Yogic Breathing: Pranayama
Prana: breath, life, vitality, wind, energy, strength
Yama: cultivated behavior, state, attitude, restraint
According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (c.200 BCE) the Fourth Limb of Yoga is Pranayama. The ancient yogis developed many breathing techniques to maximize the benefits of prana. Pranayama is used in yoga as a separate practice to help cleanse the body and mind. It is also used in preparation for meditation, and in conjunction with asanas to help maximize the benefits of the practice, and to focus the mind.
The practice of pranayama is the cultivation of a state of maximum vital energy in the body and refined mastery over the mind. With pranayama, one regulates the breath as a means of accessing the deeper levels of life energy and subtle states of mental control. Prana is much more than simply “breath”, however breath is the easiest way to access this energy.
The mind is inextricably and unconsciously linked to the breath; when we become excited, our breath speeds up, as we relax, our breath slows down. By mastering the breath, we begin to quiet the reactionary nature of the mind/sense relationship, making ourselves better able to concentrate and meditate. As we learn to interrupt the unconscious reactions (samskaras) in our daily lives, we begin to master the unknown parts of the Self.
As we begin to see that perception is a function of the state of our own minds (not external circumstances), we learn to see ourselves not as fixed identities, but as fluid states of our own perceptions. As our eyes are cleansed we begin to see and feel a new beauty in the world beyond all our dreams and expectations.
There are three stages to the breathing process. Inhalation, (puraka) stimulates the body. Retention (kumbhaka), where the body temperature is raised and the oxygen is absorbed, and exhalation (rechak), where the body cools. Classic pranayama teaches that during the retention segment, one should accumulate the prana, then store the prana in the Manipura (power) Chakra during the exhalation.
Dirgha, Circle Breathing, Prana Sukha, Bhramari, Nadi Shodhana or Anuloma Viloma, Sitkari and Sithali Kumbaka
Vitalic Breath, Pranavayu Rasa, Kapalabhati, Ujjayi, Bastrika, Surya Bheda
There are five sutras that pertain directly to Pranayama.
“This (steady-easy posture) being established, one is ready for cultivating life energy by regulating the inhales and the exhales.”
What is meant by this sutra is that once one achieves a sufficient level of mastery over posture, one is now ready to begin mastering the subtler energies of life through regulating the breath.
“The movement of the life breath is exhalation, inhalation and suspension, and they are to be mastered in space, time and number. They are either long or short.”
This sutra gives us the basic guidelines of how to go about regulating the breath. What is meant by “space” is the attention paid to the breath. “Time” refers to the duration of the inhalation, exhalation, or suspension. And “number” refers to how many times we do it.
As with all yoga, it is important to work with a qualified instructor, as pranayama is a very powerful practice. Taken on prematurely or without proper care can result in serious damage or, according to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, can even result in death.
“The fourth type of pranayama is beyond inhalation and exhalation.”
This is the state one achieves when the mind becomes very still. This creates a simultaneous stillness in the breath. Automatically, the breath may even stop completely when the still mind occurs. This pranayama usually comes after one has been practicing and is sitting in total stillness for some time.
“Then that which clouds the clarity of perception is destroyed.”
This and the following sutra refer to the benefits of pranayama practice. When one begins to master the inhalation, exhalation, and the suspension of the breath, one starts to see how one is constantly reacting unconsciously.
“And the mind is now fit for concentration.”
The nature of human attention is to continually move from thought to thought, to external stimuli, to internal stimuli, to thought, etc. All of this movement is reflected by subtle or sometimes dramatic changes in the breath. When one masters the flow of the breath for an extended period of time, the flow of the mind is automatically mastered. Powerful focus is a natural outcome of this process, thus the practitioner becomes ready for deep meditation and concentration.
