Lesson 16 - Pranayama

In the last lesson you learnt about Asanas. Asanas enable you to sit in steady and comfortable position and meditate for long time. Once Asanas are mastered the next step is Pranayama. In this lesson you will understand what Pranayama is and its various flavors.

The word Pranayama consists of two words Prana + Ayama. Prana means the vital life force and Ayama means to control. Thus Pranayama refers to controlling the vital life force through various techniques. Often Prana is equated with breath. However, this is not so. Breath is just a gross form by which we absorb and nourish Prana. However, breath by itself is not Prana. We get butter out of milk but that butter by itself is not milk. It is the same thing. Prana is very subtle and hence to control it we need to use some gross way. That gross way is breath.

Our entire breathing process can be classified into three parts - inhalation, exhalation and retention. In Yogic terms they are called as Puraka, Rechaka and Kumbhaka respectively. Puraka and Rechaka are natural processes whereas Kumbhaka is to be induced intentionally during initial stages. After a prolonged practice even Kumbhaka can be performed in spontaneous way. Such spontaneous Kumbhaka is called as Kevala Kumbhaka. Under the influence of Kevala Kumbhaka, inhalation and exhalation stops entirely and mind becomes absolutely stand still.

Ancient Yogis observed that mind and prana are closely related. If one is controlled the other comes under control too. This can be verified easily. When you are angry your breathing becomes fast and heavy whereas when you are at peace you breathing is steady and easy. Thus Pranayama is a great tool to control ever wandering mind.

In Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, he does mentions about Pranayama. However, his description simply states what Pranayama is but not how to do Pranayama. In fact Yogis after Patanjali developed a detailed system of Pranayama. Such a detailed account of Pranayama is found in abundance in literature related to Hatha Yoga and Kundalini Yoga. Today Pranayama is becoming increasingly popular because of its health and stress management abilities. However, its real use is to awaken the spiritual potential by calming the mind.

In ancient Yogic texts you find mention of the following types of Pranayamas:

  • Kapalabhati
  • Nadishodhana
  • Surya Bheda
  • Ujjayi
  • Bhastrika
  • Sitkari
  • Sheetali
  • Bhramari
  • Moorchha
  • Plavini
You already know Kapalabhati as we discussed it as a part of Shatkarmas. Some important Pranayamas are discussed in the following sections.

Nadishodhana Pranayama

Nadishodhan Pranayama cleanses all the 72,000 nadis. As per Yoga our body contains many channels called Nadis that carry Prana to various parts of the body. Because of environmental conditions, disease and life style they are clogged with impurities. Nadishodhan Pranayama cleanses them thoroughly. The cleansed channels are capable of carrying Prana to higher energy centers thus acting as a catalyst in spiritual progress. The technique to perform this Pranayama is as follows:

  • Sit in any meditative posture such as Padmasana or Sukhasana
  • Keep your spine and head erect
  • Close your right nostril with right hand thumb
  • Exhale completely through left nostril
  • Now inhale slowly and steadily through left nostril
  • As you reach your capacity close the left nostril with ring finger of right hand
  • Hold the breath as long as you can without putting any strain or stress
  • Now release the thumb and exhale slowly via right nostril
  • Repeat the same process by inhaling though right nostril and exhaling through left nostril
This is one round of Nadishodhana Pranayama. Perform 10 such rounds initially and increase them gradually.

Surya Bhedana Pranayama

Surya Bhedana Pranayama activates Surya Nadi and hence the name. Surya Nadi is supposed to flow from right nostril across the length of spinal column. This pranayama generates heat in the body and hence must be performed under expert guidance. The technique to perform this pranayama is as follows:

  • Sit in any meditative posture with spine and head erect
  • Close left nostril with the ring finger of right hand
  • Inhale slowly via right nostril
  • As the inhalation is complete close the right nostril with the thumb of right hand
  • Retain the breath as much as comfortable
  • Slowly exhale via left nostril
  • Close the left nostril and again inhale through right nostril and repeat the above cycle
This pranayama sounds similar to Nadishodhana Pranayama but the difference is that you always inhale through right nostril and exhale via left instead of alternate nostril breathing of Nadishodhana.


Ujjayi Pranayama can be practiced any time and in any season. It is a soothing pranayama and enables you to develop breathing awareness. The technique to perform this pranayama is as follows:

  • Sit in any meditative position
  • Inhale slowly and steadily through both the nostrils
  • As you start inhaling contract your throat so that a soft hissing sound is heard.
  • Inhale as if you are inhaling from throat
  • Once you inhale to your capacity retain the breath as much as comfortable
  • Slowly exhale keeping the contracted throat as before
Keep repeating such cycles of inhalation and exhalation. Initially you can perform it for 5 minutes gradually increasing the time.

Bhastrika Pranayama

Bhastrika means bellows. In this Pranayama your lungs expand and collapse like bellows of blacksmith. This pranayama consists of quick inhalation and exhalation and this it is heat producing. It can be performed with slow, medium or fast pace as per your capacity. The technique to perform this pranayama is as follows:

  • Sit in any meditative position with spine and head erect
  • Inhale quickly so as to expand your chest i.e. lungs are filled with air
  • Without retaining the breath quickly exhale the breath
  • Again inhale the breath and exhale as before
Perform such quick rounds of inhalation and exhalation slowly and steadily without putting too much pressure or force.

Sitkari Pranayama

Sitkari Pranayama is cooling pranayama and should be performed more during summer season. This is soothing pranayama and gives immediate feeling of freshness. One gains control on hunger and thirst after regular practice of this pranayama. The technique to perform Sitkari is as follows:

  • Sit in any meditative position with spine and head erect
  • Place your tongue in such a way that it protrudes slightly outside the mouth
  • Start inhaling through mouth so as to get a cool blast of air on the tongue and throat
  • You will make sound si...si...si... during the inhalation
  • Retain the breath to your capacity and exhale normally through nose
Perform such rounds one after the other. This pranayama is also useful to remove toxins from the body.

Shitali Pranayama

This pranayama is similar to Sitkari. However, the tongue is rolled like beak of a bird and then air is inhaled through this beak. Otherwise it gives the same benefits as Sitkari.

You need not practice all the pranayamas discussed above every day. Nadishodhana, Ujjayi and Kapalabhati can be performed every day and then choose depending on your need and the season. In winter practice Bhastrika and Surya Bhedana more whereas in Summer practice Sitkari and Shitali more. One important thing to remember is not to overdo Kumbhaka. In fact initially you can skip doing Kumbhaka altogether. Once a rhythm is established you can introduce Kumbhaka in your practice.

While performing pranayama it is important to be focused on the act of pranayama. Do not let your mind wander away. This will help you to further enhance calmness of mind. If you practice meditation then pranayama must be performed before the meditation.

May the Peace be with you.

Bipin Joshi is an independent software consultant and trainer by profession specializing in Microsoft web development technologies. Having embraced the Yoga way of life he is also a yoga mentor, meditation teacher, and spiritual guide to his students. He is a prolific author and writes regularly about software development and yoga on his websites. He is programming, meditating, writing, and teaching for over 27 years. To read more about him go here. More details about his Kriya and Meditation online course are available here.

Posted On : 23 March 2007

Tags : Yoga Patanjali Hatha Yoga Raja Yoga Ashtanga Yoga Meditation Pranayama Courses