Category Archives: Pranayama


What Is Pranayama?

Pranayama is the fourth limb of Patanjali’s Raja Yoga, which was first outlined in his Yoga Sutras. It is also an important part of Hindu asceticism and a vital part of any yoga practice. Prana is the vital energy (breath) in all of us; pranayama is the control of that vital energy. Control of the breath means refusing to breathe as people normally do. Under normal circumstances, breath is non-rhythmic and shallow. However, in pranayama, the breath is deep, even, and controlled by the practitioner (Eliade 55). “A Yogi measures the span of his life not by the number of years but by the number of breaths. One can take in only a certain amount of energy or prana from the air along with each breath. The vital capacity is measured by the greatest amount of air one can inhale after the deepest possible exhalation (Sivananda 269).

Early Textual References

Yoga, one of the orthodox systems of Hindu philosophy, is the psychophysical system of attaining union with Absolute Reality (Brahman). As an integral part of the Hindu philosophy, yoga is mentioned in many influential Hindu texts. Pranayama is identified in the Rg Veda with Brahma as inhalation, Visnu as suspension of the breath, and Rudra as exhalation. In the Upanisads, there is the mention of “obtaining “ecstasy” through concentration on sounds [and] such concentration is acquired only by the application of yogic technique (asana, pranayama, etc.) (Eliade 133) In the Bhagavad Gita also mentions yoga, presenting it as a practical means for attaining moksa through meditation (Eliade 159n).


One of the most important aspects of the practice of pranayama is said to be the preparation for practice. It is said that one must be firmly grounded in asanas, as well as preparing the body by purifying it through the following six kriyas (Sivananda 292). First, one must complete dhauti, or cleansing the digestive track. Then the bowels are cleansed through basti and the sinuses through neti. The eyes and mind are cleansed through steady gazing or trataka. Nauli cleanses abdominal churning which eliminates constipation and increases digestive fire. Kapalabhati, which is heavy, fast breathing, destroys excess phlegm.

There are other preliminary considerations for practice. These include a place that is pleasant, quiet, beautiful, private, where there are no disturbances or distractions. The time of day pranayama is practiced is also important, it is best to practice in the spring or fall. In the summer season, the cool early morning hours are the best time of day. The food that the body consumes is also considered and important consideration. Light, moderate, substantial and nutritious food – there are three categories of food which must be balanced. Sattvic foods (i.e., milk, fruit, cereals, butter, cheese, tomatoes, and spinach) make the mind pure. Rajasic foods (i.e., fish, eggs, meat) stimulate passion. Tamasic foods (i.e., beef, onions, garlic) make the mind lethargic and angry. The practice is best approached with passion and earnestness. It is said that the student must have a calm mind, faith in his Guru’s teachings, believe in God, live a life of moderation, and be eager to attain moksa. The final step of suggested preliminary preparation is the purification of the nadis which is done through alternate nostril breathing and creates harmony in the body (Sivananda 296-314):


After preparing physically with your kriyas and asanas, mental preparation can begin. The first part of practice is the three-part breath. First is puraka (inhalation), followed by rechaka (exhalation), and finally kumbhaka (retention). The time unit used to measure the breath is a matra, usually the syllable Om. It is also suggested that the suitable asanas for pranayama are padmasana, siddhasana, svastikasana, or samasana.

When first starting to practice pranayama, Sivananda recommends that you practice only puraka and rechaka, without kumbhaka for a month or two. Once comfortable with the slowing down of the breath, retention can be added. At first a ratio of 1:4:2 is recommended which gradually will be increased to 16:64:32 (377). This ratio refers to inhaling for one matra, retaining for four matra, and exhaling for two matra. The three types of pranayama discussed by Sivananda are inferior pranayama, which is 12 matras, middling pranayama, which is 24 matras, and superior pranayama, which consists of 32 matras. These numbers refer to the number of matras for inhalation only.

There is more than one way to practice pranayama. Sivananda outlines various exercises which include alternate nostril breathing, deep breathing exercises, pranayama during meditation, while walking and during savasana (deep relaxation of the muscles and nerves), and ujjayi pranayama (breathing while partially closing the glottis) to name a few.

Sivananda also identifies four stages that accompany pranayama practice. The first is arambha avastha, which is for the destruction of former sins and often consists of profuse perspiration that should be rubbed into the body with the hands. The second stage is ghata avastha, which is obtained through the regular practice of suppressing the breath. In order to pass through the ghata state one must constantly keep up their yogic practice. The third stage is parichaya avastha. “Through steady practice and concentrated thought the breath now pierces the Kundalini Shakti along with the Agni and enters the Sushumna uninterrupted” (328). The final stage of pranayama is nishpatti avastha, the state of consummation where all of the karmic seeds have been destroyed and the practitioner becomes immortal.


