A man practicing Pranayama

Pranayama (Sanskrit: प्राणायाम prāṇāyāma) is a Sanskrit word meaning "extension of the prana or breath" or more accurately, "extension of the life force". The word is composed of two Sanskrit words, Prāna, life force, or vital energy, particularly, the breath, and "āyāma", to extend, draw out, restrain, or control.



Pranayama (Devanagari: प्राणायाम, prāṇāyāma) is a Sanskrit compound.

V. S. Apte provides fourteen different meanings for the word prana (Devanagari: प्राण, prāṇa) including these:[1]

  • Breath, respiration
  • The breath of life, vital air, principle of life (usually plural in this sense, there being five such vital airs generally assumed, but three, six, seven, nine, and even ten are also spoken of)[2]
  • Energy, vigor
  • The spirit or soul

Of these meanings, the concept of "vital air" is used by Bhattacharyya to describe the concept as used in Sanskrit texts dealing with pranayama.[3] Thomas McEvilley translates "prana" as "spirit-energy".[4] Its most subtle material form is the breath, but is also to be found in blood, and its most concentrated form is semen in men and vaginal fluid in women.[5]

Monier-Williams defines the compound prāṇāyāma as (m., also pl.) "N. of the three 'breath-exercises' performed during Saṃdhyā (See pūraka, recaka, kumbhaka"[6] This technical definition refers to a particular system of breath control with three processes as explained by Bhattacharyya: pūraka (to take the breath inside), kumbhaka (to retain it), and recaka (to discharge it).[7] There are also other processes of pranayama in addition to this three-step model.[7]

Macdonell gives the etymology as prāṇa + āyāma and defines it as "m. suspension of breath (sts. pl.)".[8]

Apte's definition of āyāmaḥ derives it from ā + yām and provides several variant meanings for it when used in compounds. The first three meanings have to do with "length", "expansion, extension", and "stretching, extending", but in the specific case of use in the compound prāṇāyāma he defines āyāmaḥ as meaning "restrain, control, stopping".[9]

An alternative etymology for the compound is cited by Ramamurti Mishra, who says that:

Expansion of individual energy into cosmic energy is called prāṇāyāma (prāṇa, energy + ayām, expansion).

Someone who studies and teaches pranayama is called a Pranalogist.

Hatha and Raja Yoga Varieties

Some scholars distinguish between hatha and raja yoga varieties of pranayama, with the former variety usually prescribed for the beginner. According to Taimni, hatha yogic pranayama involves manipulation of pranic currents through breath regulation for bringing about the control of chitta-vrittis and changes in consciousness, whereas raja yogic pranayama involves the control of chitta-vrittis by consciousness directly through the will of the mind.[11] Students qualified to practice pranayama are therefore always initiated first in the techniques of hatha pranayama.[12]

Bhagavad Gītā

Pranayama is mentioned in verse 4.29 of the Bhagavad Gītā.[13]

According to Bhagavad-Gītā As It Is, "prāṇāyāma" is translated to "trance induced by stopping all breathing", also being made from the two separate Sanskrit words, "prāṇa" and "āyāma".[14]


Prana is a subtle invisible force. It is the life-force that pervades the body. It is the factor that connects the body and the mind, because it is connected on one side with the body and on the other side with the mind. It is the connecting link between the body and the mind. The body and the mind have no direct connection. They are connected through Prana only.

Swami Chidananda Saraswati[15]

Yoga primarily works with the energy in the body through the science of pranayama or energy-control. Prana also means ‘breath.’ Yoga teaches how to still the mind through breath-control and attain higher states of awareness. The higher teachings of yoga take one beyond techniques and show the yogi or yoga practitioner how to direct his concentration in such a way as not only to harmonize human with divine consciousness, but to merge his consciousness in the Infinite.

Paramahansa Yogananda[16]

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali[17]
Pada (Chapter) English meaning Sutras
Samadhi Pada On being absorbed in spirit
Sadhana Pada On being immersed in spirit
Vibhuti Pada On supernatural abilities and gifts
Kaivalya Pada On absolute freedom

Pranayama is the fourth 'limb' of the eight limbs of Raja Yoga mentioned in verse 2.29 in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.[18][19] Patanjali discusses his specific approach to pranayama in verses 2.49 through 2.51, and devotes verses 2.52 and 2.53 to explaining the benefits of the practice.[20] Patanjali does not fully elucidate the nature of prana, and the theory and practice of pranayama seem to have undergone significant development after him.[21] He presents pranayama as essentially an exercise that is preliminary to concentration, as do the earlier Buddhist texts.[21]

