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Pranayama - Comprehensive Guide

Pranayama can be described simply as the control of breath. Breathing is essential to life and through its control you can ensure that your lungs are used to their full capacity through the practice of Pranayama. Regular practice has massive health benefits on cardiovascular health and also helps reduce stress, and anxiety, which have been backed by science. Yoga is incomplete without Pranayama.

What is Pranayama?

The word pranayama is comprised of two roots: ‘prana’ plus ‘ayama’. Prana means ‘vital energy’ or ‘life force’.Ayama is defined as ‘extension’ or ‘expansion’. Thus, the word pranayama means ‘extension or expansion of the dimension of prana’. The techniques of pranayama provide the method whereby the life force can be activated and regulated in order to go beyond one’s normal boundaries or limitations and attain a higher state of vibratory energy and awareness. 

In The Science of Pranayama, Swami Sivananda writes, “There is an intimate connection between the breath, nerve currents and control of the inner prana or vital forces. Prana becomes visible on the physical plane as motion and action, and on the mental plane as thought. Pranayama is the means by which a yogi tries to realize within his individual body the whole cosmic nature, and attempts to attain perfection by attaining all the powers of the universe.”

Pranayama in Hatha Yoga Pradipika

pranayama Benefits

  • Rhythmic, deep and slow respiration stimulates and is stimulated by calm, content, states of mind.
  • Pranayama establishes regular breathing patterns, breaking this negative cycle and reversing the debilitating process.
  • Through the practice of pranayama, the energy trapped in neurotic, unconscious mental patterns may be released for use in more creative and joyful activity.
  • A slow breathing rate keeps the heart stronger and better nourished and  contributes to a longer life. 
  • Deep breathing also increases the absorption of energy by pranamaya kosha, enhancing dynamism, vitality and general well-being.

precautions while Doing pranayama

  • The main points are to exercise moderation, balance and common sense with regard to inner and outer thinking and living.
  • Pranayama should not be practised during illness, although simple techniques such as breath awareness and abdominal breathing in shavasana may be performed.
  • Do not take a bath for at least half an hour after the practice to allow the body temperature to normalize.
  • Practise before eating in the morning or wait at least three to four hours after meals before starting pranayama.
  • Always breathe through the nose and not the mouth unless specifically instructed otherwise. Both nostrils must be clear and flowing freely.
  • Pranayama should be performed after shat­ karmas and asanas, and before meditation practice.
  • Nadi shodhana pranayama should be practised in each pranayama session as its balancing and purifYing effects form the basis for successful pranayama.
  • After practising pranayama, one may lie down in shavasana for a few minutes.
  • The body should be as relaxed as possible throughout the practice with the spine, neck and head erect.
  • Breath retention should only be practised for as long as is comfortable. The lungs are very delicate organs and any misuse can easily cause them injury.

Four aspects of pranayama

In the pranayama practices there are four important aspects of breathing that are utilized. These are:

  1. Pooraka or inhalation 
  2. Rechaka or exhalation
  3. Antar kumbhaka or internal breath retention
  4. Bahir kumbhaka or external breath retention.

There is another mode of pranayama, which is called kevala kumbhaka or spontaneous breath retention. This is an advanced stage of pranayama which occurs during high states of meditation. During this state, the fluctuation of prana ceases. The most important part of pranayama is actually kumbhaka or breath retention.

The Pranic Body

The Pranic Body in Pranayama

According to yogic physiology, the human framework comprises five bodies or sheaths, which account for the different aspects or dimensions of human existence. These five sheaths are known as:

  1. Annamaya kosha, the food or material body
  2. Manomaya kosha, the mental body
  3. Pranamaya kosha, the bioplasmic or vital energy body 
  4. Vijnanamaya kosha, the psychic or higher mental body 
  5. Anandamaya kosha, the transcendental or bliss body.

Pranamaya kosha is made up of five major pranas

  1. Prana: Prana in this context does not refer to cosmic prana, but rather to just one flow of energy, governing the thoracic area between the larynx and the top of the diaphragm. It is associated with the heart and organs of respiration together with the muscles and nerves that activate them. It is the force by which the breath is drawn inside.
  2. Apana: It governs the abdomen, below the navel region, and provides energy for the large intestine, kidneys, anus and genitals. It is concerned with the expulsion of waste from the body and is the force which expels the breath.
  3. Samantha: It is located between the heart and the navel. It activates and controls the digestive system: the liver, intestines, pancreas and stomach, and their secretions. Samana is responsible for transformation. On a physical level this relates to the assimilation and distribution of nutrients. On an evolutionary level it relates to kundalini and expansion of consciOusness.
  4. Udana: It governs the neck and head, activating all the sensory receptors such as the eyes, tongue, nose and ears. Udana also harmonizes and activates the limbs and all their associated muscles, ligaments, nerves and joints. It is responsible for the erect posture of the body, sensory awareness, and the ability to respond to the outside world.
  5. Vyana : It pervades the whole body, regulating and controlling all movement, and coordinating the other pranas. It acts as the reserve force for the other pranas.

Along with these five major pranas there are five minor pranas known as the upa-pranas: naga, koorma, krikara, devadatta and dhananjaya. Naga is responsible for belching and hiccups. Koorma opens the eyes and stimulates blinking. Krikara generates hunger, thirst, sneezing and coughing. Devadatta induces sleep and yawning. Dhananjaya lingers after death and upon its departure, decay and decomposition of the body begins to happen.

Preparatory practices

  1. Natural breathing
  2. Abdominal breathing or diaphragmatic breathing
  3. Thoracic breathing
  4. Clavicular breathing
  5. Yogic breathing

Types of Pranayamas  

  1. Nadi Shodhan Pranayama (Psychic network purification)
  2. Sheetali Pranayama (Cooling breath)
  3. Sheetkari Pranayama (Hissing breath)
  4. Bhramari Pranayama (Humming bee breath)
  5. Ujjayi Pranayama (The psychic breath)
  6. Bhastrika Pranayama (Bellows breath)
  7. Kapalbhati Pranayama (Frontal brain cleansing breath)
  8. Moorchha Pranayama (Swooning or fainting breath)
  9. Surya Bhedi Pranayama (Vitality stimulating breath)

Pranayama in the Bhagawad Gita

Pranayma has been mentioned even in the bhagawad Gita. The fourth chapter of Bhagwad Gita talks about breath control. “Others offer as sacrifice the out-going breath in the incoming, and the in-coming in the out-going, restraining the courses of the out-going and in-coming breaths, solely absorbed in the restraint of breath.”


Pranayama is an essential part of Yoga. Among the eight limbs of yoga, it is the fourth limb. Yoga is essentially incomplete without Pranayama. Doing Pranayama alone can solve many health issues since it leads to proper oxygen supply to the blood and consequently the brain. There are many types of pranayama (9 mentioned above). Some of these are a part of most yoga sequences. Learning these can help you comprehensively practice yoga.

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