Pranayama (प्राणायामः)

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Pranayama (Samskrit: प्राणायामः) is one of the eight elements in Ashtanga Yoga propounded by Maharshi Patanjali. It is the fourth step in the eightfold path of Yoga that culminates in Samadhi. Panayama is preceeded by Yamas, Niyamas, Asanas and is followed by Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi. The article explores the meaning, types, objectives and benefits of Pranayama practice.[1]

To read about Pranayama in Hindi, please visit this page - Pranayama (प्राणायाम)

परिचयः ॥ Introduction

Prana means ‘energy’ and Ayama is ‘to regulate’. Pranayama essentially refers to the practice by which one can regulate the vital energy[1] that is linked to one's mental, physical and spiritual health. Yoga conceives human existence in the form of sheaths or Koshas. The outermost sheath is called annamaya kosha, the physical body or sthula-sharira (the gross body). The next layer is called sheath of vitality or pranamaya kosha that, together with the following two layers, constitutes the subtle body or sukshma-sharira. And Pranayama or breathing exercises are the major ways to nourish and strengthen this sheath of vitality.[2]

Furthermore, Pranayama helps in making breathing slow and rhythmic. And when the breath slows down, the mind also becomes calmer. Therefore, Pranayama as a practice uses breath to soothe the fluctuations of ‘chitta’ or the active thinking mind.[1] Because, when prana moves, chitta (consciousness) moves. When prana is without movement, chitta is without movement.[3]

चले वाते चलं चित्तं निश्चले निश्चलं भवेत् । योगी स्थाणुत्वं आप्नोति ततो वायुं निरोधयेत् ॥ २.२ ॥[4]

When prana moves, the mind thinks and the senses perceive their respective objects. By developing sensitivity to prana, one becomes more aware of the subtle forces of the mind, which arise in the form of thoughts, feelings, emotions, responses, impressions, symbols and knowledge. Prana is grosser than the mind and hence easier to control. Thus, when prana is caught the flighty mind is caught too.[3]

प्राणायामः ॥ Pranayama

The science of pranayama was developed by highly evolved yogis through an intuitive and experiential understanding of prana and its influence on the human mechanism at various levels. The agency of the breath was used to access the pranic field, to attain balance in the body and control of the mind. The practices would render the body-mind instrument capable of experiencing higher states of consciousness so that the ultimate union with the transcendental reality could be experienced.

The breath being the medium of pranayama, the system is based on the three stages of respiration:

  • inhalation (pooraka)
  • retention (kumbhaka)
  • exhalation (rechaka)

By permuting and directing these three stages, the different practices of pranayama are obtained. Technically speaking, pranayama is actually only retention.[3] Maharshi Patanjali's Yoga Sutras state (2:49):

तस्मिन्सति श्वासप्रश्वासयोर्गतिविच्छेदः प्राणायामः ।। २.४९ ।।[5]

Meaning: When asana has been accomplished, braking the force and uncontrolled movement of inhalation and exhalation is termed breath control and expansion of Prana.[6]

Inhalation and exhalation are methods of inducing retention. Retention is the key because it allows a longer period for the assimilation of prana, just as it allows more time for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the cells. As the breath is also intimately connected with various functions and organs of the body as well as the mind, by controlling the breath we also influence all these dimensions.[3]

प्राणायामस्य लक्ष्यम् ॥ Aim of Pranayama

Pranayama is not a stand-alone yogic practice. In the system of ashtanga yoga, it is preceded by sustained practice of yamas and niyamas, shatkarmas and asanas, and is followed by pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. A balanced, sequential movement from gross to subtle, from annamaya kosha to anandamaya kosha, is the aim.[3]

In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (1:67) it has been said:

पीठानि कुम्भकाश्चित्रा दिव्यानि करणानि च । सर्वाण्यपि हठाभ्यासे राजयोगफलावधि ॥ १.७० ॥[7]

Meaning: Asanas, various types of kumbhaka (pranayama) and the other various means of illumination should all be practised in the hatha yoga system until success in raja yoga is attained.