The Three-part or Complete Breath
Calms the mind and relaxes the body. Also oxygenates the blood and purges the lungs of residual carbon dioxide. Slows the heart rate and has a calming effect on the central nervous system. Promotes proper diaphragmatic breathing, and contributes to the ability to fill the three chambers of the lungs, from the bottom to the top.
Sit with your spine erect, or lie down on your back. Begin taking long, slow, and deep breaths through the nostrils.
The first position is centered on top of or just below the belly button, the second position is the solar plexus or low chest (lower half of the rib cage), and the third position (clavicular region) is the high chest and low throat, just above the top of the sternum. The breath is continuous, inhaled and exhaled through the nose. Start by releasing all the air out of your lungs, gently contracting the abdomen to help. Inhale deeply, drawing the breath into low belly; then the low chest; then to the low throat. The exhalation reverses the order; it starts in the low throat, moves to the low chest, and finishes in the low belly.
When you start practicing, you may want to individually isolate the movement in each position, using the hands. When you feel you have mastered each position, practice without the hands. Eventually relax the effort of the pranayama and breathe into the three positions gently, feeling a wave of breath move up and down the torso. Notice if the spine itself is taking part in the wave.
The following is a classical method: As above, but during the inhalation, gradually contract your anal sphincter (Mula Bhanda; the contraction of the perineum), reaching the maximum contraction as you arrive at the top of the inhale. Then, while retaining your Mula Bhanda for seven seconds, hold the air in your lungs by attempting to take in more air (not by closing the throat). Reverse process, taking seven seconds. Wait for seven seconds taking in no air.
Therefore: 7 seconds in, 7 seconds retain, 7 seconds releasing, and 7 seconds retain.
Try this for 10 cycles, and build up to 10 minutes at a sitting.
When to do it
During asana practice, prior to meditation or relaxation, or anytime you feel like it.
Calming and restoring
This is perhaps the most fundamental of all pranayama. It can be a part of your regular mantra or yantra meditations. This form of pranayama was introduced into the United States by Leonard Orr, and is also called “rebirthing,” or “conscious breathing.” Holotropic, and other forms of breathwork are based upon this form of pranayama.
Picture your breathing as a cycle, breathing deeply into your belly (yogic breath). Breath fully starting slowly (about 7 seconds for the in-breath and 7 seconds for out-breath), eyes closed. Speed up the breathing after about 20 minutes, so that eventually you are taking only 2 seconds to breathe in and two seconds to breathe out. Breathe through the nose, and do not stop at the top or bottom of your breath.
Be aware of any emotions or pictures that arise; do not become attached to them, simply remember them for future reference.
One can take anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour to arrive at the two-second breath.
Drink lots of water before and after.
The Gheranda Samhita suggests: “In entering, the breath makes the sound ‘SOH’ and in exiting, the sound ‘HAM.’” Thus the breath makes the power word SOHAM; (or, I am It). The subtle sound reverberates in the root, heart, and third-eye Chakras. This repetition must be maintained consciously. This can be achieved through the nose or the mouth, but the nose is preferable. Another measuring process is feeling the rhythm of a mantra.
When to do it
No restrictions, whenever you like.
Breath of joy and healing, joyous life-force.
Sukha slows down the breathing, which is beneficial to both body and mind.
This breath is the simplest extension of simple prana into “rhythm.” One must consciously alter the time spent on each part of the breathing cycle. The rhythm of Prana Sukha is said to be perfectly suited to extraction of vital energy from the atmosphere.
The ratio of inhalation/retention/exhalation is 1:4:2. In other words, inhale, hold breath four times as long as inhalation takes, then exhale, taking twice as long as inhalation. The inhalation establishes the time ratio for the other two; never progress into discomfort. Generally, begin by inhaling just slightly longer than normal; then add the proportions. Gradually increase, staying within your comfort space.
As with “Circle Breath” you may add the power word SAHAM to the two sides of the breath.
