What is the purpose of pranayama? Refer to classical texts.
What precautions and prohibitions should practitioners be aware of in the variety of pranayama practices listed in the main texts?
Discuss the use of ratios in pranayama.
a) What is Pranayama? Refer to classical texts. There are many definitions of pranayama as cited in the classical texts of yoga.
However, the most simple definition can be found by breaking the word down into two; ‘prana’ means energy of breath, while ‘ayama’ means control or restraint. So put very simply, ‘pranayama’ means ‘breath control’.
For yogis, however, there is much more to it than this simple explanation. It is considered more of an art to bring about mastery of the breath and energy in order to lead to a stilling of the mind in preparation for meditation and raja yoga.
Pranayama involves generally taking air in and out through the nose. However, there are a couple of exceptions to this which involve breathing in and out through the mouth (known as sitali and sikari). With pranayama, the breath can either be free-flowing as the yogi inhales and exhales, or breath retention can be involved.
There are many abstract definitions of pranayama which can be found in yoga classic texts. For example:
Patanjali deals with pranayama in five sutras (49-53). He says that once a perfection of yoga postures is achieved ‘pranayama naturally follows’:
“That firm posture being acquired, the movements of inhalation and exhalation should be controlled. This is pranayama” (Sutra 49).
The Bhagavad Gita refers to pranayama throughout its texts with its first mention being in chapter 4 v 29 (page 46):
“Some offer up prana, the mysterious vital energy force within them. They do this through control of the breath, literally stopping their inhaling and exhaling.”
In his book, Light on Yoga, BKS Iyengar states that pranayama should follow mastery of asana. He says:
“Pneumatic tools can cut through the hardest rock. In pranayama, the yogi uses his lungs as pneumatic tools. If they are not used properly, they destroy both the tool and the person using it. The same is true of pranayama.”
For me, the most useful definition of pranayama, comes in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which refers to pranayama as a technique through which the quantity of prana in the body is activated to a higher level:
“Prana is the vital life force and pranayama is the process by which the internal pranic store is increased… it is not merely breath control, but a technique through which the quality of prana in the body is activated to a higher frequency.” (page 146)
b) What is the purpose of pranayama? Refer to classical texts. There are many purposes of yoga and different gurus see different benefits of practising pranayama.
Certain pranayamas are carried out to purify the channels so that the increased energy can be handled appropriately. For example, the ujjayi breath clears the pingala nadi for the ascension of kundalini.
Patanjali covers the aims and benefits of pranayama in 2:52 where he states: ‘As its result, the veil over the inner light is destroyed’. The commentary expands by saying: “pranayama indirectly helps us to understand the Oneness., the never-changing One, because it removes the veil.”
BKS Iyengar (in his Light on Yoga) talks more about the physical benefits of the different pranayamas on the body than the spiritual element. For example, in Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), he states that the blood receives a larger amount of oxygen than in normal breathing – the effect being that one feels refreshed and the nerves are calmed and purified (page 374).
With Bhastrika and Kapalabhati, the liver, spleen and pancreas are activated and invigorated as well as the abdominal muscles. This has the knock on effect of digestion being improved, the sinuses drained, the eyes feeling cool and one has a general sense of exhilaration. (page 378).
Indeed there are many more benefits that Iyengar alludes to in his books – some of which a medical expert would I am sure be dubious of, but some to me do sound viable.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika also touches on the effect of pranayama on the physical body:
“By proper practice of pranayama all diseases can be eradicated. Through improper practice all diseases can arise.” (Ch. 2 v.6 & 16 – page 164 & 180)
As far as my yoga teaching is concerned, which so far has been very limited, pranayama does not feature a great deal so far. While I see the importance of basic breathing and always have a section on this in my own classes, I do not intend to place huge emphasis on pranayama in the future.
However, I see the ujjayi breath as being extremely fundamental to asana practise, so intend to introduce my students to shortly. I will also consider introducing alternate nostril breath as I feel that this is accessible to beginners (of which there are many in my class).
c) What precautions and prohibitions should practitioners be aware of in the variety of Pranayama practices listed in the main texts? Pranayama can be an intense form of breathing so anyone practising pranayama should be generally in good health. The main reasons for not taking part in pranayama are due to coughs and colds which block the airways, making breathing through the nose very difficult.
It is important to consider when to practise pranayama. For example, it should not be done on a full stomach nor immediately following asana practice – a period of cooling down or relaxation in between asana work and pranayama is important.
In an ideal world, pranayama should be practised first thing in the morning, but this is not always possible, in particular in the setting of a class which can take place at any time of the day.
The exception to all this is the ujjayi breath which can be done during asana practise and Sivananda teachers start the practise with kapalabhati and alternate nostril breathing.
This pranayama is safe for most adults, although should not be performed by students suffering from colds as the restriction of air to the back of the throat can cause coughing and irritation in the throat.
For students suffering from depression, ujjayi can be inappropriate as it can be too introspective.
Alternate nostril breathing (Nadi Shodhana)
Not suitable for students with colds and blocked noses. Like the ujjayi breath it can be too introspective for students with depression. Surya Bhedi (inhaling through the right and exhaling through the left) should not be performed in summer while Chandra bhedi (inhaling through the left and out through the right) should be avoided in winter.
Bhastrika (forced inhalations and exhalations & Kapalabhati (forced exhalations)
This is possibly the pranayama which is unsuitable for the most number of ailments. It should be avoided by students with the following conditions:
High blood pressure, low blood pressure, atherosclerosis, angina and any other heart of circulatory condition, hiatus hernia, hernia, any lung condition such as emphysema, pregnancy, menstruation, stress incontinence, rib or chest injuries, vertigo, signs of dizziness or nausea, eye or ear problems, epilepsy.
This pranayama involves holding the breath so therefore should be avoided by students with high blood pressure, circulatory disease, pregnancy, glaucoma, eye and ear problems.
Kaki Mudra (crow’s beak)
This is suitable for most students but should be avoided by those with chapped lips.
Sitkari (hissing breath_
This pranayama should be avoided by students with sensitive teeth due to the inhalation of air through a wide open mouth
Sitali (cooling breath)
This pranayama should be suitable for all students except those who are genetically unable to curl their tongue into a tube.
Should be avoided by students suffering from headaches and migraines.
Any of the above with internal or external retentions
Retentions should be avoided by students with high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, angina and any heart or circulatory condition, hiatus hernia, any lung condition like emphysema, pregnancy and epilepsy.
If in doubt about whether to practise pranayama, the general rule is that the student should consult their doctor.
d) Discuss the use of ratios in Pranayama. In pranayama, the use of ratio refers to the length of inhale, exhale and retention and the proportions appointed to each component.
They are used to give an idea of how long a yoga student is supposed to breathe in, hold the breath, breathe out and hold the breath out. There are therefore always four numbers given.
For example, in normal breathing, the ratio would be outlined as: ‘1:0:1:0’.This means that the inhalation and exhalation will both last one count, and there is no breath retention after the inhale, or after the exhale.
With the example of Nadi Shodhana, the recommended ratio is ‘1:4:2:2’.
Radios can be very helpful in helping the student to get into the rhythm of a particular pranayama and to understand how long to inhale / exhale for as well as how long to hold the breath for.
(Approx 1,500 words)
Bibliography Muktibodhananda, Swami (1998) Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Yoga Publications Trust
Iyengar, BKS (2001) Light on Yoga, Thorsons
Satchidananda, Sri Swami (2009) The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Integral Yoga Publications
Hawley, Jack (2001) The Bhagavad Gita, New World Library
Easwaran, Eknath (2009) Essence of the Upanishads, Nilgiri Press