In this context, the aim of pranayama is to perfect pratyahara, which in the traditional texts has been described as not just sense withdrawal, but the state where we perceive every sensory input as a manifestation of the Supreme, and have expanded the pranic capacity to the extent that we can retain the breath for three hours.[3] The Shiva Samhita (3:57) states:

याममात्रं यदा धर्त्तुं समर्थः स्यात्तदाद्भुतः । प्रत्याहारस्तदैव स्यान्नांतरा भवति ध्रुवम् ॥५७॥[8]

Meaning: When one attains the power of holding the breath for three hours, then certainly the wonderful state of pratyahara is reached without fail.

The practice of yoga, in fact, begins when we come to the pranayama series. With the practice of asanas, we arrive at the state where we are able to work with the energies controlling the body. With pranayama, through the breath, we develop an awareness of the subtle force within the body, and directing the mind to become aware of the subtle activities is the beginning of yoga.[3]

प्राणायामस्य फलानि ॥ Benefits of Pranayama

The aspirant who practises pranayama in a sustained manner will find that every aspect of the being, at every level, is gradually being impacted. As one advances in the practices, impurities are removed not only from the physical and pranic bodies, but also from the mental, psychic and causal bodies. As a result, the intellectual capacity increases, and the mind and thoughts become more powerful. As prana flows freely through all the levels of being, the negative tendencies begin to drop off almost automatically.[3]

At the physiological level, the benefits of Pranayama are as follows:

  • It improves blood circulation
  • It relaxes the body and mind
  • It improves concentration skills
  • It releases anxiety
  • It expands the lungs and improves lung capacity[1]
  • It increases respiratory stamina
  • It relaxes chest muscles
  • It raises energy levels

It causes over-all improvement in lung functions. It is even speculated that Pranayama influences the functional status of the autonomic nervous system through a neural reflex mechanism in the superior nasal meatus.[9] More importantly, Pranayama helps develop the capacity and fitness for holding focus in the matter of practicing dharanas. Because mind and Prana are mutually agitative; mind's agitation agitates Prana while Prana's agitation agitates the mind. Thus, stabilizing the Prana facilitates mind's ability to concentrate.[6]

Moreover, Pranayama is an important tool for treating psychological and emotional disorders. It is excellent to counter depression, release grief and attachment, and reduce stress and tension.[10]

Physiological Benefits

Infact, it has been observed that pranayama influences almost all the organs and physiological systems.

Respiratory system: Pranayama exercises the muscles of respiration and the lungs through the processes of deep, rapid or slow breathing. The chest is opened to its fullest extent and the lungs are stretched to the utmost. This strengthens the respiratory muscles and makes the lungs more elastic, resulting in a healthier process of respiration.

During pranayama one does not absorb a larger quantity of oxygen. In fact, the amount of oxygen absorbed during a round of pranayama is less than the amount absorbed during normal respiration. However, the practices allow more time for oxygen to mix with the blood flow and for the system to eliminate waste through the breath and blood. The training given to the respiratory organs and muscles during the pranayama practice prepares them to work efficiently all through the day. With a more efficient respiratory apparatus, a larger quantity of oxygen is absorbed throughout the day than it normally would be.

Digestive and eliminatory system: The stomach, pancreas, liver, bowels and kidneys are all exercised in pranayama through the massage given to them by the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles. This happens in normal respiration as well, but during pranayama the movement of the muscles and the resulting massage is greatly accentuated. All the associated muscles and nerves are toned up and rendered healthier. Constipation is removed and all the organs function better. Absorption also becomes more efficient with a well-functioning digestive and eliminatory system so that the blood is enriched with nutritive elements.

Cardiac system: Many research studies have verified that pranayama is extremely beneficial for the heart. The practices minimize the stress put on the cardiac system by day-to-day life. Breathing with slow, deep and long breaths gives rest to the heart. Many heart conditions can be managed through pranayama.