NB: Do not count, either mentally or verbally, the rhythm lengths. Counting is a logical process which will usually interfere with meditative/spiritual abstract practice. Measure the rhythm against pulse, heartbeat, or by focussing the mind on the sounds of the inhalation and exhalation, and/or of the heart beating during retention. This is ideal, as it creates an audio rhythm and helps the body and mind merge.
When to do it
No restrictions, anytime you wish.
The bee breath
Calming; soothes the nerves and softens the mind, aids concentration, and provides a feeling of oneness with body and breath. It can help to induce meditation.
Several of the oldest Tantra texts state that the body is a Yantra (an object, symbol or some mechanical means to worship the divine), while the breath is its Mantra. In order to facilitate better understanding of this concept, Bhramari is an excellent starting point. It is a consciousness, rather than a simple autonomic nervous system function; it assists in the ability to experience the difference between prana and air.
1. Exhale all stale air from lungs, gently contracting deep abdominal muscles to squeeze out the last remnants.
2. Inhale through both nostrils slowly, while making a buzzing sound, like that of a bee.
3. Retain for a few seconds (as long as comfortable; working toward longer retention, but without forcing). Concentrate on storing the prana in the Manipura Chakra. (Classic texts recommend 7 seconds for the retention).
4. Exhale through both nostrils making a humming sound.
Do 5-10 rounds. Focus your mind on the sounds during inhalation and exhalation, and on vital life energy being stored and saved during the retention segment. If possible, make the buzzing and humming noises louder as you progress, but do not strain. Some practitioners will partially close the glottis as you inhale through both nostrils; this is not recommended for beginners.
Block off the right nostril with the thumb using Visnu mudra (as in Nadi sodhna pranayama) and inhale through the left nostril using Ujjayi pranayama. Exhale through the left nostril. Block off the left nostril and repeat on other side, practicing for 5-10 rounds.
Beginner: Do practice without retention, for 5-10 cycles.
Advanced: Use retention, start with 10 cycles, adding more, up to 10 minutes.
When to do it
Most any time.
Nadi Shodhana or Anuloma Viloma
Nadi: Channel (refers to the energy pathways through which prana flows).
Balancing, relaxing, anti-anxiety. Calms the mind, soothes anxiety and stress, balances left and right hemispheres, promotes clear thinking. This will make both sides of the brain (the left side being responsible for logical thinking and the right side being responsible for creative thinking) to function properly. Also known as the Solar-Lunar Breath, it is a major key to control of tantric sexual energy. Solar breath = Siva, transcendence; lunar breath = Sakthi, creative energy. When both exist in balance, the Kundalina life-force travels the Great Axis (spinal column), rising through the chakras.
“The sweet breath” is a simple form of alternate-nostril breathing suitable for beginning and advanced students. The left nostril is the path of the Nadi called Ida and the right nostril is the path of the Nadi called Pingala. If you are reasonably healthy, you will breathe predominantly through the Ida nostril about one hour and fifty minutes, then through the Pingala nostril. Do this in a well-ventilated, clean, smoke-free, dust-free, odor-free room.
Sit in Padmasana or Siddhasana and close your eyes. Place the right hand in Vishnu Mudra (forefinger and middle finger bent towards the palm; thumb, ring, and pinkie in the air). You can alternate hands throughout the practice, breath slowly.
Close right nostril (with thumb), inhale into left nostril,
Close left nostril (with ring and pinkie fingers), open right nostril,
exhale fully through the right nostril.
Close left nostril, inhale into the right nostril,
Close right nostril, open left, exhale through the left nostril.
Beginner: 5-20 rounds, gradually increasing over a period of time.
Advanced: As many as you want. May be practiced as an inhale-retain-exhale ratio of 2:8:4.
When to do it
Can be used as a centering technique before beginning an asana routine. Do not perform this technique after asanas.
