“You can hardly make any spiritual progress without
the practice of Pranayama”
- Sri Swami Sivananda
Pranayama or breath awareness is central to a yogic lifestyle as it is the truest source of realization of divinity within the human form.
In this article, we will explore and outline the significance of breath as a fundamental practice on the path of yoga. Taking a look into the history of the practice, different types of pranayama practice, the application of breathwork in modern practice as well as exploring the benefits of sustained breath awareness.
Pranayama can be understood as the branch of Yoga directly relating to regulating the subtle energy of life force. Also known as yogic breathing, Pranayama is the fourth limb of Yoga that centers around the cultivation of conscious control and awareness of the breath.
The breath is one of the only autonomic systems of our body, meaning that it functions without conscious awareness, and we also have the power to regulate and control. With focused awareness the breath becomes our truest indicator of the state of our mental and physical well-being, from this point, it becomes our greatest ally in regulating this state of being. This is where the roots and significance of Pranayama practices lie. In breaking down the phenology of the word Pranayama we uncover its true meaning and relevance.
To understand the relevance of Pranayama it is useful to uncover the truth of the term. In Sanskrit the term Pranayama can be broken down in two ways. Each interpretation provides an insight into the practical application of breath practices and the regulation of physical beings.
In essence, pranayama practices can be understood as the regulation of life force energy through the human system. These practices are applied as a means of achieving liberation through various breathing practices, meditative visualizations, and physical energetic locks known as bandhas. When applied these tools are a means of achieving altered states through which sensitive practitioners can experience the divine.
An alternative, although not contradictory interpretation of the term Pranayama that is interesting to consider comes from an understanding of Sanskrit. In Sanskrit, when the letter a is placed in front of a word it counters it. For example, in this case, Pranayama could be interpreted as the un-restraint or non-controlling of the breath. With this lens, we can view pranayama practices as the cultivation or expansion of life force energy.
Keeping in mind these two definitions, breathing practices in yoga are fundamental in establishing and sustaining lifeforce which is what makes the practice of yoga so life-altering.
Pranayama or breath practices have been utilized across many cultures through time as a means of self-awareness and self-regulation. This is achieved through many techniques of manipulating the inhalation, exhalation, and retention of the breath for desired results which will be explained in greater detail as we move on.
The concept of Prana is threaded through ancient philosophical texts as old as the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (900 BCE) and while we don’t encounter guidelines for pranayama practices until much later in philosophical texts we do know that this was a foundation of yogic belief and practice from this point. If we understand Prana to be a life force, pranayama then is our toolkit for conserving life force.
Later texts such as the Maitrayania Upanisad (300 BCE), the Bhagavad Gita ( 500 - 100 BCE), and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (-100 - 400 CE) credit Pranayama as a key component in a larger multi-faceted system of physical and spiritual wellbeing and a practiced which when mastered allows practitioners to achieve a state of Samadi or ultimate bliss. In book 2 of the yoga sutras, Patanjali explains that regular pranayama practice can dissolve the veil of illusion and uncover “inner illumination”. In this, he is describing an experience of enlightenment, the divine energy present within every human being.
“Thus the covering of brightness is removed”
Yoga Sutra 2.52
The earliest prescriptions for Pranayama Practices can be found in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (1,500 CE), in this Goraksha Nath’s pupil Swami Svatmarama emphasizes a combination of physical postures, pranayama practices and meditative contemplations through which aspirants could obtain good health and spiritual realization. In this text, we find instructions for the earliest forms of Pranayama - Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) and Kumbaka (gentle retention of the breath) along with auspicious times for practice and notes for recognizing progress within one's practice.
It’s not about breathing more!
Far from it, in the modern world, we may perhaps hold the view that an efficient means of breathing involves breathing more when in fact it is the opposite. If we come to understand pranayama as a means of regulating life force then the central idea would be to elongate to the breath and thereby lengthen the consumption of life force energy.
There is a belief in Yoga that each person has a predetermined number of breaths for their lifetime. When those breaths cease, prana or life force will be used up and the spiritual consciousness of human beings will leave the human form in death. Pranayama then is a means of extending the breath to sustain the longevity of lifeforce.
The principles of Pranayama are relatively simple, as practitioners become more and more aware of the subtleties of the breath they will start to notice how the breath moves in 4 parts.