Endocrine system: The endocrine glands influence the behaviour, reactions, interpretations, and even the so-called natural responses. Pranayama harmonizes, purifies and neu-tralizes the secretions of these glands and thereby influences thought and behaviour. The overall health of the endocrine system is largely dependent on the quality of the blood and its distribution to the glands. During pranayama, especially the vitalizing practices, the circulation of the blood becomes very rapid and the quality of the blood is also rendered very rich. The richer and more liberal blood supply brought to the endocrine glands enhances their functionality and the regulated breathing helps to balance the system.

The effects of pranayama on the endocrine system are most striking in relation to the pineal gland. This mysterious gland, located behind the third ventricle of the brain in the region of the ajna chakra, normally begins to decay with the onset of puberty. The pineal gland acts as a check for the pituitary gland, which is responsible for controlling the growth and functions of the other endocrine glands. If the pituitary gland is not regulated from an early age, an imbalance arises between the physical and mental development and the emotions mature before they can be handled. Therefore, in India, children from the age of seven or eight begin the practice of pranayama in order to maintain the activity of the pineal gland for a longer period, so that the transition from childhood to adulthood is smooth.

Nervous system: The brain, spinal cord, cranial and spinal nerves benefit from a richer and more liberal blood supply received through pranayama.

Respiration also controls fluctuating moods, which are subtle behaviours of the mind. The neuronic memory of the brain influences the projection of moods. However, the neurons fire more rhythmically and the electrical interactions between the different brain centres become more regulated when one breathes slowly and deeply in a systematic and coordinated manner. The wild fluctuations of the brain waves are streamlined and there is a balance between the two hemispheres of the brain.

By practising pranayama systematically for a few years, a gradual transformation is brought about in the structure of the nervous system. Ultimately, there comes a moment when one closes the eyes, goes in and achieves meditation.[3]

प्राणायामः प्राणाग्निश्च ॥ Pranayama and Pranagni

Each of the five koshas or encasements of human existence like Annamaya kosha, Pranamaya kosha, etc. as described earlier, have a different form of agni responsible for their development. The agni of the sheath of vitality or the Pranamaya kosha is the Pranagni that is responsible for the digestion of prana in the body.

Pranagni develops primarily through correct retention of the breath that follows deep inhalation. Inhaled oxygen is food for pranagni; exhaled carbon dioxide is its waste material. Just as fasting purifies the physical body, so breath retention purifies the subtle body. Thus, the practice of Panayama helps develop the Pranagni.[10]

प्राणायामः पञ्चप्राणाश्च ॥ Pranayama and Pancha Pranas

One definition of Pranayama is "retention of breath" as retention of breath, when done correctly, is a powerful method to expand the vital force. In terms of the Panch Pranas, Pranayama is generally defined as balancing Prana and Apana. However, all the five Pranas are related to Pranayama.

Prana is related to inhalation. Both Samana and Vyana relate to retention while Udana and Apana relate to exhalation. Samana is the initial stage of retention in which the air is consolidated in the lungs, with oxygen absorbed through the lung tissue. Vyana is the second stage of retention in which the absorbed oxygen is taken into the blood and carried to the rest of the body. Udana is the first stage of exhalation that creates positive energy and effort, which allows for speech. Apana is the second stage of exhalation that pushes out the waste air and carbon dioxide. Thus, all the five Pranas can be balanced and regulated through Pranayama.[10]

Purification of Pranic body

All yogic practices purify the pranas, but pranayama is considered the principal among these. In the Yoga Sutras (2:52) Maharshi Patanjali states, "Thence the covering of the light is destroyed", with reference to the effects of pranayama.[3]

ततः क्षीयते प्रकाशावरणं ।। २.५२ ।।[5]

This covering is the residue of tamas and rajas, and through pranayama the sattwic nature of the chitta shines forth.