Sitkari & Sithali Kumbaka
Sitkari and Sithali Kumbaka are unusual among yoga breathing exercises in that the inhalation is through the mouth. They are both imitations of the respiration of a serpent. Although slightly different they both achieve essentially the same goal. They are excellent exercises to cool the system in summer seasons. While they are good closing routines after Ashtanga, Bikram, or Vinyassa, they are not as necessary in the Northern hemisphere as they are in India.
The hissing breath
Cools the body, purifies the blood, and helps to quench the thirst.
Curl the tongue touching the roof of the mouth as far back as you can to the soft pallet. As you inhale clench the teeth together and slightly part the lips making a hissing “Si-si-si” sound. Then retain the breath as long as you can and exhale slowly through both nostrils. Exhale through both nostrils. Repeat 5-10 times.
The cooling breath
Cools the body, purifies the blood, and helps to quench the thirst. Also referred to as “Crow’s Beak”, it activates liver and spleen, and strengthens the subtle pranas of sight and sound. This is also used in Tantra Practices to merge apana and prana.
Roll the tongue into a tube (as best as you can) and stick the tip of the tongue out of the mouth. Inhale through the tongue with a hissing sound “Se,” and hold the breath in for 4-5 seconds with the chin pressed against the chest. Exhale using Ujjayi Pranayama through the nose. Repeat 5-10 times.
Practice this fifteen to thirty times daily.
Very easy. Strengthens lungs, energizes. Good for asthmatics or other cardiovascular challenges.
Sit. Inhale through the nose in short, sharp sniffs until lower, middle and upper lungs are expanded to capacity (full three-part breath). Blow out through mouth, making a loud HAAA! sound. If desired, focus on bringing in energizing prana, blowing out all tension and anything that separates you from realizing your spiritual goals. Release the abdominal muscles upon inhaling. Be sure to keep the throat open as possible; create the exhaled HAAA! sound from the energy of the diaphragm and belly, not from the throat; if your throat hurts after this exercise, you are manufacturing the sound incorrectly. Drink lots of water before and after.
As above, seated, but as you exhale, bend your entire body over your knees. Go right to the end of the exhale, even (especially) if a slight wheeze is all that is at the end. If coughing occurs, cough from the belly, not the throat. Keep throat open, and drift into the end of the exhalation. Wait for the inhalation to spark itself into the emergence of the short, sharp sniffs.
Advanced Practice 2
You can turn this into Lion’s Breath, by inhaling as you go into Downward Dog, then adding; sticking out the tongue and bugging the eyes as you HAAA! into Upward Dog.
NB: If you get a headache during this Practice there are a couple of probable causes; either, you are already very “Yang”, and this practice is not for you at this time. Or, your sinuses are blocked and the smaller air passages are causing too much pressure during the inhalation.
Beginner: 10 to 20 rounds, rest.
Advanced: 20 and over as desired.
When to do it
No restrictions, anytime you wish.
Recharges and energizes mind, body and spirit. Strengthens cardiovascular system.
The idea of recharging prana is to tap individual energy/life force (Atman) and unite it with universal energy/life force (Prana). Physically, it energizes, provides limbering of physical body, cleanses and exercises lungs.
Stand with eyes closed, or turned upward, focused on either the Ajna Chakra, (third eye) or the Muladara Chakra (solar plexus).
- Inhale. Holding the air in your lungs, swing arms twice back and forth forward vigorously, then exhale.
- Inhale. Stretch arms forward at 90 degrees from body, swing them out sideways at shoulder level twice, then exhale.
- Inhale. Swing arms up twice and down twice, parallel at sides, arch small of back slightly, then exhale.
- Inhale. Stretch arms slowly forward. Clench fists and pull them against the chest. Retain breath while shaking entire body. Exhale.
- Inhale. Swing arms overhead into a gentle backbend; exhale, drop your entire body forward into Uttanasana, arms, shoulders, neck released down. Inhale body up, etc.
Repeat a minimum of three times.
