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Teaching Pranayama

You know from your own practice that pranayama—breath control—has profound benefits for your body and mind. But when and how should you teach it to your students? Learn how six yogic traditions understand this powerful practice.

By Claudia Cummins

The elegant shapes and impressive contortions of the asanas may be the most eye-catching element of hatha yoga, but yoga masters will tell you they're hardly the point of practice. According to yoga philosophy, the postures are merely preludes to deeper states of meditation that lead us toward enlightenment, where our minds grow perfectly still and our lives grow infinitely big. But just how do we make the leap from Downward Dog to samadhi? Ancient yoga texts give us a clear answer: Breathe like a yogi.

Pranayama, the formal practice of controlling the breath, lies at the heart of yoga. It has a mysterious power to soothe and revitalize a tired body, a flagging spirit, or a wild mind. The ancient sages taught that prana, the vital force circulating through us, can be cultivated and channeled through a panoply of breathing exercises. In the process, the mind is calmed, rejuvenated, and uplifted. pPranayama serves as an important bridge between the outward, active practices of yoga—like asana—and the internal, surrendering practices that lead us into deeper states of meditation.

"My first American yoga teacher, a guy named Brad Ramsey, used to say that doing an asana practice without a pranayama practice developed what he called the Baby Huey syndrome," says Ashtanga teacher Tim Miller. "Baby Huey was this big cartoon duck who was very strong but kind of stupid. He wore a diaper. Basically what Brad was trying to say was that asana will develop your body but pranayama will develop your mind."

Like Miller, many accomplished yogis will tell you that minding the breath is central to the practice of yoga. But take a tour of a dozen yoga classes in the West and you're likely to discover just as many approaches to pranayama. You may be taught complex techniques with daunting names like Kapalabhati (Skull Shining) and Deergha Swasam (Three-Part Deep Breathing) before you even strike your first pose. You may find breathing practices intermingled with the practice of the postures. Or you may be told that pranayama is so advanced and subtle that you shouldn't bother with it until you're well versed in the intricacies of inversions and forward bends.

So what, as a teacher, should you do? How can you be sure your students will get the most out of their breath practice? Should they breathe deep into the belly or high up into the chest? Make a sound so loud the walls shake or keep the breath as quiet as a whisper? Practice breathing techniques on their own or during an asana practice? Dive into pranayama from the get-go or wait until they can touch their toes? To help answer these questions and sample therange of yogic breathing, we asked experts from six yoga traditions to share their approaches to pranayama.

Integral: Connecting Movement with Meditation
In the integral yoga tradition propounded by Swami Satchidananda, pranayama is incorporated into every yoga class. A typical session starts with asana, moves on to pranayama, and ends with seated meditation. "A hatha yoga class in the Integral Yoga system systematically takes the person deeper," says Swami Karunananda, a senior Integral Yoga teacher. "Asana is meditation on the body, pranayama is meditation on the breath and subtle energy currents within us, and then we work with the mind directly, with the ultimate aim of transcending body and mind and experiencing the higher Self."

While practicing asana, students are advised when to inhale and exhale, but no additional manipulation of the breath is introduced. Within the pranayama portion of the class—which may comprise 15 minutes of a 90-minute session—students sit in a comfortable cross-legged posture with their eyes closed.

Three basic pranayama techniques are routinely taught to beginners: Deergha Swasam; Kapalabhati, or rapid diaphragmatic breathing; and Nadi Suddhi, Integral Yoga's name for alternate nostril breathing. In Deergha Swasam, students are instructed to breathe slowly and deeply while envisioning that they are filling their lungs from bottom to top—first by expanding the abdomen, then the middle rib cage, and finally the upper chest. When exhaling, students envision the breath emptying in reverse, from top to bottom, pulling in the abdomen slightly at the end to empty the lungs completely.

"Three-part deep breathing is the foundation of all the yogic breathing techniques," Karunananda says. "Studies have shown that you can take in and give out seven times as much air—that means seven times as much oxygen, seven times as much prana—in a three-part deep breath than in a shallow breath."

