Notes on Prāṇayāma

The following are some notes I have taken over the past few years on practicing and teaching prāṇayama. I wish I'd written dates and teachers so I could give attribution to the shared knowledge. The bulk of what I have learned came through teacher training with the Yoga Well Institute and discussions with my personal teacher, Pam Hightower, as well as reflections on my own experience.

What is Prāṇayāma?

Prāṇa is thought of as vital energy or sometimes spirit, and its presence is what makes the difference between something being alive or not. The word prāṇa comes from the word roots "pra" (completely) and "an" (moves), meaning "that which moves/exists throughout" or "that which moves well." The word root "āṇ" also means "to breathe," from which we have the association of prāṇa with breathing.

The word root "āyāma" means to stretch, or to extend. Some texts will translate prāṇayāma as "control of the breath," combining the roots of prāṇa (breath/life force) and yama (control/restraint). However, the second word should be -āyāma (note the long a), and while this difference may seem pedantic, a practice of controlling the breath and that of extending the breath will differ in their approach and attitude.

For me, the word "extension" doesn't simply mean lengthen, as in making the breath so many counts longer, as much as bringing a quality of evenness and endlessness to each breath. I think of the breath as fine thread, and the "extension" is the gentle drawing out of kinks and tangles so the thread is smooth.

According to the Yoga Sutra (2.49-50), prāṇayāma is practiced by interrupting, or consciously influencing, the natural/chaotic flow of the breath once the body is in a state of sthira-sukha (a balance of stability and ease). In prāṇayāma, we strive to keep the breath long and subtle/smooth (dīrgha-sūkṣmaḥ) as we modify the exhale, inhale, and the suspension of breath after exhale and inhale.

Why do we practice prāṇayāma?

Prāṇayāma is the "chief way of focusing prāṇa," and the ideal tool for working with disruptions to the flow of energy in the body (see the prāṇa vayus) and for preparing the mind for meditation.

In a yoga practice or group class, we usually begin with movement to connect with the body. The body is easiest to move and be in relationship with, as it's a physical thing that we are accustomed to moving consciously. Then we move to the more subtle breath. By working with breath in prāṇayāma, we prime the mind for working with thought in meditation.

Prāṇayāma has a profound effect on the state of the human system. Depending on how it is structured, the practice can build capacity for clarity, or letting go, or digestion, or many other qualities that will prepare the system for the direction meditation is intended to go.

Yoga Sutra 2.51 and 2.52 give the result of prāṇayāma:

Once a student is established in prāṇayāma, the veil that obscures the light of knowing disappears, and the mind attains the capacity for concentration.

How do we practice prāṇayāma?

To begin a practice of prāṇayāma, we first need to know the capacity of the practitioner. The quality of a person's breathing is an indication of their state, and that state has a given capacity. Trying to exceed that capacity will only "anger" the prāṇa.

And while "angry prāṇa" may have a funny ring to it, it's no fun! I know this from a lot of experience angering my prāṇa by trying to push it too far. It leaves me feeling anxious, depleted, sleepless and generally miserable. Remember that this is your vital force you're working with. The goal is to develop a relationship with it, not take over its job!

One of my teachers put it this way: "The key is to participate in the way the state is functioning." This is true for all yoga tools in your system--consider yourself a participant, or a partner, not a micro manager (she tells herself).

That said, there are many techniques available for prāṇayama. Here are a few possibilities to consider:

You can change the length of different parts of the breath (the exhale, inhale, or pause after the exhale/inhale).

Usually you'll need to modify the size of the aperture the breath flows from to change the length. For this we have ujjayi breath, in which the throat is gently constricted to slow the flow of breath, or nostril-control breathing, in which we breathe through one nostril at a time. There are also sitali and sitkari, in which we breathe through the mouth (I'll post more on these individual techniques later).

Another way to alter the length of the breath is by using chanting, in whatever language you are comfortable with. Saying words or phrases of different lengths is a more subtle way to control the length of the breath, and in my experience, the more subtle I can be when working with prāṇa, the more digestible the practice will be.

We also use breathing techniques in which we consciously draw the lower belly in during exhale, or lift and expand the chest on inhale. As long as these are not too forced, they can be an excellent support for concentration and connection to the experience of the breath in stillness or in āsana practice. These breathing techniques include bandha practice as well--a complex topic I will have to cover in a separate post!

How Do I Develop a Prāṇayāma Practice?

Quite frankly, I would leave the work of creating your own practice to a qualified teacher. Even I am most successful when somebody else (who knows me and has carefully observed my state) plans my breathing practice. It's so hard to consider yourself and your practice objectively, especially if you have a goal you are tempted to rush toward.

If you are a teacher wanting to develop a prāṇayāma practice for your students, the first step is to observe their quality of breath at rest and during yoga practice. Is it smooth and easy? Does the body have freedom to move as the breath flows in and out?

Most students do not have a daily yoga practice and will be best served by beginner and early intermediate breathing practices. These include:

  • ujjayi breath and sound (chanting);
  • gradually lengthening the exhale (perhaps to 6 or 10 counts) while leaving the inhale free;
  • and building up to a ratio like (inhale four counts, exhale eight counts).

These are the practices I give most often in group classes, although I might give something more challenging (like pausing after exhale, or lengthening inhale) to students who have been attending class consistently and are in a balanced state.

The best prelude to prāṇayāma is some movement connected to the breath. This helps students come in to their bodies and builds their concentration for working with the less tangible breath. Depending on the students' state, 10 to 30 minutes of asana usually warms them up to a seated breathing practice.

It is difficult to bear in mind that the simplest prāṇayāma practices are often the most useful! I have to remind myself frequently that the goal of prāṇayāma is stable energy and a steady mind, not having an impressive breath capacity. Whenever I feel tempted to push the breath, I look instead for a feeling of ease in my breath, heart and mind. Remember that this is a practice of meeting the breath where it is each day, of being curious about how it is, and accepting that it knows what it's doing.