- Inhale. Swing arms overhead and bend body to the right from the waist, without collapsing the ribcage; focus on where you are feeling the stretch. Exhale while straightening, repeat to the left. Repeat a minimum of three times.
- Inhale, retain breath, massage ribs. Exhale.
- Inhale, retain breath, patting breasts or pectoral muscles. Exhale.
When to do it
Before asana or first thing in the morning is best, but can be done before bed as well.
Bhati: that which brings lightness
The Breath of Fire, Shining the Skull, Polishing the Skull, The Kundalini Breath
Increases energy and metabolism, clears the body of toxins, removes phlegm from the lungs. Kapalabhathi also pumps oxygen into the cells, increases hemoglobin levels, has soothing effect on many glands.
Kapalabhati is one the six Kriyas or purification practices, and is unparalleled in increasing metabolism and cleansing toxins from the body; it is therefore one of the backbone exercises of pranayama. Kapalabhati is useful when feeling sluggish, low on energy, heavy or foggy in the head. If we have problems with the sinuses or feel numb around the eyes, Kapalabhati can help to clear this area as well. It is important to insure you are using only abdominal (that is, diaphragmatic) breathing, not chest breathing, as there is a danger of creating tension in the breath. At the beginning, you may also become dizzy; if so, lie down on your belly and breathe in a relaxed manner.
This is an excellent practice for asthmatics, unless you have acute asthma and are prone to attacks easily. Do not practice if experiencing pregnancy, menstruation, unmedicated high blood pressure, or recent abdominal surgery.
Sit in Lotus, with legs crossed or in tailor position; back and head kept straight. Inhale passively through the nose. To exhale, pump the abdominal muscles quickly toward the spine, forcing the air out the nose (like a “nose sneeze”).
The sudden exhale acts on the diaphragm, which presses into the thoracic cavity, vigorously expelling the air from the lungs. This must be followed by a relaxation of the abdominal muscles, allowing the diaphragm to descend down into the abdominal cavity as the new inhalation rushes into the lungs. Therefore you should not run out of air. You should feel no tension in upper lungs, chest, or throat. Play with the speed (45–60 exhalations/30 seconds), but keep a steady tempo. Attention focused on Solar Plexus Chakra. Always conclude Kapalabhati with some slow breaths, emphasizing the long, ‘sigh’ exhalation. Sit quietly, and feel the effects on the mind and body.
A helpful addition is to, while breathing, visualize something in your life you would like to release out of your body, mind or spirit.
Beginner: 2 or 3 rounds of 20 to 50 breaths. Place hand on belly to feel pumping action.
Advanced: Up to 10 rounds of 50 to 120 breaths.
When to do it
In the morning or when feeling sluggish, or before or even during your asana practice.
The Victory or Ocean-Sounding Breath
Focuses the mind, generates internal heat, removes phlegm from the throat.
Often taught (consciously or unconsciously) as constricting the back of the throat while creating an “uh” sound. This is incorrect. There is some confusion regarding the amount of glottal contraction necessary.
“Closing the mouth, draw up the breath through the nostrils till the breath fills the space from throat to the heart (from low to high breathing) with a noise. Perform kumbaka or retention with bandhas and exhale through ida or left nostril. This removes the phelgm from the throat and increases the digestive power of the body. This is called ‘ujjayi.’”
Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Chapter II, 51 and 52
Many practitioners are turning what is a gentle contraction at the back of the throat into a full constriction of the swallowing muscles. There is already a widespread problem in our society involving the “fear of being heard”, or the “fear of speaking our minds”; many of us are already living with clenched throats. Therefore it is unwise to propagate this issue with what, for some, is an unhealthy method of achieving the “Darth Vader Breath”.
Find a comfortable seated position with your spine erect, or lie down on your back. Begin taking long, slow, and deep breaths through the nostrils.
