Although pranayama (breath regulation) is classically considered one of the three main components of yoga, along with asana and meditation, it’s strangely omitted in the majority of modern yoga. Yogis who want to advance on the yogic path shouldn’t skip this crucial step. It’s the important fourth limb of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga, following just behind asana.
Pranayama serves as a link between the external and internal practices of yoga. The first three of Patanjali’s eight limbs—yamas, niyamas, and asana—are considered external practices that help the yogi master their body and its energy. After these comes pranayama, and the limbs that follow are internal practices that help the yogi master their senses and mind. Pranayama is the step that helps yogis graduate from the external to the internal.
Pranayama and meditation
If your mind is disturbed, you’ll never be able to meditate. Pranayama can clear the mind of ignorance, desires, and delusion. BKS Iyengar explains this beautifully: “As the breeze disperses the clouds that cover the sun, pranayama wafts away the clouds that hide the light of intelligence.”
Only when you clear the mind of ignorance and agitation can you concentrate. Only when you concentrate can you meditate. And only when you meditate can you achieve the ultimate goal of yoga: self-realization. This is the natural progression of the eight limbs of yoga.
Pranayama translates as “breath expansion.” It’s a conscious regulation of the breath, an altering of its natural flow. There are four parts to pranayama: recaka (exhalation), puraka (inhalation), bahya-kumbhaka (suspension of the breath after exhalation), and antar-kumbhaka (retention of the breath after inhalation). Beginner’s pranayama focuses mainly on exhalations and inhalations. Advanced pranayama incorporates inner retention, outer suspension, bandhas, and mudras.
How to get started
If you’re confident in asana and struggling with meditation, start or come back to pranayama. 10 or 20 minutes a day will advance your overall yoga practice. Follow these tips for beneficial pranayama:
- Practice pranayama after asanas and before meditation. Asanas prepare your body to sit for an extended amount of time. Pranayama prepares and focuses your mind for meditation.
- Practice in an airy, open space. Don’t practice under a fan, in air-conditioning, or under the hot sun; all of which can upset body temperature.
- Practice on an empty stomach. Ideally, asanas and pranayama are done before breakfast so there’s no extra pressure on the diaphragm or lungs.
- Find a position you can sit in comfortably for an extended period of time. You don’t want your posture to obstruct or strain your breathing. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika recommends sitting in Lotus pose, Easy pose, Thunderbolt pose, Accomplished pose, or Auspicious pose.
- Sit with your spine tall so you can make full use of your lungs. You might find it helpful to sit on a folded blanket or a firm pillow, or even on a chair.
- Unless otherwise indicated, always breathe through your nose. If you breathe through your mouth, the air you inhale won’t be filtered or warmed, and you’ll dry out your respiratory passageways.
- Focus your mind during pranayama. You could concentrate on the breath, a mantra, or a specific part of the body. If you don’t focus, the effect of pranayama is mostly lost.
- Take your time when advancing. Slow and steady progress is essential in pranayama. There’s no need to rush.
There are many kinds of pranayama to practice. You might start with simple abdominal breathing or alternate nostril breathing, and then work with a teacher to learn more complicated techniques. Classical yogic texts caution that pranayama must be learned by a teacher or a guru, as advanced pranayama can be detrimental to health if practiced incorrectly.
Consult a teacher, incorporate the tips listed above, and try to make pranayama just as important as your asana practice to keep advancing on the yogic path.
- Iyengar, BKS. Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. India: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.
- Mohan, A. G. and Indra Mohan. Yoga Therapy. Boston: Shambhala, 2004.