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What is Prāṇāyāma?

What is Prāṇāyāma?

The two words broken down 'Prāṇā' and 'Ayāma' mean the following; 'Prāṇā' is the subtle life force. It also means breath, respiration, vitality and energy. 'Ayāma' is control. Or restraint. Extension. To stretch, regulate, expand or prolong.

The word 'Prāṇāyama' itself simply means the expansion of this subtle life force. It means prolongation of breath and its restraint. The śivasaṁhitā (one of the earliest texts on hatha yoga) calls it vāyu sādhana (vāyu = breath; sādhana = practice, quest).

Prāṇā is not like a gross physical energy - it is a subtle energy. Prāṇā or prāṇā-sakti is a life principle or life force. This life force expresses itself in the breath. B.K.S Iyengar (2005) says; "Prāṇā is usually translated as breath, yet breath is just one of the many manifestations of Prāṇā within the human body". Iyengar adds that it is as difficult to explain Prāṇā as it is to explain God. According to Jaideva Singh (1979); "Prāṇā is subtle biological energy which catches the breath and transmits this to the physical body". So Prāṇā is the transportation system that carries oxygen into your body. Both are intwined. Swami Vivekananda (1947) says; "Prāṇā is the driving power of the world, and can be seen in every manifestation of life."

Other commentators have referred to Prāṇā as the breath, rather than the energy that carries the breath. As always there are different interpretations. Rajneesh (2012) says; "Breathing is the mechanism of life, and life is deeply related with breathing. That is why in India we call it Prāṇā . We have given one word for both – Prāṇā means the vitality, the aliveness. Your life is your breath." The Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra (the birth of Yoga) says it takes mastery of breathing to experience Prāṇā. It takes years to become so sensitive to the subtle sensations of breathing, you must experience the breath in like "a touch", this is the moment the breath is known. Then, says Tantra, you will have known Prāṇā – the vitality. Prāṇā is experienced upon mastery of the breath.

B.K.S Iyengar in Light on Life (2006) says the following on Prāṇā -

"All vibrating energies are Prāṇā. We give many names to God, even though He is One. The same is true of energy. There is nuclear energy, electrical energy, muscular energy, and mental energy. All of these are vital energy or life energy, called in Sanskrit, pranic energy or simply Prāṇā. Prāṇā is called Chi in China and Ki in Japan. Some suggest that the nearest traditional concept of Prāṇā in the West is the Holy Spirit of Christianity, a sacred power that is both immanent and transcendent. Prāṇā is also often called wind, vital air. The Bible begins its description of Creation with the sentence, “God’s breath moved upon the waters.” Prāṇā is God’s breath. Prāṇā is the energy permeating the universe at all levels. It is physical, mental, intellectual, sexual, spiritual, and cosmic energy."

B.K.S Iyengar on Light on Pranayama (2005) -

Prāṇāyāma is a conscious prolongation of inhalation, retention and exhalation. Inhalation os the act of receiving the primeval energy in the form of the breath, retention is when the breath is held in order to savour that energy. In exhalation all thoughts and emotions are emptied with breath: then, while the lungs are empty, one surrenders the individual energy, 'I', to the primeval energy, the Ātma (soul). The practice of Prāṇāyāma develops a steady mind, strong will-power and sound judgement.

So important is Prāṇā to the yogi, when the first yogi Śhiva outlined 112 ways towards self-realisation, the first 8 techniques (or dharanas) are all about the understanding of inhalation and exhalation. The first technique is as follows -

Dharana 1 - "Radiant one (Śhiva speaking to his wife Parvati), this experience (self -realisation) may dawn between two breaths. After breath comes in and just before turning up — the beneficence".

A brief non poetic summary of this technique is to focus on the momentary pause between the inhale and exhale.

The commentary says; "By constant practice of this dharana, the yogi will realise the state of plenitude of a higher state".

After you breathe in and just before breathing out, there, "the beneficence" according to the first Yogi Śhiva. Be 'aware' between these two points. This is the essence of this technique. When your breath comes in you observe. There is a pause even for a single moment, or a thousandth part of a moment, there is no breathing. Hold your breath.

Then, you will breathe out. After FULLY exhaling, then again for a single moment, or a part of a moment, breathing stops. Then you breathe in again. In those moments where breathing has stopped, Shiva says the "happening" is possible, because when you are not breathing you are not in the world.

