Prāṇāyāma: Control of Prana

Defining Prāṇāyāma

There are many definitions, this is my best try to be all-encompassing and yet stay to tradition. Prana is often translated as life-energy or Chi. It is a force that moves within the human, it is present when the human being is alive and absent when dead. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika says:

yāvadvāyūḥ sthite dehe tāvajjīvanamucyate|
maraa tasya nikrāntistato vāyu nirodhayet ||2-3||
As long as the vāyu (prāṇa) remains in the body, that is called life.
Death is when it leaves the body. Therefore retain vāyu.

Yama means self-control, restraint, the act of checking or curbing, suppression, any great moral rule or duty, it also means a rein, curb, or bridle, and can also refer to a driver or charioteer. Together prāṇa and yama means the control of the prāṇa; to put the reins on the prāṇa and drive it like a charioteer. Some have equated prāṇāyāma with only breathing techniques. But any technique which focuses on controlling the movement of prāṇa/chi can be considered prāṇāyāma. There are many less known techniques that look more like Chi Gong than what has been taught in the west as prāṇāyāma. All these are to be considered. To learn the control of prāṇa is to purify the energetic system of the body and make the mind ready for the highest levels of consciousness.

Patanjali assumes one already has the knowledge of prāṇāyāma. This was generally taught by a teacher and not from books. He gives us instead a purpose for doing prāṇāyāma.

bāhyābhyantaraviñayākṣepī caturthaḥ || 51|| 
The fourth limb, pranayama, transcends the external and internal objects. 2.51

tataḥ kṣīyate prakāśāvaraṇam || 52||
From that, the covering of the inner light dissolves. 2.52

dhāraṇāsu ca yogyatā manasaḥ 
And the mind becomes fit for concentration. 2.53 Patañjali Yoga Sūtras

The sage Yajñavalkya has taught:

àanapansmayaeg àanaym 
pränäpänasamäyoga pränäyama ( Yoga-yajnavalkya VI.2)

This means balancing prana and apana together is pranayama. The Bhagavad Gita says something very similar:

àanapana same 
pränäpänäu samau (Bhagavad Gita .27)

This means make prana and apana the same. It is often translated as making inhale and exhale the same, but has many deeper connotations. One must learn the 5 vayus for a full understanding of pranayama and how it affects the human system. Western science fails to grasp the working of prana, so one must learn the teachings of the ancient sages.

The balancing of prana and apana refers to many levels relative to the vayus (vital winds of the body); making inhale and exhale the same length, making the inhale steady pressure and the exhale steady pressure continually through the breath, it also refers to the meeting of the prana as it is pulled downwards with apana as it is pulled upwards into the Kandasthana (called the Hara by Toaists).

dzxa àa[vayaeí Éed> Swanain c i³ya>,
zrIrxar[ayEv inyaeJya yaegsxkE>.

daçadhä präëaväyoçca bhedaù sthänäni ca kriyäù |
çaréradhäraëäyaiva niyojyä yogasadhakaiù ||

There are ten types, locations and functions of the präëa väyu.
These are to be utilised by the practitioners of yoga for the maintenance of the body.
(Yoga Rahasya of Nathamuni, Viniyogädhyäyaù, çloka 32)

The main five vayus, show the different movements of the life force







Primary air, inward movement

Upward moving air

Unchanging air, absorption, centripetal force

Diffused air, centrifugal force

Downward air

Inhalation, swallowing, intake of impressions through the five senses,

(pulls the diaphragm up wards stimulating exhale)

Speech, vomiting, memory,

Digestion, regulates digestive secretions in stomache, liver, duodenum, and small intestines, absorbs nourishment

Body movement, nervous system, circulation, balance, physical articulation

Excretion, urination, child delivery, menstruation, ejaculation,

(pulls the diaphragm down wards stimulating inhale)

Gives mind, heart and conciousness energy, and inspiration

Self-expression, ascension, will, and effort

Assimilation of information, balancing between upper and lower body as well as inner and outer

Circulation of energy throughout the system of nadis

Release of negativity, clearing, grounding

Goes down in Jalandra bandha

Goes downwards in Jalandra bandha

Two forces meet and Udianda bandha sparks the Kundalini


Goes upwards with Mulabandha

Raises kundalini to udana vayu

Carries kundalini to sahasrara chakra

Stimulates apana and prana vayus and pushes kundalini upward

Appears as the aura around the body

Carries kundalini upward in sushumna to unite with prana vayu

Respitory disorders, cough, dyspnea, mental problems, neurological disorders

Diseases of ears, nose and throat, speech problems, neck problems, vomiting, poor aspiration in life

Digestion problems, esp. weak or irregular digestion, poor assimilation, lack of appetite, improper formation of tissues, anorexia, diarrhea, lymphatic stasus

Diffuses and disperses our energy, connected with all tissues and circulation, lack of coordination and difficulty in movement

Problems of excretion and urination, constipation, diarrhea, mentrual problems, sexual dysfunction, toxins in the body, decay