In the Integral tradition, Kapalabhati consists of multiple rounds of rapid breathing in which the breath is forcefully expelled from the lungs with a strong inward thrust of the abdomen. Students might start out with one round of 15 breaths in quick succession and build up to several hundred breaths in one round. In Nadi Suddhi, the fingers and thumb of the right hand are used to close off first one nostril and then the other. This pranayama starts with an exhalation and an inhalation through the left nostril, followed by a full breath through the right, with the whole pattern repeated several times.

Instruction in the breathing practices is systemized in the Integral system, with each technique practiced for a specific duration or number of rounds in one session. As students progress, they are taught to incorporate specific breathing ratios—inhaling for a count of 10, for example, while exhaling for a count of 20. Students move on to advanced practices only when they meet specific breathing benchmarks along the way, indicating that the nadis, the subtle energy channels of the body, have been sufficiently purified and strengthened.

Only at more advanced levels do students learn to incorporate retention, or breath holding, into pranayama. At this point Jalandhara Bandha, the chin lock, is introduced. Retention is said to be important because "it super-injects prana into the system," says Karunananda, and "builds up tremendous vitality." Students are also sometimes invited to incorporate healing visualizations into this practice. "As you inhale you can visualize that you're drawing into yourself unlimited quantities of prana—pure, healing, cosmic, divine energy," Karunananda says. "You can picture any form of natural energy that appeals to you. Then on the exhalation, visualize all the toxins, all the impurities, all the problems leaving with the breath."

Kripalu: Cultivating Sensitivity and Awareness
Pranayama is also introduced from the very beginning in the Kripalu tradition. Here, however, breathing exercises are just as likely to beoffered before asana practice as after. "I always begin my classes with 10 to 15 minutes of pranayama," says Yoganand, director of advanced yoga teacher training at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts. "I have folks sit down and do pranayama until they're quiet, they're sensitive. If we can feel more when we go into our postures, we're more likely to be aware of our limits and be respectful of the body." Pranayama is almost always taught in a seated position in the Kripalu tradition, with eyes closed and with little emphasis on particular bandhas, or energy locks, until intermediate stages of practice. Students are counseled to follow a slow and gentle approach. Teachers may stop and ask students to note sensations, emotions, and thoughts that come up for them, in order to help them taste more subtle aspects of the practice.

"In Kripalu Yoga, one of the premises is that through developing sensitivity to the body we can learn a lot more about the unconscious drives," Yoganand says. "Breathing is a really integral part of that because unconsciously we choose how much we're going to feel by how much we breathe. When we breathe more deeply, we feel more. So when I'm leading pranayama, I'm primarily encouraging folks to slow down, to release constrictions in breathing andfocus on what they feel."

Attention is also paid to the breath during the practice of postures. In beginning asana classes, students are instructed when to inhale and exhale as they enter and release postures, and to simply pay attention to their breath at other times. In more advanced classes, students are encouraged to observe how different postures change their breathing patterns and what feelings arise with these changes. In addition, seasoned students are encouraged to employ a gentle version of Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath), a practice in which the throat is slightly constricted and thebreath made softly audible.

In the pranayama portion of the class, beginners usually start with a three-part deep breathing pattern similar to that of Integral Yoga. Beginners are also introduced to the Ujjayi breath during seated pranayama, as well as to Nadi Sodhana, Kripalu's term for alternate nostril breathing. In addition, Kapalabhati is taught in a particularly slow and steady fashion. "When I teach this," says Yoganand, "I usually have folks visualize that they're blowing out a candle, and then I have them exhale in the same way but through the nose." Students learn to extend this practice gradually, starting with 30 to 40 breaths and adding repetitions as well as speed as they grow more adept.

Only at more advanced levels do students move on to additional pranayama practices, Yoganand says. At this level, students use a centuries-old yoga manual called the Hatha Yoga Pradipika as a guide, mastering the subtleties of the eight formal pranayama practices detailed in this text. "The pranayama is to make you more sensitive," says Yoganand. "As folks become more aware of sensations and feelings, there's a real possibility for personal growth and integration."

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Reader Comments


Strange to read Mary Dunn's thoughts on pranayama quoted in the present tense. She was a wonderful teacher who is still missed, since her death in 2008. Is this an older article republished, or did Ms. Cummins choose to emphasize the eternal nature of spiritual practice by writing as though Mary were still with us?


Excellent articles on Pranayama. kudos to you for this wondeful presentation

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