The four parts of the breath
As with any practice, Pranayama and breath practices should be built progressively. Any beginner stepping into a breath practice is advised to start with mindful breath, gentle ujayi, and Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing). These practices are designed to stimulate the regulation of the nervous system and sustain pranic flow.
Dirga Pranayam (three-part breath or complete breath)
This is a useful introductory practice as it brings full attention and awareness to the function of the diaphragm and lungs forming the foundation and familiarity of taking a full breath. This technique encourages deep, diaphragmatic breathing and can have numerous benefits for both physical and mental well-being.
In practice The Three-Part Yogic Breath:
1. Sit in a comfortable cross-legged position or on a chair with your spine upright and shoulders relaxed.
2. Take a few moments to relax your body and release any tension. Close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath.
3. Inhale into Three Parts:
4. Exhale: Begin to exhale slowly and evenly through your nose. Empty your chest by letting your collarbones drop, then contract your ribcage and gently draw your abdomen inward to push out the remaining air. This completes one cycle of the Three-Part Yogic Breath.
5. Repeat: Continue this pattern of inhalation and exhalation, focusing on the three parts of your breath. Try to make each part of the breath smooth and continuous, without any forced effort. Aim for a sense of relaxation and mindfulness as you breathe.
6. Duration: Start with a few minutes of practice and gradually increase the duration as you become more comfortable with the technique.
7. The Three-Part Yogic Breath helps increase lung capacity, oxygenate the body, and activate the relaxation response. It can be practiced as a standalone technique or incorporated into your yoga practice or daily routine. Remember that the goal is to breathe naturally and comfortably, without straining or forcing the breath.
Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
This technique involves breathing alternately through the left and right nostrils. It's believed to balance the energy channels in the body and calm the mind.
How to practice Nadi Shodhana
1. Find a comfortable seated position where the spine is straight and the body aware yet relaxed.
2. Invite a state of grounded awareness and invite your focus to settle on the breath.
3. Bring your left hand into the chin mudra, left thumb, and left fingertip to join creating a circle and allowing the current of energy to channel through. Bring your right hand into Vishnu mudra, the right hand comes in front of your face, index finger and middle finger come to the third eye.
4. Inhale through the nose and use your right thumb to close the right nostril.
5. Exhale completely through the left nostril.
6. Inhale through the left nostril, close the nostril with the left ring finger.
7. Release the right thumb from the right nostril and exhale completely through the right nostril.
8. Inhale through the right nostril, at the bottom of your inhale close the right nostril and release the left.
9. Exhale completely through the left.
10. Repeat moving left to right on inhale and exhale, to close the practice, bring the breath back out through the left nostril, release Vishnu mudra, and let the breath settle as you come to full awareness of your physical state of being.
Note: You should be able to follow the pattern of exhaling through one side and following through with an inhale on the same side before switching to exhale on the opposite side.
Duration: Start with five rounds of practice and gradually increase the duration as you become more comfortable with the technique. Note - 1 full round consists of moving left to right - right to left.
This can be a tricky practice in terms of coordination but once the pattern awareness is established practitioners invoke this breath as a means of calming and regulating.
Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath)
Ujjayi involves a slight constriction of the throat during inhalation and exhalation by engaging jalandara bandha, or throat lock. The practice creates a gentle sound similar to ocean waves. The practice elongates the breath, enhances concentration, and generates internal heat.
Ujjayi is a practice that can be mastered through a physical asana practice, to begin engaging Ujjayi breath imagine breathing as though you were fogging up a mirror, continuing this breath focus on elongating it, inhaling and exhaling through the nostrils.
Often to advance is to simplify, once you have established an awareness of the breath and its effect on your own body through personal practice you may be called to explore other pranayama practices. It is only from a firm foundation of inner exploration that advanced practices should be explored, with this grounding one can begin to experiment with using breath practices to encourage an energetic effect on the body.
When looking to advance do so slowly with the instruction of a trusted, educated, and present teacher. Adopt a beginner's mind moving slowly and mindfully.
Kapalabhati Pranayama (Skull-Shining Breath)
Kapalabhati involves rapid, forceful exhales and passive inhales. It is believed to cleanse the respiratory system and invigorate the body.
Bhastrika Pranayama (Bellows Breath)
Bhastrika involves forceful and rapid inhales and exhales. It is believed to increase energy and promote mental clarity.