Moreover, the very nature of Pranayama is such that, when practised correctly, the entire energy circuitry is influenced and cleared over a period of time. Purification is achieved at the pranic level and simultaneously at the physical and mental levels as well. This brings about many positive transformations.[3] As the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (2:20) says,

यथेष्टं धारणं वायोरनलस्य प्रदीपनम् । नादाभिव्यक्तिरारोग्यं जायते नाडिशोधनात् ॥ २.२० ॥[4]

Meaning: With the nadis purified, the inner sound or nada awakens and one is free from disease.

At this point, one is ready to commence higher sadhanas.[3]

प्राणोत्थानम् ॥ Awakening of Prana

Human evolution depends on the awakening of prana shakti, as much as it depends on optimum health of the body. The awakening of prana takes place when the nadis flow regularly, rhythmically and continuously, and no blockages or physiological discomfort is encountered in the breathing process. This stage is known as pranotthana, awakening of the pranas, more specifically of ida and pingala. When the awakening of ida and pingala occurs, sushumna awakens. The awakening of this third force is considered the most important event in pranayama, kriya yoga and kundalini yoga. Pranayama actually begins with the awakening of sushumna, because then the pranic field expands. Until this awakening occurs, the purification of ida and pingala continues throughout the practices.

After the pranas have awakened, the practitioner is ready to undertake the practice of prana vidya. The practitioner must be able to direct prana as necessary, not only within his own body but also the omnipresent, manifest power from which all energies originate. One can learn to use the cosmic energy, which is freely available to all, to create further changes in the patterns of the body, mind and consciousness. Such an awakening of pranic energy indicates the evolution of pranamaya kosha, whereby one is able to go deep into and become established in the higher meditative states.[3]

Extension of Prana to higher Ayamas

When pranayama is understood as prana + ayama, it refers to a process of stretching, extending or expanding. In this context, pranayama is the process by which the internal pranic dimension is expanded, increased and held, thereby activating the quantum of prana in the body to a higher frequency.

The scriptures describe seven ayamas, or planes of individual existence. The first ayama is bhur loka, the gross physical dimension, perceptible to the mind and senses. The second is bhuva loka in which one perceives dreams and experiences moments of hallucinations. The third is swah loka, perceived in deep sleep. The consciousness traverses these three ayamas in waking, dreaming and sleeping states. When a child is conceived, prana is created in its physical body and gradually extends the area of control to these three fields of human experience, but no further. Normally human perception is confined to these three states and one is not able to perceive the deeper levels of existence.

The four higher dimensions of existence are described symbolically as maha loka, janah loka, tapah loka and satya loka. The gross prana is incapable of penetrating into these subtle dimensions. The purpose of pranayama, therefore, is to refine and transform prana into a subtler force and then extend it into the higher lokas or ayamas. When the pranas are awakened beyond the first three dimensions, then the real purpose of pranayama is fulfilled.[3]

प्राणायामस्य प्रकाराः ॥ Types of Pranayama

The main pranayama techniques are nine in number. Namely,

  1. Nadi shodhana: A is a practice whereby the pranic channels are purified and regulated, it is a prelude to all the other Pranayamas.
  2. Bhastrika: The practice is so called because the diaphragm movement here imitates a pair of bellows and fans the internal fire, creating physical, pranic and psychic heat.
  3. Kapalbhati: This pranayama invigorates the entire brain and the centres responsible for subtle perception and insight. It is also a cleansing practice and is therefore, listed as a shatkarma.
  4. Shitali/Shitakari: These two practices are designed to reduce body heat. They cool both the body and mind.
  5. Bhramari: This practice is so called because the practitioner imitates the same deep, low pitched humming sound as that of the black bee. It is used in nada yoga to awaken awareness of the inner psychic sounds.
  6. Ujjayi: Ujjayi is one of the simplest Pranayamas. It is also known as the psychic breath as it induces a meditative state and leads to very subtle states of mind. It is an indispensable part of many meditative techniques such as mantra japa, ajapa japa, kriya yoga and prana vidya.
  7. Murccha: Murchha means 'fainting' or 'swooning'. This pranayama is intended to arouse the feeling of unconsciousness and is best learnt under expert guidance. It also expands the consciousness, awakens bindu chakra and helps in storing prana.
  8. Surya bheda: It pierces or purifies pingala nadi and stimulates Prana shakti. It activates the sympathetic nervous system and associated physical and mental states.
  9. Chandra bheda: This pranayama pierces ida nadi and fills it with shakti thereby facilitating a predominant stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system and right brain hemisphere.