"In Tantra, each exhale is a death and each inhale is a rebirth. Breath coming in is rebirth; breath going out is death. The exhale is synonymous with death; the incoming breath is synonymous with life. So with each breath you are dying and being reborn. The gap between the two is of a very short duration, but keen, sincere observation and attention will make you feel the gap. If you can feel the gap, Śhiva says, the beneficence . Then nothing else is needed. You are blessed, you have known".

The above technique displays the importance of the breathe. Breath is the universal factor of life. We are born – and the first thing we do is to inhale, and when we die, the last thing we do is to exhale. Breath is life itself.

What does B.K.S. Iyengar say of Prāṇāyāma?

"Breath is the vehicle of our consciousness and so, by its slow, measured observation and distribution, we learn to tug our attention away from external desires (vasana) toward a judicious, intelligent awareness (prajna). As breath stills our mind, our energies are free to unhook from the senses and bend inward to pursue the inner quest with heightened, dynamic awareness. Prāṇāyāma is not performed by the power of will. The breath must be enticed or cajoled, like catching a horse in a field, not by chasing after it, but by standing still with an apple in one’s hand. In this way, Prāṇāyāma teaches humility and frees us from greed or hankering after the fruits of our actions. Nothing can be forced; receptivity is everything."

A very basic Prāṇāyāma technique -

It's important to approach Prāṇāyāma with caution. Although asanas and prāṇāyāma are interrelated and interwoven. Patanjali clearly specifies that prāṇāyāma should be attempted only after the asanas are "mastered". This according to Iyengar, is when the asanas have "becomes effortless as the blemishes on both the gross and the subtle body are washed off. The experience of asana is now without effort."

Although one should wait until mastery of asana before commencing a deeper prāṇāyāma practice, there are some breathing exercises you can do that will supplement your asana practice. These few basic techniques will not stress your system in the same way the more advanced techniques would (hence Patanjali's warning).

The most basic breathing technique that can be used alongside asana is the technique known as "Nadi Shodhana". Or, Alternate Nostril Breathing. I use this technique before class to encourage the students to breathe more efficiently through both nostrils. When I have observed students close-up (whilst adjusting in a pose), I have often noticed the breathing is not even. Meaning that the inhale is stronger through one nostril more than the other. There also appears to be no pause between inhale and exhale. To be fair to the students, how can we expect them to breathe easier in class when we have not shown them how to breathe correctly in the first place?

Although a very basic and universally accessible breathing technique, one should always apply caution before participating. Interestingly, B.K.S Iyengar considers this a very advanced technique. I was always told this was the most basic. So apply caution and don't force the breathing. Stop at any stage if your body does not agree with it or there is any light headedness.

The Technique -

Sit comfortably with your spine erect and shoulders relaxed.

Place your left hand on the left knee.

Place the tip of the index finger and middle finger of the right hand in between the eyebrows and the thumb on the right nostril.

Press your thumb down on the right nostril and breathe in from the left nostril. Pause - and then press the left nostril gently with the ring finger of the right hand.

Removing the right thumb from the right nostril, breathe out from the right. Complete the exhalation.

Breathe in from the right nostril and exhale from the left.

You have now completed one round of Nadi Shodhan pranayama. Continue inhaling and exhaling from alternate nostrils. Complete 4-9 such rounds by alternately breathing through both the nostrils. After every exhalation, remember to breathe in from the same nostril from which you exhaled.

Keep your eyes closed throughout and continue taking long, deep, smooth breaths without any force or effort.

B.K.S. Iyengar says; "In prāṇāyāma, the cells of the brain and the facial muscles remain soft and receptive, and the breath is drawn in or released gently. During inhalation, each molecule, fibre, and cell of the body is independently felt by the mind, and is allowed to receive and absorb the prāṇā. There are no sudden movements and one becomes aware of the gradual expansion of the respiratory organs, and feels the breath reaching the remotest parts of the lungs. In exhalation, the release of breath is gradual, and this gives the air cells sufficient time to re-absorb the residual prāṇā to the maximum possible extent. This allows for the full utilisation of energy, thus building up emotional stability and calming the mind."

I see "Nadi Shodhana" as a very basic technique that helps the student breathe more efficiently during their asana. I don't personally consider this advanced prāṇāyāma, rather a means to help the body master asana. In order to master asana and move on to prāṇāyāma (according to Patanjali's 8 limbs), it appears as though a fundamental understanding of prāṇāyāma and one technique in particular is required.