Brahmi, Gota Kola, Ashwagandha, Shatavari, Ginseng, And Chi increasing herbs

Ginger, Nasya with Sesame oil, Castor oil hot pack on front and back of neck

Juice ginger root, mix fresh ginger with equal amount honey, add pinch of salt, 1 tbs before meal, if gas add cumin. Herbal digestants that Increase Agni

Combine treatments of Prana, Apana, and Samana

Triphala, Licorice, Castor Oil (hot pack on lower abdomen), Shatavari, Ashwagandha,

Aromas: Basil, Lemon, Cinnamon

Aromas: Cypress, Benzoin, Basil,

Aromas: Fennel, Cardomom, cinnamon,


Aromas: Juniper, Rose, Chamomile, Fennel, Benzoin, Marjoram

Oil massage, pranayam focus on the inhale, green and light blue stones

Mantra, pranayam focus on the exhale

Eating in a peaceful environment, small rest or calm walk after meals

Balancing Asana, practices that utilize gracefullness

Sitting asana, gentle backbends, black, red or grounding stones, (hematite)

yavTàa[iSwtae dede tav¾IvnmuCyte,
#it sveR=ip janiNt tt> àa[inyÙ[m!.

yävatpräëasthito dede tävajjévanamucyate |
iti sarve’pi jänanti tataù präëaniyantraëam ||

Everybody knows we live only as long as the präëa resides in the body. Hence, one has to learn to control the präëa. (Yoga Rahasya, Prakaraëädhyäyaù çloka 35)


01 The Yogic Breath

The 1st foundation of the breath is the yogic breath. There are many different types of breaths; yogic breath, belly breath, chest breath, full breath, partial inhalation, etc. All are used for different types of Pranayama according to the technique being applied or the disorder being rectified with the breath.

In a sitting position watch the natural breath entering and leaving, and watch the chest rise and fall as the natural breath enters and leaves. There are many muscles involved in lifting the chest when one inhales to make room for the air being inhaled. Take time to be aware of the natural movement of the breath.

Take a few breaths and inhale to full capacity and then exhale to full capacity. Do this slowly and be aware of the muscular movements you are making to inhale and exhale. Notice on the exhale that the abdominal muscles are contracting and the diaphragm is forcefully moving upwards against the lungs. The internal intercostal muscles are also contracting to pull the rib cage closer to the body and contract the lungs.

yogic-breathing-inter-costa Relax the body and sit with correct posture. Breathe in slightly more than your normal inhalation. Take the position of the chest at the top of the inhale and when you exhale hold the chest in the same position as if at the top of the breath. Do not let the chest fall with the breath. The pectorals hold the chest up externally while the internal intercostals are inhibited from doing their natural contraction. The rising of the ribs are compared the handle of a bucket, it goes out and up. The ribs rise up and out. On the inhale they sink and come into the chest constricting the lungs.

Proper scapula position also helps keep the chest raised in the upright position. The lower corner of the shoulder blade tucks in lifting the chest. At the end of the exhale the chest is to remain upraised as if it was at the top of an inhale and the abdominal muscles and diaphragm expel the air. Even though the abdominal muscles are used they remain soft and not tensed. On the next inhale the breath comes back to the top of the inhale and often some small amount of lift was lost. The chest is to be taken to a fully upright position and keep upright while the breath is exhaled. Sometimes it is helpful to slightly lift the chest upwards while exhaling to avoid any falling of the chest.

The positioning of the chest encourages abdominal breathing while keeping the chest expansive. The spine does not rise and fall with each breath. This pulls the apana prana upwards and helps the lower energies rise upwards. Mula bandha will naturally be occurring on a subtle level to hold the body in position. The other bandhas will also go much deeper.

The lack of movement in the upper body will be important when one practices higher meditation practices and the movement of the body becomes a distraction which adds fluctuation to the mind. Proper position and breath helps to still the mind.

Aasnen ivna àa[ayamiSsXyit nEv ih,
ivna àa[inraexen n mn> iSwrta< ìjet!.

äsanena vinä präëäyämassidhyati naiva hi |
vinä präëanirodhena na manaù sthiratäà vrajet ||

Without proper practice of the äsanas, it is not possible to master präëäyäma. Without the mastery of the präëä, the mind will not be steady.
(Yoga Rahasya of Nathamuni, Prakaraëadhyayaù, çloka 45)

02 Quality of the Breath: Rechaka, Püraka, Kumbhaka

recpUrkk…<Ée;u mnae=nusr[< Sm&tm!,
recpUrkk…<ÉaOya> sveR àa[ivxarka>.

recapürakakumbheñu mano’nusaraëaà småtam |
recapürakakumbhäkhyäù sarve präëavidhärakäù ||

The mind should remember ( småtam) the breath during rechaka, püraka and kumbhaka. All these breathing techniques are vital as they sustain life.
(Yoga Rahasya of Nathamuni, Prakaraëädhyäyaù, çloka 34)