Some of these pranayamas increase heat, some cool the body down, some stimulate, while others harmonize and relax the nervous system.[3] Therefore, based on their functions, there are different ways of describing the types of Pranayama viz.

  1. Vitalizing Pranayama like Kapalabhati and Bhastrika.
  2. Balancing Pranayama like Nadi Shuddhi or Nadi Shodhana
  3. Heating Pranayama like Bhastrika, Surya Bheda and Murccha.
  4. Cooling Pranayama like Chandra Anuloma Viloma, Shitali/Shitakari, etc.
  5. Laya or Silencing Pranayama like Bhramari and Ujjayi[1][10][3]

All pranayama techniques alter the normal breathing rate. Infact, some of them may be considered methods of hyperventilation or hypoventilation.

For eg. Bhastrika and kapalabhati speed up inhalation and exhalation. They may be considered as methods of hyperventilation, where prolonged rapid breathing is practised. While, bhramari, ujjayi, shitali and shitakari may be regarded as methods of hypoventilation, where reduced or slow breathing, often less than five breaths per minute, is practised.[3]

Vitalizing Pranayama

Generally, the hyperventilating techniques come under the classification of vitalizing pranayamas. They have a stimulating effect on the whole body due to the rapid muscular movement and increased metabolic rate induced in all parts of the body. These techniques exercise the lungs and abdomen, and stimulate the nervous system to balance and strengthen itself. They also have a purifying and heating effect on the body and mind. Normally, hyperventilation would have an adverse effect on the body, causing dizziness and other symptoms. However, studies have shown that in the practice of Yogic breathing techniques like Bhastrika and Kapalabhati the negative symptoms do not manifest.[3]

Kapalabhati is one of the vitalizing pranayamas. 'Kapalabhati' literally means 'shining forehead' in Samskrit.[1] It is made up of two words viz. 'Kapala' meaning 'skull' where skull includes all the organs under the skull too and 'bhati' meaning 'shining' or 'illuminating'. It is called so because the process influences the organs under the skull especially, the brain and the small brain in a good manner.[11] The process of Kapalabhati involves exhaling with full force by squaring the stomach inwards after deep inspiration. This act throws the abdominal gas out with a jerk.[9] Thus, it removes carbon-dioxide from the body and makes one feel fresh, oxygenated and vitalized.[1]

Kapalabhati is an important part of Shatkarma or Shatkriya, the yogic system of body cleansing techniques.[11] The speciality of Kapalabhati is that it cleanses both the body and the mind using just the breath. It is highly useful for mind detoxification and purification. Another interesting factor is that Kapalabhati reverses the normal course of breathing making expiration an active process and inspiration a passive process. This is believed to induce the reverse flow of nerve impulses to and from the brain facilitating the stimulation and awakening of the centers.[9] Kapalabhati also improves digestion and increases Agni.[10]

Kapalabhati is particularly useful for spiritual aspirants as it arrests sensory distractions, thoughts, visions and mental chatter, calming the mind in preparation for meditation. At the same time, it energizes the mind so one is not overcome by sleep while sitting for meditation.[3]