Yawn with the mouth open, then close the mouth, maintaining the “yawn space” at the back of the throat; then inhale and exhale through the nose. Another technique is to simply think ‘ho’ as you inhale. There should be an “oh” or “ah” vowel being created; not a constricted “uh”.
Allow the breath to be gentle and relaxed; the sound should be smooth and continuous, not forced, and only loud enough so that someone close would hear.
Gradually lengthen the inhale/exhale without creating tension anywhere in your body.
Beginners: 5-10 rounds
Advanced: 10-50 rounds
Practice Variation for Advanced Students only
As above, including: At the end of the inhalation, perform Mula Bandha, and hold the breath with Jalandhara Bandha by pressing the chin against the chest. Hold as long as comfortable. Unlock the bandhas, then exhale the air through the left nostril by closing the right nostril with the thumb.
When to do it
During asana practice, before meditation, or anytime you want to concentrate.
Increases circulation and therefore refreshes the blood supply to the brain, tones the vascular and nervous systems and increases energy. Awakens kundalini.
This is the best exercise for awakening the kundalini after purifying the nadis and nervous system. Bhastrika increases the body temperature, which is followed by a reduced body temperature (owing to profuse perspiration), which aid in eliminating impurities. In whichever center your kundalini is active, that chakra may begin to generate a high amount of nerve energy, and your entire spinal cord may pulsate. Bhastrika performed properly breaks the three knots of grandhis: (1) brahma grandhi of the muladhara; (2) vishnu grandhi of manipura; and (3) rudra grandhi of ajna chakra. These knots are blocks that prevent the free movement of the pranic current in the sushumna. With the help of bhastrika these three knots are broken, allowing the kundalini to rise toward the Sahasrara chakra. All three Bandhas (Jalanhara, Mula, and Uddiyana) are firmly and carefully applied in order to unite the prana and apana.
1. Sit in any meditative pose. Pump your inhale and exhale rapidly through the nose ten times with emphasis on the exhalation, employing every muscle of your respiratory system. End on an inhalation.
2. Apply both Jalandhara (chin lock) and Mula Bandha (anal contraction) while retaining the breath. Concentrate on the Kundalini shakthi at the Muladhara chakra.
3. Raise your head and exhale through the right nostril to cool the body down.
4. Apply Uddiyana Bandha while taking several deep and relaxed regular breaths, then release the Bandha. This constitutes one round.
Begin your practice with three rounds of ten pumpings and then very gradually work up to a maximum of eight rounds of a hundred pumpings.
Beginners: 3 rounds of 10 pumpings. Be careful; do not overdo this exercise. Excess in practice may induce dizziness, drowsiness and loss of consciousness.
Advanced: To a maximum of 8 rounds of 100 pumpings.
When to do it
Early in the day, or before as asana practice.
Increase the heat of the body, good for heart and respiratory system, cleanses the frontal sinuses, hinders bodily decay. Also helps to take the prana to sushuman and thereby awaken kundalini.
This refers to the Breathing Exercise in which you inhale through the right nostril and exhale through the left, holding the inhaled breath as long as possible before exhaling. Beginners should expect to use their fingers in order to close either nostril, though you may eventually develop an ability to do this without using the fingers.
Sit in any meditative pose, preferably sidhasan. Close the eyes and repeat OM mentally. Keep the left nostril closed and without making any sound inhale as long as you can though the right nostril. Then close the right nostril with your right thumb and retain the breath by firmly pressing the chin against the chest (the chin lock or Jalandhara bandha).
Increase the kumbaka (retention) gradually. Then exhale very slowly without making any sound through the left nostril by closing the right nostril with the thumb. In Surya Bheda inhalation is always through the right nostril (surya nadi pingala). Start with ten rounds and gradually increase to forty rounds. While practicing this exercise, perspiration oozes from the roots of the hair, which is a healthy sign.
Beginner: Up to no more that ten rounds, without retention.
Advanced: Ten rounds and higher, adding retention.
When to do it
Early in the day.