The root of this Sanskrit word is prana, meaning (VS Apte): breath, respiration; the breath of life, vitality, life, vital air, principle of life (esp. the 5 pranas, viz. prana, udana, samana, apana, vyana), wind , air inhaled; energy, vigor, strength, power; spirit, soul; The Supreme Spirit. The whole term means support of life, maintenance, livelihood; the act of breathing. Majumdar (p. 198), says pranayama means "control of breath" ...with a view to controlling the life force, or the nervous energy, of the body. Iyengar (p.32), elaborates that the ayama stem is about three movements: vertical extension, horizontal extension, cyclical extension. These aspects involve inhalation, exhalation, and retention.

By practicing pranayama one learns to move prana to all parts of the body. No hardness or tension as in deep breathing should be manifested as this inhibits the movement of prana. Done with asanas impediments to the flow of prana are eliminated. We can say that any disease is the de facto defect in the flow of prana. Managing prana helps calm the mind and as the mind goes so goes the physiology. Inhalation stimulates the CNS to activate peripheral nerves and involves receiving energy from outside. Exhalation releases wastes and relaxes the CNS/peripheral nerves. Iyengar states further that retention activates both processes simultaneously.

Generally speaking, yoga practices should be coordinated into a sequential routine: asanas first, next pranayama, finally meditation. This sequence at first releases gross stresses and impediments in physiology and then more subtle ones and finally, the mind itself is calmed/ controlled. Majumdar says the emotions and the nerves benefit from this approach. All manner of emotional distress is reflected in our breathing and restoring proper breathing restores mental health. Here are some tips he offers for proper practice of pranayama:

Learn to sit in a proper manner--padmasana (lotus) or siddhasana or sukhasana. "The body should be held even and straight and relaxed, with head, neck, and back in a line. Eyes should be closed. The arms in the simple pranayamas may rest on the knees or alternate nostril breathing the left hand should rest on left knee while right one operates the nostrils (p. 200)."

Some Simple Pranayamas (pp. 200-201):

  1. "Breathe in slowly as much as you easily can and immediately exhale, very, very slowly--as much as you can without pulling in the abdomen hard. Keep the body steady, still, and relaxed and keep the mind empty and on the breath alone. After you have completed the exhalation suspend breathing as long as you can while keeping the body still and mind empty as before. The attention can also be directed to the heart center during this pranayama."

  2. "Breathe in slowly, keeping a count, and after a slight pause breathe out still more slowly with a longer count. Breathing out should always be done more slowly. Try the following counts:  4:6, 6:9, 8:12, 12:18. Have a little stop after the exhalation."

  3. "Concentrate your attention in the heart center. As you inhale imagine that the breath is radiating from the heart to all the limbs and extremities of the body like a subtle and pleasant current. Breathe out very slowly and feel that the current is being withdrawn and concentrated in the heart again. After practicing this for a while stop at the end of each exhalation as long as you can and keep concentrating on the heart area, imagining that it is filled with a feeling of tangible delight as it were. Try to recall the feeling of happiness one experiences in the heart when in love, the feeling that comes from the remembrance of a beloved one. Do this as long as you can."

  4. Another popular method is called nadi shodhana or alternate nostril breathing: sitting comfortably as per above with the right thumb block the right nostril and inhale through the left nostril. Then with the right pinky (ring finger for those who find this difficult) finger block the left nostril and exhale through the right nostril. Inhale through the right nostril and then block with thumb and exhale through the left nostril. Continue for 5' - 10'. There are variations on this theme including using counts for inhale such as 4, 6, 8 etc.; counts for the hold such as 4, 6, 8; counts for the exhale such as 8, 12, 16 etc. (twice as long as the inhalation count); counts for the hold 2, 4, 8 etc. This practice is said to balance the brain physiology on both sides and since the brain controls the physiology of the rest of the body, it too gets balanced. Calming the body calms the mind. Thus the process can result in its natural conclusion--samadhi.

A final thought: good posture promotes good pranayama and therefore health.


  1. BKS Iyengar Yoga--The Path to Holistic Health, Ranjana Sengupta, Project Editor, Dorling Kindersley, New York, 22001

  2. Introduction to Yoga Principles and Practices, Sachindra Kumar Majumdar, University Books, New Hyde Park, NY, 1964

(C) Copyright 2006 Michael Dick All Rights Reserved