Balancing Pranayama

Also known as alternative nostril breathing[9], Nadi Shuddhi Pranayama is a balancing pranayama.[1] It is derived from two Samskrit terms viz. 'Nadi' meaning 'channel' and 'Shuddhi' meaning 'cleansing' or 'purifying'. So, Nadi Shuddhi refers to cleansing of subtle channels through which vital life-force energy (Prana) travels in the body.[12] It is easier to control the breath and make it longer or shorter in alternate nostril breathing than by regular nose or mouth breathing. Hence, it is said that there is no method better than alternate nostril breathing for gaining control of breath and purifying the channels.[10]

The process of Nadi Shuddhi or Nadi Shodhana involves closing the right nostril with the right hand’s thumb, inhaling fresh air through the left nostril (puraka) and holding the breath for some time (kumbhaka), followed by exhalation through right nostril (rechaka) while closing the left nostril with the right hand’s index finger and then reversing the process.[13] During the process, breathing is kept slow and rhythmic.[9] This practice balances the flow of breath through both the right and left nostrils.[1] Thus, Prana and Apana that are related to the right and left nostrils and their channels, ida and pingala can be balanced by balancing the flow through these two nostrils.[10]

During pranayama, especially nadi shodhana, as one takes slow, deep breaths, the prana is forced to flow through the blocked areas, indeed, through the entire system of nadis. By this process, the energy circuits are restored and the weak areas gradually regain strength. Thus the Shiva Samhita states (3:49), "Through the regulation of breath the wise practitioner surely destroys all of his karmas, whether acquired in this life or in the past."[3]

पूर्वार्जितानि कर्माणि प्राणायामेन निश्चितम् नाशयेत्साधको धीमानिहलोकोव्यवानि च ४९[8]

Manu Smriti also tells us, "Let the defects be burnt up by pranayama."[3]

The general benefits of this Pranayama include,

  • Deep breathing that enriches blood with oxygen.
  • Strengthening of the respiratory system and balancing of the nervous system.
  • Help in relieving nervousness and headaches.[1]

Moreover, alternative nostril breathing has two forms. Inhaling through the right nostril and exhaling through the left is known as right nostril breathing or solar breathing and has a heating effect while the reverse ie. inhaling through the left nostril and exhaling through the right is known as left nostril breathing or lunar breathing that has a cooling effect. The Right nostril breathing is known to treat hypoactive conditions of the mind like sleepiness, dullness and fatigue while left nostril breathing is known to be useful in conditions of hyperactivity of the mind like insomnia, restlessness and nervous agitation.[10]

Heating Pranayama

Bhastrika is a very heating form of pranayama. It clears kapha from the head and chest and increases agni and prana. It counters cough and mucus and helps reduce body weight and fat. It also aids in the awakening of kundalini.

The process involves sitting in a comfortable posture, closing the left nostril as in right nostril breathing and breathing deeply and forcefully. This is followed by inhaling and retaining the breath for as long as possible, then exhaling through the left nostril, keeping the right nostril closed. And in the second round, closing the right nostril and breathing deeply and forcefully through the left nostril.

Since it is a forceful practice, caution is advised for people with weak constitutions so as to not aggravate pitta.[10]

When practised systematically, the benefits of Bhastrika are innumerable. For example,

  • Due to the rapid exchange of air in the lungs, there is an increase in the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide into and out of the bloodstream. This stimulates the metabolic rate throughout the body down to the cellular level, producing heat and flushing out wastes and toxins.
  • It helps to alleviate inflammation in the throat, accumulation of phlegm and sinusitis, and builds up resistance to cough, cold and excess mucus.[3]

Cooling Pranayama

Left nostril breathing exercise is also known as Chandra Nadi Shuddhi Pranayama or Chandra Anuloma Viloma Pranayama[14] which means a heat dispelling or cooling liberating practice. It starts with closing the right nostril with the thumb of the right hand followed by exhalation through the left nostril and inhaling slowly through the same nostril.[15]

It is an example of cooling Pranayama where both inhalation and exhalation is done through left nostril adopting Nasika Mudra. The benefits of this Pranayama are as follows:

  • It helps in cooling down the body
  • It is beneficial for anxiety and mental tension
  • It will help to calm down the mind

However, it is not advisable to practice this Pranayama in winter.[1]

Shitali literally means "cooling" and is another type of cooling Pranayama. The process involves sitting in a comfortable posture, sticking the tongue out and folding up its sides to form a long narrow tube like the beak of a crow. The passage is narrowed further by pressing the lips around the tongue. This is followed by inhaling slowly through the tongue, like sucking water that arises a distinct cooling sensation. Once the stomach is filled with air, the breath is held for as long as is comfortable and then it is exhaled through the nostrils.

It is said that Shitali more effectively counters diseases of heat than left nostril breathing. It counters thirst, builds plasma, is used for high fevers, is good for high blood pressure and hyperacidity and is an excellent practice for the summer. It is advised mainly for people with pitta-predominant body constitution.

Shitakari is another cooling Pranayama that follows the same procedure as Shitali. The only differences being, while inhaling, the sound produced is like "see" and there is no rentention of breath. It is immediately exhaled through the nostrils. Its benefits are also similar to shitali. It clears heat from the head and cools the emotions.[10]

Laya or Silencing/Tranquillizing Pranayama

Hypoventilating techniques are generally tranquillizing Pranayamas. They are slow and subtle, and their effect is more or less opposite to hyperventilation. They reduce the metabolic rate as well as the frequency of brain waves, leading to relaxed meditative states. Thus, one experiences a greater sense of control over the nervous system.[3]

Bhramari is a Laya or Silencing Pranayama. It helps to reduce stress and anger and brings calmness and silence within. The term 'Bhramari' is derived from the Samskrit word 'Bhramara' which means a 'black humming bee'. In this Pranayama, the practitioner makes makes a sound that resembles the buzzing sound of a black bee.[1]Hence, the name.

The Hathayoga Pradipika explains Bhramari Pranayama as a procedure in which one breathes in quickly, making a reverberating sound like the male black bee and exhales slowly while softly making the sound of the female black bee.[16] This sound vibration can effectively be felt at the jaws, throat and face.[17] Elaborating on the procedure of Bhramari Pranayama it is said,

The Purvakrama involves sitting in any comfortable Sukhasana position with an erect spine and stable mind and relaxing the body. It is advised to keep the eyes closed throughout the practice to cut off external inputs of sound and sight to internalize the consciousness.[18] The Pradhanakarma involves the practice of Puraka (inhalation) and Rechaka (exhalation). It should be practised with the Shanmukhi mudra. Meaning, the ears shoud be closed with the thumb, index fingers should be placed on the forehead, middle fingers on the eyes, ring fingers on the nostrils and little fingers above the lips. The process includes slow and deep inhalation through both nostrils while listening to the sound of the breath followed by Kumbhaka (retension) with mouth closed. Then exhalation should be done gently, making a pleasant, slow-pitch humming sound like a Bumblebee. Finally, as part of Pashchatkarma, normal Puraka and Rechaka for relaxation is performed.[19]

Bhramari Pranayama is different from other Pranayamas in the fact that in this Pranayama acoustic vibration is produced by the humming sound along with Yogic body posture. This causes the whole brain to vibrate sending impulses to the hypothalamus[18] causing a resonance in the mind which relieves stress and produces calmness and happiness in the whole body. Thus, Bhramari Pranayama helps to improve our mental health.[19] Infact, the vibrations produced during the procedure are believed to have various good effects on different systems of the body.[16] It has been reported that Bhramari Pranayama practice is effective for correcting hormonal imbalance conditions and other disorders like hypertension, anxiety, and depression.[20] The benefits of this Pranayama are plentiful.

