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Yogic Breathing (Pranayama)

Pranayama removes the veil covering the light of knowledge and heralds the dawn of wisdom.

                                                                              -- Patanjali, Sutra II.52


Prana means life force and ayama means to expand. Pranayama is the expansion of life force through control of the breath. According to the Upanishads, the ancient Hindu philosophical texts, prana is the essence of life and consciousness, “an exalted knowledge…a road to prosperity, freedom and bliss.”


According to BKS Iyengar, “Prana is the energy permeating the universe at all levels. It is physical, mental, sexual, spiritual and cosmic energy. All vibrating energies are prana. All physical energies such as heat, light, gravity, magnetism, and electricity are also prana. It is the hidden and potential energy in all beings…it is the energy which creates, protects and destroys. Vigor, power, vitality, life and spirit are all forms of prana.”


Through breath control one can guide the subtle forces that move throughout the body. Pranayama is conscious breathing, not deep breathing. Cultivating breath control helps oxygenate the body and rid it of toxins to maintain health and increase longevity. It helps calm the mind and opens it to rejuvenation, concentration, and upliftment.


BKS Iyengar writes that: "We all breathe, but how many of us do so correctly, with attention? Bad posture, an ill-shaped or caved-in chest, obesity, emotional disorders, various lung troubles, smoking and uneven use of the respiratory muscles, lead to improper breathing, below one's capacity. We are aware of the discomfort and disability which then arises. Many subtle changes take place in our body as a result of poor breathing and bad posture, leading to heavy breathing, inadequate pulmonary function and aggravation of heart disease. Pranayama can help to prevent these disorders and help to check or cure them, so that one can live fully and well." 


Pranayama practice is the gateway between the outer world and the inner world, between an active asana practice and more advanced internal practices which lead us into deeper states of meditation. In asana practice, our will helps us perform. Through this act of will, we tone the body and learn focus, discernment and subtlety. In pranayama, however, acts of will squeeze the life out of the breath. Pranayama requires a more subtle approach; it requires more observation than action. The practice of pranayama starts where savasana (corpse pose) ends.

For this reason, Patanjali cautions students to become proficient in asanas and especially savasana before beginning pranayama. The qualities present in savasana – a lower base metabolic rate of heart, breath and mind – are essential in order to practice pranayama. 

Vivekananda observes that pranayama practiced improperly or casually may even lead to insanity, as pranayama rouses the unconscious mind. Practiced prematurely or mechanically, pranayama is not considered a spiritual practice. 

BKS Iyengar classifies respiration into four types: 


  1. “High or clavicular breathing, where the relevant muscles in the neck mainly activate the top parts of  the lungs

  2. Intercostal or mid-breathing, where only the central parts of the lungs are  activated

  3. Low or diaphragmatic breathing, where the lower portions of the lungs are activated chiefly, while the top and central portions remain less active

  4. Total, or pranayamic breathing, where the entire lungs are used to their fullest capacity”


Though there are many variations, all pranayama begins with an exhalation (rechaka) and ends with an inhalation (puraka.) Ending pranayama with an exhalation strains the heart. Take a normal inhalation at end end of each phase. Savasana is suggested at the end of the each practice. Important pranayamas are: 


  • Ujjayi, where the throat narrows to slow the flow of air. The sound that this narrowing of the airways makes is important. Ujjayi is the foundation for many pranayamas. Ud means upward, or expanding.  Jaya means victory or conquest. In Ujjayi the lungs are fully expanded, with the chest thrust out like that of a mighty conqueror. All inhalations are made with a sibilant “ssss” and all exhalations with an “hhhh.” Ujjayi breaths are even, slow, deep and steady. In the course of training for ujjayi, one first learns to lengthen the time of each outbreath and then learns to lengthen the inbreath. For reclining ujjayi, BKS Iyengar says, “First exhale quietly until the lungs feel empty, without pressing down on the abdominal organs. Relax the diaphragm and stretch it sideways, while you breathe in, without inflating the abdomen. Take a slow, deep, steady, silibant inbreath carefully through the nose, seeing that both lungs fill evenly. Listen to the sound attentively.”  Keep the eyes gazing downward; deep inhalations tend to draw the eyes up.  At the start of the exhalation, the diaphragm is held immobile, then released gradually, exhaling slowly deeply and steadily until the lungs feel empty.


