Pranayama is a practice relating to the control and regulation of the breath through specific breathing techniques and exercises. Pranayama helps us to clear physical and emotional blocks or obstacles in the body so that the breath, and prana, can flow.
Pranayama uses the breath to direct and expand the flow of prana through energy channels in our bodies - called the nadis. While attention to the breath is a central part of any yoga practice, Pranayama involves specific breathing exercises that can be practiced on their own, or as part of a Hatha yoga (physical yoga) practice.
History and origins
The Sanskrit word Pranayama comes from Prana (life energy) and Ayama (to extend, draw out). The practice of Pranayama dates back to ancient India and the origins of yoga, said to be around sixth and fifth centuries BCE. Pranayama is mentioned in early yoga texts such as the Bhagavad Gita, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
Pranayama is the fourth of Patanjali’s 8 limb path of yoga following the Yamas, Niyamas and Asana. It prepares the mind and body for the next four limbs of yoga:
"When we practice Pranayama the veil is gradually drawn away from the mind and there is growing clarity. The mind becomes ready for deep meditation" (yoga sutra 2.52)
Read more about the 8 limbs of yoga in Emma Newlyn’s series on the Yamas and Niyamas
Philosophy & Principles
Clearing the obstacles so that breath and prana (life energy) can flow
The guiding principle behind Pranayama is that we all hold physical or emotional blocks in our bodies which inhibit the flow of breath and of prana - life energy. This can leave us feeling unwell and “stuck” or blocked physically and emotionally. By practicing Pranayama (and asana) we are clearing these blocks so breath and prana can flow freely, our bodies can then function properly and our minds can become calmer and clearer.
In the West our focus is often on the ‘asana’ part of a yoga practice, but Pranayama is just as essential
The focus on asana in yoga (more than Pranayama and meditation) is a recent phenomenon in yoga’s history.
“Yoga isn’t yoga without attention and awareness on Pranayama. Deep cleansing breaths allow you to deepen your practice and cleanse the mind of any clutter, which in turn allows you to enter a meditative state - conducive to a true yoga practice and lifestyle.”
Key principles of practice
Pranayama techniques focus on one or more of the four parts of the breath.
- Inhalation (puraka)
- Internal retention (antara-khumbaka)
- Exhalation (rechaka)
- External retention (bahya-khumbaka)
Practice should be built up gradually starting with simple breath awareness exercises and Ujjayi breathing then Nadi Shodhana (Alternative Nostril Breathing) before moving onto retention of the breath. The aim is not to see how long you can hold your breath for. The breath to be smooth and even and never strained even after breath retention.
The yogic texts say that Pranayama should come after one has developed an asana practice. Practicing yoga poses prepares the body to be able to sit for periods of meditation and Pranayama.
While this is a benefit for many people, they are not suitable for pregnant women and women who are menstruating. Any practice which includes breath retention is not recommended for people who have issues with their heart or blood pressure.
For more details about different Pranayama techniques, take a look at the Ten Days of Pranayama program. Always speak with your GP / health professional if you have health conditions before starting a yoga or Pranayama practice.
The practice of Pranayama today
Pranayama is taught either on its own or as part of a yoga class. If it is part of a yoga class it will be sequenced according to the different effect it brings. For example, a class may start with breath awareness and seated Ujjayi breathing to calm the body and mind and draw the focus inwards. Kapalabhati could be included to energize and to activate the core and Nadi Shodhana practiced to calm down again at the end.
Ashtanga Yoga and Vinyasa Yoga generally use Ujjayi breathing throughout the class up to the point of Savasana to create heat, focus and awareness in the body.
The benefits of a regular Pranayama practice
Practicing Pranayama regularly helps to improve general health and wellbeing by allowing the breath and prana to flow freely in the body. It can improve mood, sleep, energy levels and digestion.
Different types of Pranayama have specific benefits. For example, some such as Kapalabhati Pranayama (Skull Shining Breath) are energizing and detoxifying with a fast rhythm. They use strong abdominal contractions to expel the breath so they tone the abdominal muscles as well.
Other types of Pranayama are balancing or relaxing like Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing) where inhalations and exhalations are equal length.