and mind.

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 controlling inhale and exhale 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 composed around 4th century BCE, highlights Pranayama at the first step in the six-fold yoga path.

In the Maitrayaniya Upanishad, it’s 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 path worked as resurfacing for Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra which later composed in the 2nd century BCE.

Pranayama in Yoga Sutra

Yoga sutra of Patanjali (YSP) is the first yogic text in which the nature of breathing and pranayama guidance has described beautifully. However, Patanjali defined everything about pranayama and its importance in 5 sutras of chapter 2 8.

Sutra 49 – Pranayama definition

Yoga sutra Chapter 2 Sutra 49 is on the Pranayama definition 9;

Tasminsati shwasaprashwasayorgativicchedaha pranayamaha ~ 2.49

Having established oneself in a steady and comfortable seated asana, controlled disruption or suspension of inhalation and exhalation is defined as pranayama.

Sutra 50 – 3 Breathing stages regulated by pranayama

After defining Pranayama, sutra 50 explains three stages of breathing i.e. inhale (purak), exhale (rechak), and retention (kumbhak), and how pranayama regulates it in 3 ways.

Bahya bhyantara stambha vrittih desha kala sankhyabhih paridrishto dirgha sookshmah. ~ 2.50

Pranayama has three aspects of external or outward flow (exhalation), internal or inward flow (inhalation), and the third, which is the absence of both during the transition between them and is known as fixedness, retention, or suspension. These are regulated by place, time, and number, with breath becoming slow and subtle.

Sutra 51 – The fourth pranayama

This sutra describes the fourth pranayama which is beyond three pranayamas i.e. inhale, exhale, and breath retention. According to this sutra, fourth pranayama comes after working with the three pranayamas and happens all by itself without any effort.

bahya abhyantara vishaya akshepi chaturthah ~ 2.51

The fourth pranayama is that continuous prana which surpasses, is beyond, or behind those others that operate in the exterior and interior realms or fields.

Sutra 52 – Fourth pranayama results in inner illumination

This sutra is about the immense benefits pranayama gives us and how it vanishes the curtain that keeps us separated from the inner light.

tatah kshiyate prakasha avaranam ~ 2.51

Through the fourth pranayama, the veil that covers the inner illumination or light is thinned, diminishes, and vanishes.

Conclusion

Breathing is the greatest pleasure in life. No wonder in this how important it’s to improve the way we breathe unconsciously.

Pranayama is a whole branch in yoga dedicated on breathing. To live every moment of life consciously, you should definitely perform pranayama breathing.

References

  1. Two Best Friends – Mind and Breath https://anandaindia.org/blog/two-best-friends-mind-and-breath/
  2. The Science of Pranayama https://books.google.co.in/books?id=9OCLDgAAQBAJ
  3. Soothe Your Nervous System with 2-to-1 Breathing https://yogainternational.com/article/view/soothe-your-nervous-system-with-2-to-1-breathing
  4. How Posture Affects Breathing https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/lifestyle/blog/5716/how-posture-affects-breathing/
  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
  8. Yoga Sutras 2.49-2.53: Pranayama and Breath Control https://www.swamij.com/yoga-sutras-24953.htm
  9. yoga sutra 2.49 pranayama http://yogasutrastudy.info/2015/02/18/sutra-2-49/

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