ELEMENTS OF PRANAYAMA
There are a number of preliminaries mentioned in the texts. These are:
SEAT (asana). The traditional seat is a low platform (asana, vedi) covered with special
grass, called kusha grass, and either a tiger skin, an antelope skin, or blanket.
ASANA (posture). The asanas usually recommended for pranayama are Lotus pose
(padmasansa) and Adepts’ pose (siddhasana).
DIRECTION. The practitioner is instructed to sit facing east, the quarter of the rising sun,
the symbol of the dawn of spiritual knowledge; it’s also acceptable to face north.
TIME OF PRACTICE. There are four different practice time suggested: 8 times a day,
every 3 hours, beginning at sunrise; 5 times a day, morning, noon, evening, midnight, and the
“fourth watch” (3 am?); 4 times a day, every 6 hours; 3 times a day, every 8 hours.
OTHER. The practitioner should begin formal practice by ritually installing (nyasa) the
deity/guru/qualities in various parts of the body. Then he/she should proceed to purificatory
breathing (nadi shodana), nowadays called alternate nostril breathing (more below).
ELEMENTS All pranayama consists of the three basic breathing elements:
INHALE (puraka, “filling, completing, fulfilling, satisfying”)
EXHALE (recaka, “emptying, purging”) PAUSE, which in pranayama is formalized as
NOTE on kumbhaka: the practitioner’s body (or torso) is referred to as a “pot” (kumbha or ghata,
both mean essentially the same thing: “jar, pitcher, jug, watering-pot”). This suggests that the
body is analogous to a container in which, like the alchemist’s retort, vital energy is transformed
from the mundane to the spiritual.
KUMBHAKA (literally pot-like) is widely used in two senses: 1) specifically to mean
RETENTION, i.e., holding the breath inside the “pot” after a) inhale (antara kumbhaka) or b)
outside after exhale (bahya k.) 2) and more generally kumbhaka is equivalent to PRANAYAMA.
This suggests the central importance retention has in the overall practice.
There are two TIMINGS for kumbhaka: 1) to capacity 2) according to a MEASURE (matra).
Another common technique in pranayama is measure, the use of particular times in ratios
between inhale, retention, and exhale. The most common measure is a 1:4:2:1 ratio; i.e., for
every one count of inhale there are four counts of inner retention, two counts of exhale, and one
count of outer retention. So for example, if the inhale count is 5, inner retention would be 20,
exhale 10, and outer retention 5. This ratio is said to generate heat with concentration on the
navel; increase the flow of nectar with concentration on svadishthana cakra; and relieve
indigestion with concentration on muldhara cakra. Another ratio mentioned in the Kumbhaka
Paddhati is 1:2:1. The Yoga Cudamani Upa (103) recommends a very odd ratio: 6:8:5, which it
names OM syllable (omkara) pranayama.
In modern pranayama, measure is often called vritti, which in this context means
“action.” A 1:1 ratio of inhale to exhale is called sama vritti, or “same action,” any uneven ratio
is called vishama vritti, “un-same action.”
There are two possible INLETS and OUTLETS for the breath: NOSTRILS. The right
nostril is the “solar” nostril, called “tawny” (pingala), associated with the sun; so breath taken
through the right nostril is thought to be heating (cf surya bhedana). The left nostril is the “lunar”
nostril, called “comfort” (ida), associated with the moon; so breath taken through the left nostril
- is thought to be cooling (cf candra bhedana). MOUTH: the mouth is used only for inhale, and
typically accomplished through a “tube” formed either by the pursed lips (“crow beak”) or the
rolled extruded tongue (for shitali). NOTE: studies have shown that the percentage of the human
population that is able to roll the tongue ranges from 65 to 81 percent. A slightly higher
percentage of females can do this than males. For those unable to roll the tongue, an alternative
method is available, in which the inhale is taken through the spaces of the loosely set teeth
The use of the nostrils is far more common than the mouth. The OPENING of the
NOSTRILS can either be: UNREGULATED: i.e., left fully open. The most common forms of
unregulated breathing in modern pranayama are CONQUEROR (ujjayi) and AGAINST-THE-
GRAIN (viloma, cf GS 5.53). NOTE: traditional ujjayi is performed differently than its modern
variant. In the former, inhale is taken through both open nostrils, but the exhale is made through
only the left. Ujjayi is the only breath that can be practiced while walking.
DIGITALLY REGULATED: i.e., closed or partially closed using the tips of the fingers.