Many yoga teachers advise that pranayama should be part of an overall practice that includes the other limbs of Patanjali's Raja Yoga teachings, especially Yama, Niyama, and Asana.[22]


According to the Pali Buddhist Canon, the Buddha prior to his enlightenment practiced a meditative technique which involved pressing the palate with the tongue and forcibly attempting to restrain the breath. This is described as both extremely painful and not conducive to enlightenment.[23] According to the Buddhist scheme, breathing stops with the fourth jhana, though this is a side-effect of the technique and does not come about as the result of purposeful effort.[24]

The Buddha did incorporate moderate modulation of the length of breath as part of the preliminary tetrad in the Anapanasati Sutta. Its use there is preparation for concentration.[21] According to commentarial literature, this is appropriate for beginners.[25]

For the Buddha, the most important aspect of breath meditation is the consciousness attending to the breath.[26] Buddhist tradition in general has urged moderation in the area of manipulation of the breath.[27] On the other hand, the popular Buddhist teacher Thanissaro Bhikku has advised his students to 'fiddle with the breath' until it becomes comfortable.[28] See Anapanasati for more about active and passive breathing.

The practitioners of the yogas of Mahamudra and Dzogchen are similar to those reached by the practitioners of pranayama in that in all cases there is a union with the nondual omnipresent - Brahman in Hinduism or Dharmakaya in Buddhism.[citation needed] See also Mysticism.


Several researchers have reported that pranayama techniques are beneficial in treating a range of stress related disorders,[29] improving autonomic functions,[30] relieving symptoms of asthma[31] (though a different study did not find any improvement[32]) and reducing signs of oxidative stress.[33][34] Practitioners report that the practice of pranayama develops a steady mind, strong will-power, and sound judgement,[22] and also claim that sustained pranayama practice extends life and enhances perception.[35]


Many yoga teachers recommend that pranayama techniques be practiced with care, and that advanced pranayama techniques should be practiced under the guidance of a teacher. These cautions are also made in traditional Hindu literature. Pregnant women may have to forgo pranayama.[36][37][38]

