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File:Tanumânasî kapalabhati.JPG
Man practicing Prāṇāyām

Prāṇāyāma (Sanskrit: प्राणायाम prāṇāyāma) is a Sanskrit word meaning "extension of the prāṇa or breath" or "extension of the life force". The word is composed of two Sanskrit words: prana, life force, or vital energy, (noted particularly as the breath), and ayāma, to extend or draw out. (Not "restrain, or control" as is often translated from yam instead of ayāma). It is a yogic discipline with origins in ancient India.


Prāṇāyāma (Devanagari: प्राणायाम prāṇāyāma) is a Sanskrit compound.

V. S. Apte provides fourteen different meanings for the word prāṇa (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 prāṇāyāma.[3] Thomas McEvilley translates prāṇa 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 pūrak, rechak (English: retch or throw out), kumbhak".[6] This technical definition refers to a particular system of breath control with three processes as explained by Bhattacharyya: pūrak (to take the breath inside), kumbhak (to retain it), and rechak (to discharge it).[7] There are also other processes of prāṇāyāma 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).

Hatha and Raja Yoga Varieties

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

Bhagavad Gītā

Prāṇāyāma 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 āyām.[14]

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali[15]
Pada (Chapter) English meaning Sutras
Samadhi Pada On being absorbed in spirit
Sadhana Pada On being immersed in spirit <center>55
Vibhuti Pada On supernatural abilities and gifts <center>56
Kaivalya Pada On absolute freedom <center>34

Pranayama is the fourth 'limb' of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga mentioned in verse 2.29 in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.[16][17] Patanjali, a Hindu Rishi, 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.[18] Patanjali does not fully elucidate the nature of prana, and the theory and practice of pranayama seem to have undergone significant development after him.[19] He presents pranayama as essentially an exercise that is preliminary to concentration, as do the earlier Buddhist texts.[19]

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.[20]

Forms of Prāṇāyāma

There are over 50 particular Prāṇāyāma techniques and forms, these include:[21][22]

  • Anuloma prāṇāyāma- A form of alternate nostril breath (distinct from nadi shodhana).
  • Viloma Prāṇāyāma - "the air is inhaled with pauses and exhaled as one breath or vice-versa, usually with added kumbhaka".[23]
  • Pratiloma Prāṇāyāma - The inverse of Anuloma: the inhale is drawn through one nostril (alternating sides each time) and the exhale is released through both nostrils.
  • Ujjayi Prāṇāyāma - aka "Victorious or Conquering Breath" is breathing with the glottis slightly engaged, producing a soft sound. Considered to be the only prāṇāyāma one can safely practice while walking or engaged in other activities (e.g. during āsana practice. Some older versions require digital prāṇāyāma (the fingers controlling the nostrils). The slightly closed airway creates a valsalva maneuver and typically results in a parasympathetic response (lowered heart rate, lowered blood pressure, increased digestive activity, stimulation of the vagus nerve, etc...)
  • Bhastrika Prāṇāyāma - "Bellows Breath" - Fast and forceful inhales and exhales driven by diaphragmatic breathing. Technically not a prāṇāyāma but a 'kriya' (cleansing technique) to clear the nadis, nostrils and sinuses for prāṇāyāma.
  • Kapalabhati prāṇāyāma - "Skull shining breath" Similar to Bhastrika, but with a passive inhale and a forceful exhale, powered mainly by the diaphragm abdominals and obliques.
  • Kumbhaka Prāṇāyāma - "Breath retention" antara (holding in) and bahya (holding out).
  • Agni-Prasana - "Breath of Fire" apparently another name for kapalabhati. [24]
  • Udgeeth Prāṇāyāma - "Chanting Prāṇāyāma" - often done with the chanting of the Om mantra.
  • Shitali Prāṇāyāma - "Cooling breath" - Inhale is drawn over the curled and extended tongue.
  • Shitkari Prāṇāyāma - Similar to Shitali but the tongue is held between the teeth.
  • Surya Bhedana Prāṇāyāma & Chandra Bhedana Prāṇāyāma - Channeling breath in one side and out the other without alternating, meant to energize ida or pingala nadi. The right nostril is associated with the Sun (Surya) and pingala and left nostril with the moon or ida.
  • Sama Vṛtti Prāṇāyāma - "Even breathing" the inhale and exhale are of equal size and duration. The opposite of:
  • Visama Vṛtti - "Uneven breathing" where specific ratios (e.g. 1:4:2) are maintained between inhale, retention, and exhale.
  • Agnisar Prāṇāyāma - focuses on the Navel region/Stomach.
  • Bhramari Prāṇāyāma - "Bee Breath" - The yogin makes a humming sound while breathing.


Several researchers have reported that pranayama techniques are beneficial in treating a range of stress-related disorders,[25] improving autonomic functions,[26] relieving symptoms of asthma[27] (though a different study did not find any improvement[28]) and reducing signs of oxidative stress.[29][30] Practitioners report that the practice of pranayama develops a steady mind, strong will-power, and sound judgement,[20] and also claim that sustained pranayama practice extends life and enhances perception.[31]


According to at least one study, pranayama was the most hazardous of yoga practices with four injuries in a study of 76 practitioners. There have been reports of adverse effects including haematoma and pneumothorax.[32]

Exercises which incorporate the Valsalva maneuver, a moderately forceful attempt to exhale against a closed airway, in rare cases have been medically associated in emergency room practice with subcutaneous emphysema, development of pockets of air in the body outside the lungs, for example under the skin or in the abdomen.[33]


  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. ^ Stiles 2001, p. x.
  16. ^ Taimni, p. 205.
  17. ^ Flood (1996), p. 97.
  18. ^ Taimni, pp. 258–268.
  19. ^ a b 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.
  20. ^ a b Light on Pranayama, Sixth Edition, Crossroad Publishing Co.
  21. ^ Yoga Health Center, Pranayama Basics and Pranayama Types.
  22. ^ Czipin, Jana A; Practice Manual Pranayama.
  23. ^ B.K.S. Iyengar, Yoga - Viloma Prāṇāyāma -
  24. ^ YAI-Breath of Fire (Agni-Prasana),
  25. ^ 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. PMID 16131297. doi:10.1089/acm.2005.11.711. 
  26. ^ Pal GK, Velkumary S, Madanmohan (2004). "Effect of short-term practice of breathing exercises on autonomic functions in normal human volunteers" (PDF). Indian J. Med. Res. 120 (2): 115–21. PMID 15347862. 
  27. ^ 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. PMID 9532318. doi:10.2500/108854198778557971. 
  28. ^ 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. PMC 1746772. PMID 12885982. doi:10.1136/thorax.58.8.674. 
  29. ^ 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. 
  30. ^ 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. PMID 16624497. doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2006.02.042. 
  31. ^ Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha, 2002.
  32. ^ Cramer H, Krucoff C, Dobos G (2013). "Adverse events associated with yoga: a systematic review of published case reports and case series". PLoS ONE (Systematic review) 8 (10): e75515. PMC 3797727. PMID 24146758. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075515. The yoga practice that was most often associated with reported adverse events was Pranayama 
  33. ^ Kashyap, A. S.; Anand, K. P.; Kashyap, S. (March 2007). "Complications of yoga". Emergency Medical Journal 24 (3): 231. PMC 2660045. PMID 17351243. doi:10.1136/emj.2006.036459. These symptoms followed a yoga exercise called "pranayam", which had involved a vigorous Valsalva manoeuvre