NOTE: traditionally the tips of the thumb, ring and little fingers of the right hand are used, the
index and middle fingers are usually curled into the palm (although some instruction manuals
show these two fingers extended and pressed against the bridge of the nose). The fingertips
rather than the pads of the fingers are recommended, since they are the most sensitive part of the
Regulated breath typically consists of a regular pattern of nostril opening and closing, of which
there are many. The most common of the traditional varieties are: INHALE: right open only
EXHALE: left open only (surya bhedana) INHALE: left open only EXHALE: right open only
(candra bhedana) INHALE: left open only, then close left, open right and EXHALE. Then
INHALE right, then close right, open left and EXHALE. This is one round, repeat.
BOTH UNREGULATED/REGULATED: i.e., either the IN or the EX is regulated in
some way, but not both. The most common modern varieties: INHALE: both open > EXHALE:
both half closed (anuloma 1a; anuloma turns up in traditional texts GS 5.53], it means with-the-
grain) INHALE: both open > EXHALE: alternate nostrils closed (anuloma 1b) INHALE: both
half closed > EXHALE: both open (pratiloma 1a) INHALE: alternate nostrils closed >
EXHALE: both open (pratiloma 1b)
The FLOW of breath through the nostrils may be either: CONTINUOUS. The
inhale/exhale is made in one continous breath until the lungs are either foll of empty.
INTERRUPTED: i.e., the normally continuous flow of the inhale and/or exhale may be
interspersed with one or more short pauses.
The SPEED of the flow is typically slower than normal breathing, especially the exhale;
but it can also be much faster, usually in what’s called Bellows (bhastrika).
MANTRA. Though we’re usually unaware of it, unless breathing heavily after vigorous
activity, the inhale/exhale of the normal breath makes a SOUND. The yogis interpret this sound
as a mantra. In the inhale they hear a sibilant sound (syllable SA), in the exhale an aspirate sound
(syllable HA). These natural sounds are then purposely amplified during pranayama by partially
closing the glottis (the space between the vocal cords), accomplished by directing the breath over
the back of the throat. The two syllables, SA and HA, are ordered in one of two ways, which
creates two mantras. These are: SO’HAM or SA’HAM: this is known as the UNSPOKEN (ajapa)
mantra. It’s said we repeat this mantra spontaneously throughout the day 21,600 times Here the
first syllable SA is taken to mean either saH (he) or sA (she), the second syllable HA is taken to
mean aham (I). For so’ham: according to the Sanskrit rules of what’s called junction, the “aH” of
- saH, when it precedes an “a” becomes an “o,” and the “a” of aham is dropped and replaced with
an avagraha, symbolized in the Roman alphabet with an apostrophe. The meaning of this mantra
is thus “he am I,” where “he” is the supreme self (paramatman), and “I” the embodied self
(jivatman). The implication is that the breath is the link between the two. For sa’ham: this is the
feminine version of the mantra, “she am I,” the sA when coming into contact with aham stays
unchanged, though the initial “a” of aham is again dropped and replaced by an avagraha.
HAMSA: this is known as the HAMSA mantra. It reverses the two syllables, inserting a
nasalized M between the two. The word literally means: a goose, gander, swan, flamingo (or
other aquatic bird, considered as a bird of passage). The goose is a symbol of the self. Says
The breath may also be accompanied by certain mentally repeated mantras, particularly
certain Sanskrit syllables like yaM or vaM, called “seed” (bija or garbha) mantras. These
syllables may in turn be accompanied with detailed visualizations and/or meditations. For
example, an inhale may be accompanied by the letter “a” and the visualization of specific aspects
Brahma (the creator), the creator deity.
There’s also a sounding breath in which the inhale/exhale is made to sound like a bee
(bhramari, the inhale like a male bee, the exhale like a female).
BANDHA Three “bonds” (bandha) are especially important in pranayama. Bandhas are a
sub-set of mudras, and so typically included in the mudra section of the old texts. MULA B.
(root), which involves the perineum and anal sphincter JALANDHARA B. (net holding), which
involves the throat
UDDIYANA B. (flying up), which involves the abdomen JIHVA B. (tongue)
TRADITIONAL BENEFITS (sample) Ability to move through space Ends disease Shakti
awakened Bliss/happiness Increase fire in body Youthful appearance No hunger/thirst Needs no
EYES (drishti): gaze directed either at the nose tip (nasa agra = more common) mid brow
VISUALIZATION: common images: hamsa (wild goose), sun/moon (nectar) (light),
traditional elements (earth, water, etc.), deities (especially trimurti: brahma [IN], vishnu [hold],
shiva [EX]), color (prana = blood red gem), apana (indra gopa = white or red), samana (between
milk and crystal), udana (pale white), vyana (ray of light); knots; lotus; or significant “vital
points” either nine or 18 in number; kundalini; unstruck sound (anahata nada)
NO PATTERN / PATTERN
COMMON NAMES FOR PRANA: vayu “wind” samirana “set in motion” vata “wind” marut
“shining one” pavana “purifier” matarishvan “breeze” anila”wind” ashuga “moving