See also


  1. ^ Apte, p. 679.
  2. ^ For the vital airs as generally assumed to be five, with other numbers given, see: Macdonell, p. 185.
  3. ^ Bhattacharyya, p. 311.
  4. ^ McEvilley, Thomas. "The Spinal Serpent", in: Harper and Brown, p. 94.
  5. ^ Richard King, Indian philosophy: an introduction to Hindu and Buddhist thought. Edinburgh University Press, 1999, p. 70.
  6. ^ Monier-Williams, p. 706, left column.
  7. ^ a b Bhattacharyya, p. 429.
  8. ^ Macdonell, p.185, main entry prāṇāghāta
  9. ^ See main article आयामः (āyāmaḥ) in: Apte, p. 224. Passages cited by Apte for this usage are Bhagavatgita 4.29 and Manusmriti 2.83.
  10. ^ Mishra, p. 216.
  11. ^ Taimni, p. 258.
  12. ^ Iyengar, p. 244 – Iyengar, B. K. Sundara Raja (1995). Light on Yoga. ISBN 0-8052-1031-8
  13. ^ Gambhirananda, pp. 217–218.
  14. ^ Bhagavad-gita As It Is Chapter 4 Verse 29. Retrieved on 2011-02-25.
  15. ^ Chidananda, Sri Swami, The Philosophy, Psychology, and Practice of Yoga, Divine Life Society, 1984
  16. ^ Yogananda, Paramhansa, The Essence of Self-Realization, ISBN 0-916124-29-0
  17. ^ Stiles 2001, p. x.
  18. ^ Taimni, p. 205.
  19. ^ Flood (1996), p. 97.
  20. ^ Taimni, pp. 258–268.
  21. ^ a b c G. C. Pande, Foundations of Indian Culture: Spiritual Vision and Symbolic Forms in Ancient India. Second edition published by Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1990, p. 97.
  22. ^ a b Light on Pranayama, Sixth Edition, Crossroad Publishing Co.
  23. ^ Johannes Bronkhorst, The Two Traditions of Mediation in Ancient India. Franz Steiner Verlag Weisbaden GmbH, pp. 1–5.
  24. ^ Johannes Bronkhorst, The Two Traditions of Mediation in Ancient India. Franz Steiner Verlag Weisbaden GmbH, p. 84.
  25. ^ Edward Conze, Buddhist Meditation. Harper & Row, 1956, p. 66. Regarding the Buddha's incorporation of pranayama see also Buddhadasa, Mindfulness with Breathing. Revised edition published by Wisdom Publications, 1997, p. 53.
  26. ^ Frederic Spiegelberg, Living religions of the world. Prentice-Hall, 1956 , p. 164.
  27. ^ Edward Conze, Buddhist Meditation. Harper & Row, 1956, p. 29.
  28. ^ "You may have picked up the idea that you should never fiddle with the breath, that you should just take it as it comes. Yet meditation isn't just a passive process of being nonjudgmentally present with whatever's there and not changing it at all. Mindfulness keeps stitching things together over time, but it also keeps in mind the idea that there's a path to develop, and getting the mind to settle down is a skillful part of that path." - Mindfulness Defined by Thanissaro Bhikku,
  29. ^ Brown RP, Gerbarg PL (2005). "Sudarshan Kriya Yogic breathing in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression. Part II—clinical applications and guidelines". J Altern Complement Med 11 (4): 711–7. doi:10.1089/acm.2005.11.711. PMID 16131297. 
  30. ^ Pal GK, Velkumary S, Madanmohan (2004). "Effect of short-term practice of breathing exercises on autonomic functions in normal human volunteers". Indian J. Med. Res. 120 (2): 115–21. PMID 15347862. 
  31. ^ Vedanthan PK, Kesavalu LN, Murthy KC, et al. (1998). "Clinical study of yoga techniques in university students with asthma: a controlled study". Allergy Asthma Proc 19 (1): 3–9. doi:10.2500/108854198778557971. PMID 9532318. 
  32. ^ Cooper S, Oborne J, Newton S, et al. (2003). "Effect of two breathing exercises (Buteyko and pranayama) in asthma: a randomised controlled trial". Thorax 58 (8): 674–9. doi:10.1136/thorax.58.8.674. PMC 1746772. PMID 12885982. 
  33. ^ Bhattacharya S, Pandey US, Verma NS (2002). "Improvement in oxidative status with yogic breathing in young healthy males". Indian J. Physiol. Pharmacol. 46 (3): 349–54. PMID 12613400. 
  34. ^ Jerath R, Edry JW, Barnes VA, Jerath V (2006). "Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system". Med. Hypotheses 67 (3): 566–71. doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2006.02.042. PMID 16624497. 
  35. ^ Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha, 2002.
  36. ^ Visakhapatanam, Bharat, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Master E.K, Kulapathi Book Trust, ISBN 81-85943-05-2
  37. ^ Prescriptions for pranayama, Claudia Cummins
  38. ^ Breathing Lessons, Tony Briggs


  • Crowley, Aleister. 'Eight Lectures on Yoga'. Ordo Templi Orientis, 1939.
  • Bhattacharyya, N. N. History of the Tantric Religion. Second Revised Edition. (Manohar: New Delhi, 1999) p. 174. ISBN 81-7304-025-7
  • Chidananda, Sri Swami (1991). Path to Blessedness, 2nd Ed. The Divine Life Society. World Wide Web (WWW) Edition ISBN 978-817052086-3.
  • Feuerstein, Georg (1998). Tantra: The Path of Ecstacy. Boston: Shambhala Publications. ISBN 1-57062-304-X. 
  • Flood, Gavin (1996). An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43878-0. 
  • Gambhirananda, Swami (1997). Bhagavatgītā: With the commentary of Śaṅkarācārya (4 ed.). Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama Publication Department. ISBN 81-7505-041-1. 
  • Harper, Katherine Anne; Brown, Robert L. (2002). The Roots of Tantra. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-7914-5306-5. 
  • Iyengar, B. K. Sundara Raja (1985). The Light On Pranayama: The Yogic Art of Breathing. ISBN 0-8245-0686-3
  • Iyengar, B. K. Sundara Raja (1995). Light on Yoga. ISBN 0-8052-1031-8
  • Macdonell, Arthur Anthony (1996). A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.. ISBN 81-215-0715-4.  Reprint edition.
  • Mishra, Ramamurti S. (1963). The Textbook of Yoga Psychology. Monroe, New York: Baba Bhagavandas Publication Trust. ISBN 1-890964-27-1.  Reprint edition, 1997.
  • Saraswati, Swami Niranjanananda (1994). Prana Pranayama Prana Vidya. ISBN 81-85787-84-0
  • Shaw, Scott. The Little Book of Yoga Breathing: Pranayama Made Easy. ISBN 1-57863-301-X
  • Taimni, I. K. (1996). The Science of Yoga. Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House. ISBN 81-7059-212-7.  Eight reprint edition.

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