Quotes on Prāṇā -

"Prāṇā, according to the Vedanta, is the principle of life. It is like ether, an omnipresent principle; and all motion, either in the body or anywhere else, is the work of this Prāṇā. It is greater than Akasha, and through it everything lives. Prāṇā is in the mother, in the father, in the sister, in the teacher, Prāṇā is the knower." - Swami Vivekananda

"The practice of asanas removes the obstructions, which impede the flow of Prāṇā. During prāṇāyāma, one should be totally absorbed in the fineness of inhalation, exhalation, and in the naturalness of retention. One should not disturb or jerk the vital organs and nerves, or stress the brain cells. The brain is the instrument which observes the smooth flow of inhalation and exhalation. One must be aware of the interruptions which occur during a single inhalation and exhalation. Check these, and a smooth flow will set in. Similarly, during retention of breath, learn to retain the first indrawn breath with stability. If this stability is lost, it is better to release the breath, rather than strain to hold it. While inhaling or retaining the breath in a pranayamic cycle, remember to ensure that the abdomen does not swell." - BKS Iyengar

"Every cell in our body has the capacity to hold infinity. Let us tap the full potential that nature has bestowed on us, the potential to hold infinity in every cell of the body. For that, we must practice meditation regularly. Then our physiology undergoes a change and every cell in the body is filled with prana - life force. As the level of Prāṇā in the body rises, we bubble with joy." - Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

"A genuine smile distributes the cosmic current, Prāṇā to every body cell. The happy man is less subject to disease, for happiness actually attracts into the body a greater supply of the Universal life energy." - Paramahansa Yogananda

Summary -

With unconscious control of our breath, we are able to maintain life. This is no small achievement. This is a miracle in itself. Every moment of the day that we function is due to the unconscious management of our breath. When we see first-hand what occurs when oxygen is deprived, we start to appreciate why the people of the sub-continent worship this prāṇā-sakti as a goddess. Mother nature is the giver of life.

Through unconscious control of our breath, not only are we able to survive, we are also capable of achieving amazing feats. Athletically, intellectually and even spiritually.

The science of hatha yoga explores what possibilities lay ahead of us if we are able to control the very prāṇā that is responsible for life. If without thinking about our prāṇā we as humans can achieve so much, imagine the possibilities if we were able to control, direct and expand our prāṇā. Through control, we can then control our mind and perhaps experience a higher state of being (the true goal for a yogi). Control and direction of prāṇā/breathing may appear difficult at first, but similar to asana practise, with time the methods become steady and comfortable. Supposedly the great Lao Tzu once said; "A perfect man breathes as if he is not breathing".


Ann Myren (Editor),‎ Dorothy Madison (Editor), B., 1993. Living at the Source: Yoga Teachings of Vivekananda (Shambhala Dragon Editions). 2nd ed. India: Shambhala; New edition edition (19 Dec. 1993).

by B. K. S. Iyengar (Author), B., 2005. Light on Pranayama. 2nd ed. India: HarperCollins; New edition edition (17 Oct. 2005).

Iyengar, B., 2007. The Path to Holistic Health: The Definitive Step-by-Step Guide. 2nd ed. London: DK; UK ed. edition (16 Jan. 2014)

Iyengar, B., 2008. Light on Life: The Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace and Ultimate Freedom. 2nd ed. London: Rodale; Reprints edition (2 May 2008).

by James Mallinson (Author), B., 2007. The Shiva Samhita: A Critical Edition and an English Translation. 2nd ed. India:; Bilingual edition (1 Jan. 2007).

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Paramahansa Yogananda, P., 2016. Scientific Healing Affirmations. 3rd ed. India: Stellar Editions (9 Mar. 2016).

Jaideva Singh, J., 2002. Vijnana-bhairava or Divine Consciousness: A Treasury of 112 Types of Yoga. 3rd ed. India: Motilal Banarsidass,; New edition edition (Dec. 2002).

Swami Muktibodhananda, S., 1998. Hatha Yoga Pradipika. 4th ed. London: Bihar School of Yoga,India; 4th Rep edition (9 Jan. 1998).

Swami Vivekananda, S., 1947. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Complete set in 8 volumes (8 Volume Set). 1st ed. India: Advaita Ashram; 1st edition (1 Jan. 1947).

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