Pranayama and Yogic Breathing

“Prana” means breath and “Ayama” means pause or retention. Hence, Pranayama literally means retention of breath. However, Pranayama should not be equated simply with merely holding one’s breath or failing to breathe, which is debilitating. Pranayama means creating a balance of energies through which our vitality is extended and our breath is deepened. Through Pranayama, one slows down and extends the breath so that one’s inner Prana or higher life-force can manifest. This also aids in slowing down and calming the mind. The practice of Pranayama balances Prana and Apana and normalizes Vata. In this way, it is useful in treating many diseases. The use of Prana for healing, or Pranic healing, is an important aspect of Ayurveda.

While there are many types of Pranayama, they are usually classified in four groups based upon the nature of the retention:

Retention after expiration (rechaka), called outer retention (bahya kumbhaka)

. Retention after inspiration (puraka), called inner retention (abhyantara kumbhaka)

. Retention made at once

. Retention after many inhalations and exhalations

These last two forms of retention are called “kevala kumbhaka”. Thus, the action of Pranayama consists of four phases:

. Inspiration – Puraka

. Inner retention – Abhyantara Kumbhaka

. Expiration – Rechaka

. Outer retention – Bahya Kumbhaka


The proportion of inhalation, exhalation and retention is important in determining the strength and nature of Pranayama. A beginner should practice Primayama with a one-to-two ratio of inhalation and exhalation; that is, with exhalation held twice as long as inhalation. After proficiency in this is’ gained, one should practice with a proportion of inhalation one, internal retention two, exhalation two and external retention two.

The ideal proportion is inhalation one, internal retention four, exhalation two, and external retention four, but this takes some time to be able to do with ease and requires the development of much internal strength. In Pranayama there should be no straining to achieve results but a natural deepening of the breath by letting go of strain and tension.


Pranayama is best learned by direct instruction from a qualified teacher. The following guidelines should not substitute for that. To practice Pranayama, sit in Padmasana (lotus posture), Siddhasana, Svastikasana, or any other comfortable seated pose. The place of practice should be well ventilated but the draft of air should not come directly toward the body. Open air and a calm and quiet place are preferable.

Certain types of Pranayama require closing alternate nostrils. For this, the right palm is first spread out. The index and middle fingers are turned down, lightly resting just above the bridge of the nose. The thumb is placed on the bridge of the nose at the right nostril and the pinky and ring fingers together on the left. Then alternately, the thumb or other two fingers are used to close and open the right or left nostrils for Pranayama.

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