Sheetali Pranayama (Cooling Breath)
This technique involves inhaling through a rolled tongue or by making a tube with the lips, which cools the breath. It is thought
to have a cooling and calming effect on the body and mind.
Bhramari Pranayama (Bee Breath)
Bhramari involves making a humming sound during exhalation. It is thought to calm the mind and reduce stress.
Anulom Vilom Pranayama (Alternate Nostril Breathing with Retention)
This technique combines alternate nostril breathing with breath retention. It balances energy, enhances lung capacity, and promotes mental clarity.
Bhramari Pranayama (Bee Breath)
This involves inhaling through the right nostril and exhaling through the left. It is believed to have an energizing effect and can stimulate the sympathetic nervous system.
Bhramari Pranayama (Bee Breath)
This technique involves inhaling through the left nostril and exhaling through the right. It is thought to have a calming and cooling effect, stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system.
In Eastern medical traditions such as Ayurveda and Chinese medicine, it is understood that stagnation of life force energy is what creates disease within the physical and mental body. Under a modern lens, we see evidence that proper breath positively impacts all areas of being.
1. Improved Respiratory FunctioN
Pranayama practices engage the proper functionality of the abdominal diaphragm, our main breathing muscle, this allows the enhancement of lung capacity as well as improving the efficiency of the respiratory system. Furthermore, a full and efficient breath increases oxygen intake and detoxifies the body's systems.
2. Stress Reduction & mental clarity
On an energetic level, pranayama techniques are designed to stimulate the nervous system, elongated breaths move practitioners into a parasympathetic rested state while activating breaths invite a controlled enlivening of the breath. This self-regulation reduces stress while
building self-awareness and reliance on the body.
3. Increased concentration and mental clarity.
Certain pranayama techniques, such as Ujjayi and Anulom Vilom, are known to improve concentration and mental clarity. Controlled breathing engages the mind and can help reduce mental chatter.
4. Better Circulation
Pranayama practices can improve blood circulation by enhancing oxygen delivery to the body's cells and promoting the efficient removal of unnecessary energy.
5. Emotional Balance
Pranayama can help regulate emotions and promote a sense of inner calm. It's believed to have a positive impact on mood and emotional well-being.
6. Enhanced Relaxation and Sleep
Pranayama techniques that focus on slow, deep breathing can activate the body's relaxation response, aiding in better sleep and reducing insomnia.
7. Improved DigestioN
Some pranayama techniques, like Sheetali and Sheetkari, have a cooling effect on the body and can help improve digestion and reduce acidity.
8. Spiritual Growth and self-awareness
In the context of yoga and meditation, pranayama is seen as a tool for connecting with the inner self and higher consciousness. It's believed to facilitate spiritual growth and self-awareness.
The art of the ancient practices of Pranayama is rooted in thousands of years of observation-based practice and is further supported by the modern understanding of human physiology.
Having established your own breath awareness practice is paramount to authentically being able to teach it, from there introducing pranayama techniques to your students requires humility to meet each student where they are at.
When introducing pranayama, start slowly, your students may be complete beginners who are unfamiliar with bringing awareness to the breath. There may likely be some disassociation or discomfort in doing so. In Eastern medical traditions such as Ayurveda and Chinese medicine, it is understood that stagnation of life force energy is what creates disease within the physical and mental body. Under a modern lens, we see evidence that proper breath positively impacts all areas of being.
Begin by simply establishing a comfortable seat and inviting students to become aware of the breath as it already is. From there introducing introductory techniques such as a deep diaphragmatic breath, Dirga Pranayama, and Nadi Shodhana.
Complete beginners are likely to find breath retention somewhat uncomfortable and it is advised that these are worked up to. When a practitioner is ready to explore retentions it is best to explore short and controlled retentions as a base and work from there.
It's important to remember that individual responses to pranayama can vary. Regular and mindful practice, along with proper guidance, can help individuals experience a range of mental, physiological, and spiritual benefits. Establishing a personal pranayama practice invites practitioners to listen to their bodies and practice within their edges.
“The breath is our best and most intimately available teacher of the deepest principles of Yoga”
Pranayama is a complementary practice that can be combined into all other aspects of life, if nothing else one can always take a
moment to find the breath and return to self.
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