Yoga postures (asana) are typically the first thing people do when beginning their yoga practice. Ample time is spent learning sequences like sun salutations, or Bikram’s sequence of 26 postures. Depending on the style of yoga a person practices, they may have little exposure to another very deep and profound side of yogic practice: pranayama. The word pranayama refers to breathing practices that, while on the surface may seem a bit strange or lacking in usefulness, actually have a very important role in many styles of yoga.
According to B.K.S. Iyengar, “Pranayama is a conscious prolongation of inhalation, retention and exhalation.” This very pared down definition doesn’t explain why someone might want to consciously change their rate of breathing. To understand pranayama it’s helpful to understand prana. Yogi Bhajan said “Praana is the most powerful and most creative thing God ever created, because out of praana came life.” So what is prana? Classical yogic texts describe prana as the energy of the universe. This energy is the creator, sustainer, and destroyer, and because it permeates everything in the universe it is considered the breath of life.
Yogis can access this prana, and increase its flow in the body, through various breathing practices (pranayama) honed by generations of yogis through the ages. Pranayama practices manipulate the breath in various ways: extending or shortening the lengths of inhalation and exhalation, suspending the breath, or breathing in a syncopated fashion. The effects of these practices on the body and mind can be profound, shifting the mood and energy in the body noticeably. In Kundalini yoga, breathing practices are often combined with mudras (hand positions) and mantras to achieve very specific results. In other styles of yoga, such as Ashtanga and Bikram, specific pranayama practices are regularly used as part of daily practice.
Ashtanga yogis learn Ujjayi pranayama, sometimes called Conqueror’s Breath or Ocean Breath, to help increase the flow of prana in the body. Ujjayi can be very helpful for beginners, because the audible nature of the breathing is an excellent indicator of how the practice is going. If a yogi ceases ujjayi pranayama it may mean that they are straining too hard in a pose, and forgetting to breath. Maintaining ujjayi throughout a vinyasa practice not only keeps the flow of prana moving, but also shows that there is not an excess of physical or mental strain.
The Bikram sequence begins with a pranayama, and ends with a different pranayama. The sequence begins with Standing Deep Breathing, which is good for the lungs and nervous system. This pranayama can help with detoxification and also aids mental relaxation. The sequence ends with the more vigorous Kapalbhati, which is an energizing breathing practice that detoxifies the body and improves oxygenation. These two pranayama practices are integral to the Bikram sequence, and must always be done in Bikram yoga.
B.K.S. Iyengar’s classic book Light on Pranayama is a wonderful resource for Iyengar yogis, and anyone interested in pranayama from the classical Yogic perspective. Pranayama practices such as Sitali and Pratiloma are broken down into stages, so that beginners and advanced yogis alike can work with practices at their own level. In classic Iyengar fashion, the book is filled with photos to illustrate the details, as well as containing prop suggestions to assist in the correct practice of each pranayama. Being very influenced by classical Yoga as taught by Patanjali, pranayama has a more prominent role in Iyengar yoga than in some other styles.
Kundalini yogis have a seemingly infinite choice of pranayama practices to choose from. Kundalini yoga makes use of breathing practices such as alternate nostril breathing, breath of fire, and one minute breath. What sets Kundalini yoga apart from other styles is the way these practices are utilized. By combining pranayama practices with kriyas, mantras, and mudras, they can be applied for very specific purposes. Harijot Kaur Khalsa’s book Praana Praanee Praanayam contains a wealth of Kundalini pranayama practices which can be used to experience Infinity, increase your energy, or to make you a saint.
Exploring pranayama can be a fantastic addition to a yogi’s personal practice. It can empower you to change your mood, enhance your asana practice, and facilitate your meditation. And because it involves your breath, it’s something you can practice anywhere, anytime!