Commentary: Rechaka is sanskrit for exhalation, püraka means inhalation and kumbhaka is the holding of the breath. The teaching is to constantly be aware of the breath whether it is inhaling, exhaling or being held. The mind is not to wander but should concentrate on the breath and its qualities.

dI”aRSsUúmaí svRÇ recpUrkv&Äy>,
àa[ae yda bihóSSyaÄda recks<}k>.

dérghässükñmäçca sarvatra recapürakavåttayaù |
präëo yadä bahiñöhassyättadä recakasaïjïakaù ||

For mastery of the breath, exhalation and inhalation should always be smooth and prolonged. Rechaka is when the breath is slowly expelled. (çloka 36)

s @v yid s<yait zrIraNt> àyÆt>,
naça s pUrkzceit zaôiviÑ> àkIitRt>.

sa eva yadi saàyäti çaréräntaù prayatnataù|
nämnä sa pürakaçceti çästravidbhiù prakértitaù ||

When the breath enters the body through conscious volition, it is called püraka by those who know the science of the body. (çloka 37)

Commentary: Nathmuni has explained the breath must be kept in the awareness (småtam), prolonged (dérgha), slow, smooth/subtle (sükñmä) and conscious (prayatnat).

The breath is to be made smooth and subtle. It is a tendency to inhale/exhale quickly at first and then slowly and lightly at the end of a breath. The breath must be smooth, the pressure should be the same all the way through the inhale, and the exhale. Not fast in the beginning and then slow, but the same all the way through. This is the proper way to move präëa and will help to bring evenness to the mind. To balance the inhale and the exhale will have little power if the breath itself is not smooth and even. Subtle is a gentle quality to breath, so the evenness is not to be done by increasing the force of breath but instead by restraining the breath to a soft state. By practicing the evenness and subtleness of breath it will become conscious and under the control of the individual. Then the breath is to be prolonged. The breath should not be lengthened until the proper evenness and conscious control has been achieved.

03 The Practice

Aasne;u ywa nEv ³mSy inym> k«t>,
àwma_yaisnStÖt! àa[ayame;u svRt>.

äsaneñu yathä naiva kramasya niyamaù kåtaù |
prathamäbhyäsinastadvat präëäyämeñu sarvataù ||

Just as one has to follow a certain order for the practice of äsanas, so too an order has to be followed for doing the präëäyäma. (çloka 89)

Commentary: This order will vary according to the individual and must be learned from a competant teacher.

ywa yaeGy< àk…vIRt àwm< recpUvRkaE,
k…MÉk< c ttae dI”R ñasàñask…<Ékan!.

yathä yogyaà prakurvéta prathamaà recapürvakau |
kumbhakaà ca tato dérgha çväsapraçväsakumbhakän ||

Beginners should practice exhalation and inhalation for as long as they can. After some time, the length of the exhalation and inhalation should be extended. This is true for retention of breath also. (çloka 90)

Commentary: The practitioner should begin by becoming aware of the natural breath and the mechanisms and consciousness involved. Then slowly increase the length of the breath, normally first doubling then tripling the natural breath. While increasing the breath always keep it slow, smooth and even.

Éu´e> àagev k…vIRt Éu´ae yamÖy< Tyjet!,
ñasaeCDasaE yda isÏaE dI”RsuúmaE n vegt>.

bhukteù prägeva kurvéta bhukto yämadvayaà tyajet |
çväsocchäsau yadä siddhau dérghasukñmau na vegataù ||

Präëäyäma must be practised either on an empty stomach or six hours after a meal. Exhalation and inhalation should always be smooth and long, not done rapidly. (çloka 91)

II. Näòi Shodhana (channel/nostril purification)

mlak…lasu nafI;u méit nEv mXyg>,
kw< SyaÊNmnIÉav> kayRisÏ> kw< Évet!.2-4.

maläkuläsu näòéñu maruti naiva madhyagaù|
kathaà syädunmanébhävaù käryasiddhaù kathaà bhavet||2.4||

The vital air does not pass in the middle channel because the nadis (energy channels) are full of impurities. So how can the state of umani (no-mind) arise and how can perfection (siddhi) come about? (2.4 Hatha Yoga Pradipika)

suiÏmeit yda sv¡ nfIc³< mlak…lm!,
tdEv jayte yaegI à[s<¢h[e ]m>.2-5.

suddhimeti yadä sarvaà naòécakraà maläkulam|
tadaiva jäyate yogé praëasaìgrahaëe kñamaù||2.5||

When all the nadis and chakras which are the abode of impurities and toxins are purified, then the yogi is able to direct the prana.

àa[ayam< tt> k…yaRiÇTy< saiTvkya ixya,
ywa su;uçanafISwa mla> suiÏ< àya<it c.2-6.

präëäyämaà tataù kuryätrityaà sätvikayä dhiyä|
yathä suñumnänäòésthä maläù suddhià prayänti ca||2.6||

Therefore pranayama should be done daily with a sattvic state of mind so that the impurities are driven out of the sushumna nadi and purification occurs. (2.6 Hatha Yoga Pradipika)

continued in class material



Video of BKS Iyengar teaching pranayama