By Andre Haralyi M.A., C-IAYT
Prāṇāyāma, commonly translated as “breath control,” is composed of two Sanskrit words, prāṇa which means “life-force, vital-force, energy or breath” and yāma meaning “restraint.” So, Prāṇāyāma is better understood as the stoppage of the breath.
“The cutting off of the flow of inhalation and exhalation, [is prāṇāyāma]. Its operations are external (vāhya-vṛtti Prāṇāyāma), internal (ābhyantara-vṛtti Prāṇāyāma) and suppression (stambha-vṛtti Prāṇāyāma). It is observed according to time, place and number, and become long and subtle. The fourth is withdrawal from external and internal conditions of breath. Thus the covering of light is dissolved. And there is fitness of the mind for concentration (dhāraṇā).”Yoga-Sūtras II. 49 – 53
“Prāṇāyāma is said to be of three kinds: exhalation (rechaka), inhalation (puraka) and retention (kumbhaka). Kumbhaka is tough to be of two kinds: sahita and kevala. Until such time as kevala is mastered, one should practice sahita. Abandon exhalation and inhalation. Hold the breath comfortably. This is the one called Kevalakumbhaka.
Nothing in the three worlds is hard to win by one who masters Kevalakumbhaka without exhalation or inhalation. One made powerful by Kevalakumbhaka, from holding the breath as desired, obtains even the state of Rāja-Yoga. In this there is no doubt.”Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā II.71 – 74
Although there are many physical and physiological benefits from this technique, the ultimate purpose of Prāṇāyāma is twofold:
1. To control the movement of the mind
“When the breath is unsteady, the mind is unsteady. When the breath is steady, the mind is steady and the yogi becomes steady. Therefore one should restrain the breath.”Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā II.2
“He who binds the breath, binds the mind. He who binds the mind, binds the breath. The causes of [the fluctuations] of the mind are vāsanās and breath. When one perishes, both perish. The breath dissolves where the mind dissolves. The mind dissolves where the breath dissolves. Like milk and water blended together, mind and breath have the same action. Where there is breath, there is thinking. Where there is mind, there is breathing. When one is active, the other is active. When one perishes, the other perishes. If these two don’t perish, the group of sense is active. If these two perish, the state of liberation is attained.”Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā IV.21 – 25
“The mind is the lord of the senses, but the breath is the lord of the mind. Laya is the lord of the breath, and laya depends on nada.”Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā IV.29
2. To forcefully raise the kuṇḍalinī-shakti through the central channel (suṣumṇā-nāḍī) and begin its ascension to the head.
“The breath splits open the mouth of the suṣumṇā-nāḍī and enters easily once all the nāḍīs are purified by restraining prāṇa correctly. Steadiness of mind is born when the breath moves in the middle (suṣumṇā-nāḍī). This state of mental steadiness is called manonmani (Rāja-Yoga).”Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā II.41 – 42
“Through retention of the breath, the kuṇḍalinī is awakened. Through awakening the kuṇḍalinī, the suṣumṇā-nāḍī is unblocked, and success in Haṭha is born.”Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā II.75
“Make the mind without objects at the end of retention of prāṇa. One should reach the state of Rāja-Yoga by engaging in this practice.”Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā II.77
“These are indicators of success in Haṭha-Yoga: leanness of body, clearness of face, distinctness of nada, very clear eyes, health, victory over bindu, lighting of the digestive fire and purity of the nāḍīs.”Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā II.78
“Just as a lion, elephant or tiger is tamed step by step, so the breath is controlled. Otherwise it may cause harm to the practitioner.Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā II.15 – 16
Correct Prāṇāyāma will weaken all diseases. Improper practice of Prāṇāyāma will strengthen all diseases.”
- Never force the breath.
- Be mindful and avoid any tension.
- Do not practice when sick.
- Always practice with a balanced and concentrated mind.
There are three parts to a breath cycle in Prāṇāyāma practices:
- Inhalation (pūraka)
- Exhalation (recaka)
- Retention with air (antara kumbhaka) or without air (bāhya kumbhaka)
Prāṇāyāma techniques described in the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā :
- Suryabhedana: “Inhale through the right nostril, hold to the limit (kumbhaka), then slowly exhale through the left nostril.” HYP II.48-49
- Ujjayi: “Slowly draw the breath through both nostrils so it resonates from the throat to the heart, hold to the limit (kumbhaka), then slowly exhale through the left nostril.” HYP II.51
- Sitkari: “Inhale making the sound of “seet” in the mouth, hold to the limit (kumbhaka), then slowly exhale through both nostrils.” HYP II.54
- Shitali: “Draw the air with the tongue, hold to the limit (kumbhaka), then slowly exhale through both nostrils.” HYP II. 57
- Bhastrikā: “ Close the mouth, exhale through both nostrils so it resonates in the heart throat ad up to the skull, then quickly inhale up to the heart. Exhale in inhale in this manner again and again. Just as blacksmith works the bellows with speed, move the breath in one’s body with the will.” HYP II.60-62
- Bhramari: “Inhale to both nostrils and slowly exhale through both nostrils producing the sound of a bee” HYP II.68
- Murccha: “At the end of the inhalation, hold Jalandhara-bandha tightly and slowly exhale through bot nostrils.” HYP II.69
- Plavini: “ Move a large amount of air inside, filling the belly. Float.” HYP II. 70