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The SATYA Foundation



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Asana | Pranayama | Meditation

Pranayama is the fourth stage of Yoga in Patanjali’s Ashtanga. It is generally defined as rhythmic control of breath. The word Pranayama is comprised of two roots; Prana and Ayama. “Prana” is the vital force that permeates all life, it exists in all things, whether animate or inanimate, it sustains us and without it, we die. It can be cultivated and channelled through certain yogic breathing exercises that are referred to as “Pranayama.” “Yama” is often translated as control and is used to denote various rules or codes of conduct, but “ayama” is defined as extension or expansion and also requires non-control or awareness of the breath as much as control. Both translations are acceptable and relate to different aspects of pranayama, which serves as an important bridge between asana and meditation and lies at the heart of all yoga practice.

Pranayama should not be considered simply as breathing exercises. Pranayama influences the flow of energy and nervous system balance in the body and mind. Pranayama provides methods where the life force is activated and regulated to attain a higher state of energy and awareness.

Natural breath awareness
Most people aren’t even aware of their breathing and many people breathe incorrectly. Begin by learning natural breath awareness. The breath can be either voluntary or involuntary but if stays unconscious it stays under the influence of the more primitive parts of the brain, such the medulla and reticular formation in the brainstem. Many times throughout the day, various thoughts and the emotions will affect its rhythm, and affect both body and mind.

Formal pranayama practice is often introduced too soon in yoga classes. Simple pranayama, though, should be incorporated into every yoga class. At least breath awareness, if not breath control, is essential and a typical beginners class starts with asana, moves on to pranayama and then ends with a meditation or relaxation such as yoga nidra. During asana, students are advised to inhale and exhale according to the requirements of the asana, but for beginners, no additional breath manipulation is introduced until the students are able to sit for extended periods in one of the main seated poses without pain or discomfort.

Four aspects of Pranayama:
1.   Inhalation (Pooraka)
2.   Exhalation (Rechaka)
3.   Internal Breath Retention (Antar Kumbhaka)
4.   External Breath Retention (Bahir Kumbhaka)

Nose Breathing
Deepak Chopra, M.D., author, makes a simple and profound statement, "Breathing is the link between the biological and spiritual elements of our nature." When one is in a meditative state, one is nose breathing.

Breathing through the nose has many benefits beyond filtering, warming and wetting the air. The sinuses produce nitric oxide, which kills certain bacteria in small doses and assists oxygen uptake in the lungs. Nerves that regulate breathing are also found in the nasal passages that feed up into the hypothalamus in the brain. The inhaled air stimulates reflex nerves that control breathing and regulate autonomic nervous system balance. Each nostril is innervated independently by nerves from the opposite side of the brain and functions synergistically in tune with internal and external rhythms.

Breathing through the mouth has many disadvantages including upper respiratory tract infections, allergic asthma, sinusitis and other things. Always breath through the nose unless specifically advised otherwise for a long and healthy life. Mouth breathing bypasses the nasal nervous input and makes regular breathing difficult. It can also lead to snoring, irregular breathing and more serious conditions such as sleep apnea and other heart conditions. However, if the nose is blocked due to a cold, mouth breathing for short while should not cause long term problems.

Yoga students need to become aware of their breathing and learn both nose breathing and deeper breathing using the abdomen and chest combined. They should not make loud sounds but keep the breath quiet. Pranayama practices require conscious breathing and to pay close attention to the reactions of the body during these breathing practices.

Pranayama should only be practiced by those who can already regulate and control the basics of breathing, that is a minimum requirement. Asanas that help to increase lung volume also help prepare the respiratory muscles control required for pranayama practice. Asana practice encourages pranayama, but the most important part of pranayama is the exhalation. If the exhalation is not full and complete, then the quality of the remaining air in the lungs is diminished and the whole pranayama practice can be affected. If the student is not able to breathe in and out slowly and quietly, they are not ready for formal pranayama techniques.

Safety in Pranayama
Pranayama is safe provided you follow certain common sense rules. Obviously, any one with asthma, emphysema or any other breath-related problem should consult their physician first. Certain pranayamas can induce dizziness or even loss of consciousness in some people. If this happens, avoid these pranayamas. Some pranayamas can raise or even lower blood pressure, again students should consult their physicians. Remember a yoga instructor is not meant to be a replacement for a doctor.

Don't make the mistake of mixing a bit of this with a bit of that. Don't mix Buteko with yogic breathing or take a Pilates breath into a yoga class or learn to breathe in a gym doing weights or aerobics and then use that breath in a yoga practice. This is NOT correct and can sometimes be counter productive or even harmful in certain situations. Each type of breathing has it's benefits and precautions and must be applied correctly in those situations that require it and not generalised.

Diaphragmatic breathing
The diaphragm is a sheet of muscle that separates the chest and abdominal cavities.  During inhalation, the lower part of the lungs are stretched as the diaphragm moves down. The abdominal organs are compressed down and move out, while massaging the internal organs improving digestive and excretory functions. During exhalation, the lungs are emptied as the diaphragm relaxes back up again, the abdominal muscles assist by pushing the abdominal organs in and back up.

