Pranayama is a practice relating to the control and regulation of the breath through specific breathing techniques and exercises. Pranayama exercises help us to clear physical and emotional blocks or obstacles in the body so that the breath, and prana, can flow freely.
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 either be practised on their own, or as part of a Hatha yoga (physical yoga) practice.
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)
Key principles of practice
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 practising 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.
Read more in – What is Pranayama?
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.
Most kinds of Pranayama are practised sitting down with an upright spine for example in Sukhasana / Cross-legged Pose, Virasana / Hero’s Pose (on props if needed) or Padmasana / Lotus Pose.
Some Pranayama practices should be avoided by certain groups of people. For example, Nauli Kriya (Abdominal massage) and Kapalabhati Pranayama (Skull Shining Breath) are very strong on the abdominal muscles. 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. If in doubt consult your doctor or health professional if you have health conditions before starting a yoga or Pranayama practice.
For more details about different Pranayama techniques, take a look at the Ten Days of Pranayama program.
The benefits of a regular Pranayama practice
Practising 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) or Sama Vritti (Equal Breathing) where inhalations and exhalations are equal length.
Read Pranayama – the benefits for more details about specific techniques and their benefits.