  • Viloma, or interrupted breaths. Loma means hair and “vi” is a negation: viloma means against the natural order of things. In Viloma, inhalation and exhalations are not continuous processes, they are interrupted by pauses. Viloma always begins with Ujjayi breathing, then proceeds with interrupted breaths. One variation begins after an Ujjayi exhalation, where one inhales for two or three seconds, pauses and holds the breath for two or three seconds, and so on until the lungs are completely full. This may involve anywhere from four to six breaths. The abdominals are drawn into the spine and upward. Exhalation in the same manner follows, gradually releasing the grip of the abdomen, as in Ujjayi, until the lungs feel completely emptied. This is repeated for about ten minutes or for as long as there is no strain.


  • Bhramari, where deep inhalations are done as in Ujjayi and deep exhalations are made with a humming sound. Bhramara means a large black bumble bee. This pranayama is done lying or sitting, and it is not advisable to hold the breath. 


  • Digital Pranayama (alternate nostril breathing, or Nadi Sodhana) uses the fingers to close off the nostrils. One or the other of the nostrils is blocked at a time. BKS Iyengar likens it to learning to become a master musician. He writes, “Nadi Sodhana pranayama is one of delicate adjustments. The brain and fingers must learn to act together in channeling the in-and-out breaths while constantly in communication with each other.” It is suggested not to practice this breathing technique until the fingers are well versed in relation to the breath movements and nasal membranes. 


  • Bhastrika, vigorous, forceful in-and-out breaths as if using bellows, where exhalation sets the pace. Bhastrika means bellows. The nostrils are always kept open. One technique is to take a short, strong breath and exhale it with a quick blast. One quick in-and-out breath taken together is one blast of Blastrika. Four to eight of these blasts completes one cycle, after which several Ujjayi breaths rests the lungs. Then comes a deep breath and rest in Savasana.


  • Kapalabhati, a milder form of Bhastrika, where the inhalation is slow and the exhalation is vigorous, with a split second of retention after each out-breath. It is suggested to do Kapalbhati if Bhastrika is too strenuous.


Approaches to pranayama vary widely, depending on the style of yoga.  For example:


  • In the dynamic Ashtanga approach, Ujjayi breathing is integrated into the first practice series. Later, Viloma, Digital Pranayama, Bhastrika and Kapalbhati are added.


  • In the Iyengar tradition, pranayama is only introduced after the student is securely grounded in asana; then it is taught in a slow and methodical way. Students are first taught to observe the breath in a reclining position, then Ujjayi and Viloma are shown, also reclining. Only later are seated pranayama introduced and more advanced techniques are then presented.


  • In the Viniyoga style, pioneered by T. Krishnamacharya and his son T.K.V. Desikachar, awareness of the breath is discussed early on, as the flow of the breath and the movement of the spine are learned together. Progressively lengthening the inhalation and exhalation are important aspects right away.


  • In the Kundalini style, brought to the West in 1969 by Sikh master Yogi Bhajan, pranayama is incorporated directly into the practice of āsana, chanting, meditation and cleansing practices. The Breath of Fire, similar to Kapalabhati, is introduced early on, as well as elongating inhales and exhales, and alternate nostril breathing.


BKS Iyengar says, “The ancient yogis discovered pranayama to make full use of [their] energy…Full use of this absorption and re-absorption of energy will allow one to live a hundred years with perfect health of body, clarity of mind, and equipose of spirit. That is why the practice of pranayama is considered to be a great science and art.”



Georg Feuerstein, The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, (Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 2003)

B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Pranayama (New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing, 1998)

BKS Iyengar, The Tree of Yoga, (New Delhi, India: Harper Collins India, 1995)

B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (San Francisco, CA: Thorsons, 1993)

Geeta Iyengar, Yoga, A Gem For Women (Spokane,WA: Timeless Books, 1990)

Swami Vivekananda, Raja Yoga: Conquering the Internal Nature (Kolkata, India: Advaita Ashrama, 2002)


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