“The yogic practitioner seeks through a careful process of spiritual exercises to reach a state of “isolation”, of the complete separation of spirit and matter” (Embree 195). It is through practicing pranayama that this goal becomes attainable. The goal of pranayama is very much the same as the goal of yoga. There is a reciprocal relationship between breath and the mind. Once able to control the breath, one is able to control the mind and control of the mind allows control of the breath. If the mind and prana are both controlled, one becomes liberated from the rounds of births and deaths and attains immortality” (Sivananda, 268).


Eliade, Mircea (1958) Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. Trans. Willard R. Trask. New York: Pantheon Books

Embree, Ainslie T (ed.) (1972) The Hindu Tradition: Readings in Oriental Thought. New York: Vintage Books

Sivananda, Swami (1981) The Science of Yoga v. 4. Shivanandanagar, Dist. Tehri-Garhwal, U.P., India: Divine Life Society.

Further Reading

Iyengar, B.K.S. (1985) Light on Pranayama. New York:Crossroad

Rosen, Richard (2002) The Yoga of Breath: A Step-by-Step Guide to Pranayama. Boston: Shambhala.

Saraswrthi, Swami Satyanananda (2000) Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha. New Delhi: Bihar School of Yoga.

Related Topics



Hatha Yoga

Kundalini Yoga


Raja Yoga, Yoga Sutras, Patanjali

Notable Websites

ABC of Yoga (2006) Yoga Breathing (Pranayama) – The Art of Yoga Breathing

Focal Point Yoga (2006) Pranayama

Yoga Journal (2006) Prescriptions for Pranayama

Written by Melissa Scullen (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.


One path to the attainment of liberation (moksa) is through the union of the body and the spirit, most commonly known as yoga. This is a mystical path en route to self-awareness, with the goal to achieve enlightenment. Within its tradition, there are several aspects to the practice of yoga. One specific characteristic is prana. Simply put, prana can be defined as vital energy flow within the body. Georg Feuerstein, one of the foremost teachers of yoga and yogic teachings, defines prana with the origins of the word: pra—“on, forth” and an—“to breathe,” thus denoting the “vital energy, life.” The image of prana was referenced in the Upanishads as “breath to life.” The name prana was given to the “vital breath” and by extension to the bodily inhaled air (Varenne 235). Prana is similar to the Chinese concept of chithe circulating life energy that in Chinese philosophy is thought to be inherent in all things. Several comparisons with nature are used in the description of prana. Prana is compared to a fire being formed into new life by every inhalation. The flame burns higher, devours the fuel [oxygen] brought in from the outside by air, and then expels the waste [ash] in the forms of exhaled air (Varenne 111). The rhythm of prana is comparable to the ebb and flow of tidal waves (Feuerstein and Miller 26). Furthermore, according to Professor H. Upadhyay, prana is like a knife which he carefully employs to operate on his own mind, to cut out the malicious thoughts and feelings in order to piece through to higher levels of consciousness (Feuerstein and Miller 112).

According to yogic teaching, at birth, we all receive the “vital breath” of prana and the function of respiration is to circulate it through the body. As human beings we need to breathe to survive making prana essential to our existence. Breath is not filled with oxygen, but the all sustaining life-force—prana (Feuerstein 236). Prana is a vital force of life energy which we constantly inhale as we breathe in. The complete withdrawal of prana from our body means death (Feuerstein and Miller 112). It can be said that sensations of hunger, thirst, hot, cold, etc. within the body could be understood as symptoms of prana. Moreover, all physical feelings that flow within the body might also be interpreted as evidence that prana is at work. The presence of prana is said to be what distinguishes a living body from a dead one. When a person dies, the prana, or life force, is thought to leave the body. Our bodies are seen to contain a complex network of channels (nadi) and valves (bandha) that allow prana to flow through the body. For yoga, prana (breath) represents life itself in its most concrete form (Varenne 111). “By means of regulation, control and restraint of prana, the yogi first gains mastery over the prana currents, then over his body.” For breathing in yoga, “there is always a connection between respiration and mental states,” (Eliade 69). Yoga brings about the unity of the senses, the mind, and the vital force—prana (Joshi 57). The breath is the essential maintainer of concentration and the heart of the yoga principle. As such in practice, if a yogi has attained complete mastery over the technique of breathing [he] succeeds in “seeing” the interior of his body (Varenne 208).

Contrary to the ancient Upanisadic belief that prana was breath within the being; Feuerstein takes a variation of the definition. In his book, Yoga and Beyond, he does not think that prana is mere breath, but the “spanda-sakti” (vibratory power) that penetrates the whole cosmos and every living being and even able to exercise influence on the mind (citta) (Feuerstein and Miller 26). This references a very profound union between prana and citta—vital energy and mind. Furthermore, texts such as the Yoga Sutra have not plainly expressed prana as breath. Prana can be seen as “more akin to vital force or life energy,” (Feuerstein and Miller 111-112). On a much more spiritual level prana is defined as, the cosmic breath, the rhythmic oscillation effective on all levels of conditioned existence (Feuerstein and Miller 26).