Thoracic breathing
Expansion and contraction of the ribcage creates a thoracic breath using muscles attached to the ribs and muscles between the ribs called the external and internal intercostal muscles. During inhalation, the ribcage moved up, forward and out to the sides to create a negative pressure gradient, drawing air into the lungs. During exhalation, which is often a more passive process, the muscles relax allowing the ribcage to recoil back inwards, down and back to a neutral position. Thoracic breathing is less efficient than abdominal breathing as more muscular effort is involved, however it has its place and is often combined with abdominal breathing in various ways.

Clavicular breathing
Clavicular breathing is not often used by itself but is more used as the final stage of ribcage expansion. It is achieved as the clavicles and sternum are pulled upwards by the sternocleidomastoid muscles and the scalenes to ventilate the upper lobes of the lungs. This method of breathing requires a lot of effort and is only used during extreme physical exertion, stress or in emphysema.

Full yogic breath
Students need first to learn how to breathe slowly and deeply first by expanding the abdomen, then the chest. When exhaling, the breath empties in reverse, from chest to abdomen and pulling the abdomen in slightly at the end to help empty the lungs more completely. This is called the “full yogic breath” or the “three-part breath” and is the foundation of all the yogic breathing techniques used for most asanas, most meditations and all the relaxation techniques including Yoga Nidra. It is the preferred way of breathing in the North Indian styles of yoga, which are based on the many Tantric and meditative traditions.

Different yoga teaching traditions teach different ways of breathing for different reasons and each has its place in yoga. No one breathing technique is suitable for all persons in all situations, though. In South India where yoga practice is more physical, various breathing styles have evolved.

In the “Ashtanga” tradition of Patabi Jois (not to be confused with the original Ashtanga of Patanjali) students are instructed to hold the abdomen in, expand the lower chest first, when inhaling, then the middle chest, and finally the upper chest. Exhalation is then done in the reverse order.

The Iyengar tradition teaches to keep the belly more passive, the lower ribs are activated first, then the middle ribs and upper chest. Emphasis is placed on expanding the rib cage because Mr Iyengar had asthma as a child and needed to breathe this way to assist in improving his breathing and his overall health. It is not suitable for everyone, though, as most people don’t have that particular type of asthma.

T.K.V. Desikachar’s “Viniyoga” teaches to inhale from the top down, expanding the upper chest first, then the middle chest, lower ribs and the abdomen last. Breathing out is in the reverse order. If you have high blood pressure, this type of breathing will not be good for you though.

As you can see, there are completely different ways of breathing being taught and most people tend to stick with one style of yoga practice and don’t usually get to study the different types. Even many experienced yoga teachers do not know the different styles of breathing or why they are being taught that particular way and many simply teach what their tradition teaches and is often a one-size-fits-all approach. Each breathing style has its benefits and its contraindications but should be understood in its context.


This description will focus on the “full yogic breath” also known as the “three-part breath” from the North Indian styles of yoga as it is the foundation of all the main yogic breathing techniques used for most asanas, most meditations and all the relaxation techniques including Yoga Nidra taught in the Raja Yoga and Tantric traditions of North India.

1.   Sit in any meditation asana with the spine straight and head up.

2.   Exhale to clear the lungs first.

3.   Inhale, allowing the abdomen to expand fully without pushing it out. Little or no sound of the breath should be heard. Then begin to expand the chest outward and upward. When the chest is fully expanded, the shoulders and clavicles begin to move up. The whole inhalation should be continuous, with each phase merging into the next. Do not strain or hold the breath in for too long.

4.   To exhale, relax the shoulders and upper chest first, then the whole chest contracts inward and downward. The diaphragm begins to move upwards by drawing the abdominal muscles in towards the spine. Hold the breath out for a moment at the end of each exhalation. This is one round of full yogic breathing.


The most important guidelines for pranayama are that there should be no strain during any pranayama practice and there should not be any violent movements. Breath retention should not be introduced until the basics are mastered and do not force any breathing practice. The lungs are very delicate and easily injured. Regularity is always far better than doing a lot of practice once a week.

Students should never be in a hurry to progress to more difficult practices until they are ready. Different people have different capacities and many are accustomed to shallow breathing or breathing in a particular manner for many years. The full yogic breath can be difficult for beginners to learn but once mastered, it will be a great benefit.

Anxiety and fear can cause shallow and quick breathing to become entrenched. Practice to deepen the breath can be very beneficial, but if complicated breathing techniques are practiced too quickly or too soon, students can have a negative reaction.

Expanding the breath capacity
To expand breath capacity, the abdominal muscles are contracted more to extend the exhalation and exhalation becomes deeper and up to twice the time taken for inhalation.  Slower exhalation helps develop the relaxation response and has many health advantages including slower heart rate and a reduction in blood pressure as well as a more balanced mental and emotional state.  

Be gentle, be supportive and most importantly, learn at your own pace. A good instructor is there for the student, not the other way around. Students should not be expected to keep up with each other or with the teacher.



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