There are five subdivisions of prana connected with certain functions and distributions over certain regions of the body: prana, samana, apana, udana, and vyana. The particulars of these sectors are described within Vyasa’s commentary in the Yoga Sutra. Prana is located through the mouth and the nose, and its changeability continues as far as the heart. Samana is dispersed uniformly and fluctuates from the navel. Apana leads downward in the body and oscillates as far as the sole of the foot. Udana leads upwards in the body and fluctuates as far as the head. Vyana is encompassing through the entire body system.

From the Mahabharata:

The breath called prana, residing within the head and the heat that is there, cause all kinds of exertion. That prana is the living creature, the universal soul, the eternal Being, and the Mind, Intellect and Consciousness of all living creatures, as also all the objects of the senses. Thus the living creature is, in every respect, caused by prana to move about and exert. Then in consequence of the other breath called samana, every one of the senses is made to act as it does. The breath called apana, having recourse to the heat that is in the urethra and the abdominal intestines, moves, engaged in carrying out urine and feces. That single breath, which operates in these three, is called udana by those that are conversant with science. That breath, which operates, residing in all the joints of men’s bodies, is called vyana. There is heat in the bodies of living creatures which is circulated all over the system by the breath called samana.

(The Mahabharata Santi Parva, Section CLXXXIV)

Prana is associated with many entities and objects. One of the eight limbs of yoga is dependent on prana, pranayama. Pranayama is breath control and the “rejection to breathe like the general run of men…in an unrhythmic fashion,” (Eliade 69). Pranayama regulates the flow of prana through the channels (nadi) and valves (bandha) of the body. Regulating the breath then leads to the control of prana through the body. Through the evolution of human beings, we become tone deaf towards the “original rhythm” of the cosmos. Pranayama is used to “restore the primeval rhythm and cosmic harmony,” (Feuerstein and Miller 26). Prana is the cause of spiritual progress within the practice of pranayama (Varenne 158). The rhythm found in pranayama is divided in to three phases of prana: inhalation (puraka), exhalation (recaka), and the retention of air (kumbhaka) (Eliade 71-72). At the time of inhalation, the breath occupies internal space, which is said to be felt from the palms of the hands to the soles of the feet. At exhalation, the external space can be felt at the tip of the nose (Dasgupta 146). Also associated with prana (or life-energy) is the wind god Vayu. In the Vedic system Vayu is the master of life, inspirer of that breath or dynamic energy called prana. Vayu is seen as the “companion to the breath of life” (Feuerstein and Miller 110). All the vital and nervous activities of the human being fall within the definition of prana and belong to the domain of Vayu (Aurobindo 323). Prana is identified as the wind in the hymn XI.4 of the Atharva Veda: “Breath they call Matarisvan; breath is called the wind; in breath what has been and what will be, in breath is all established.”

Yoga is a traditional Hindu act towards the attainment of absolute liberation (moksa). On this journey towards liberation prana is an important aspect to the practice of yoga and to life itself. Prana aids in the achievement of total concentration within the yogic tradition. According to many texts and practices, prana is the essence of life and without it we are dead. Even though there are several meanings to prana, it can simply be said that it is the vital energy flow to life. Prana is essential to one of the eight limbs of yoga, breath control or pranayama. Without the proper utilization of prana, pranayama cannot be executed successfully. Furthermore, there are five subdivisions within prana, found throughout the body, which altogether function to bring prana to the highest power. But prana in its explicit form is most essential. To quote the Yoga Darshana Upanishad: “prana, like the sun, travels though the signs of the zodiac; each time you inhale, hold in your breath before expelling it.” Prana is found in every living being, but in order to have full control over it, it must be practiced with pranayama. These features together in formation with the other seven limbs of yoga are the quintessential model for the achievement of moksa.


Dasgupta, Surendranath (1978) Yoga: As Philosophy and Religion. Delhi: Indological Publishers.

Eliade, Mircea (1976) Patanjali and Yoga. New York: Schocken Books.

Feuerstein, Georg and Jeanine Miller (1972) Yoga and Beyond: Essays in Indian Philosophy. New York: Schocken Books.

Feuerstein, Georg (1991) Sacred Paths: Essays on Wisdom, Love, and Mystical Realization. New York: Larson Publications.

Joshi, K.S., “On the Meaning of Yoga.” Philosophy East and West. Volume 15, Number 1, January 1965, pp. 53-64.

Varenne, Jean (1976) Yoga and the Hindu Tradition. London: The University of Chicago Press.

Further Readings

Feuerstein, Georg (1980) The Philosophy of Classical Yoga. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Feuerstein, George (1983) Self-realization of noble wisdom: The Lankavatara Sutra. California: Dawn Horse Press.

Feuerstein, Georg (2002) The Yoga Tradition: its history, literature, philosophy and practice. New Delhi: Bhavana Books

Pandit, B.N. (1997) Specific principles of Kashmir Saivism. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers

Singh, Shail Kumari (1983) Religious and moral philosophy of Swami Vivekananda. Patna: Janaki Prakashan

Related Topics


Atharva Veda



Georg Feuerstein












Yoga Darshana Upanishad

Yoga Sutras




Noteworthy websites related to the topic

Article written by Krista Epp (April 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.