  • It is one of the best breathing exercises to release the mind of agitation, frustration or anxiety and get rid of anger.
  • It is very effective in instantly calming the mind down.
  • It relieves stress and reduces blood pressure.
  • It has good results in improving insomnia.
  • It helps in increasing the healing capacity of the body.
  • It helps in improving the functions of hypothalamus, pituitary gland and parasympathetic nervous system.
  • It has the capacity to improve and strengthen voice quality[18] as the exhalation clears and vibrates the throat.[16]

Bhramari Pranayama is ultimately a method of harmonizing the mind and directing awareness inwards and can act as a beneficial agent to achieve the state of total health.[18]

In an interesting research project carried out in 1993 by Munger Hospital, India in cooperation with Bihar School of Yoga, it is indicated that regular practice of Bhramari during pregnancy alleviates anxiety and stress, the hormone balance of women is better regulated promoting birth of healthy children. The results of their examination of 448 pregnant womrn over the period of one year practising Bhramari during their entire pregnancy period is rather encouraging. It was observed that there was

  • Normal blood pressure for all, compared to 25% in the control group with high blood pressure (high blood pressure is a normal occurrence during pregnancy).
  • Lower number of miscarriages (2% compared to 8%)
  • Fewer premature births (2.6% compared to 5%)
  • 25% shorter labour
  • Generally little pain during labour
  • Only one case (1%) of Caesarean section compared to 4% in the control group
  • None of the newborns suffered from lack of oxygen (0% against 12%)
  • Greater average weight for the newborns (3325 g compared to 2850 g).

The reason behind the tranquillizing effects of bhramari came to fore through an experiment conducted by dermatologists in 1959. As they were looking for a cure for melanoma (skin cancer caused by an excess of melanin), they found that the pineal gland secreted a hormone, now known as melatonin, which inhibits melanin formation. However, the injection of this hormone put the laboratory animals to sleep. Thus, it was understood that Melatonin is a natural tranquillizer produced by the body, like endorphins, which are painkillers. As bhramari stimulates the pineal gland, it is able to create its signature effects of tranquillization.[3]

Prana Nigraha

Technically, the initial breathing practices are not pranayama, but prana nigraha, where one begins to control the breath and the prana. The same practice assumes the form of pranayama when control over the pranas is attained and the pranas have been awakened in the realm of the chakras. In the stage of prana nigraha, one uses the breath as a means to develop and intensify the awareness of pranamaya kosha. The nervous system receives a greater quantum of energy, which is essential to withstand the effects of higher pranayama practice.

Slowly, the pranas are awakened within the physical structure and blockages are removed from the chakras and nadis, thus paving the way for kundalini awakening.[3] According to the Amritanada Upanishad (v. 7):

यथा पर्वतधातूनां दह्यन्ते धमनान्मलाः । तथेन्द्रियकृता दोषा दह्यन्ते प्राणधारणात् ॥ ७ ॥[21]

Meaning: Just as the impurities of mountain minerals are burnt by the blower, so the stains caused by the sensory organs are burned by controlling the prana.

The effect of prana nigraha is evidenced by a lightness and vitality in the body and a calm, relaxed mind, and then comes the strength and ability to practise pranayama.[3]

प्राणायामस्य अभ्युत्थानम् ॥ Evolution in Pranayama Practice

It is said that,

  • Mastery over the Asana is a prerequisite for not just Pranayama but also all the subsequent angas like Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi.
  • Pranayama should become as relaxed and easeful as the posture itself.
  • Thus relaxed and eased, the Shvasa (in-breath) and Prashvasa (out-breath) would flow smoothly and not with the more common uncontrolled rhythms.
  • When the smooth rhythmic flow of inhalation and exhalation has been accomplished, then retension may be practised.
  • Initially, Puraka (in-breath), rechaka (out-breath) and Kumbhaka (retention) together constitute Pranayama.[6]

The Yoga Sutra states,

बाह्याभ्यन्तरस्तम्भवृत्तिः देशकालसंख्याभिः परिदृष्टो दीर्घसूक्ष्मः ॥५०॥[5] bāhyābhyantarastambhavr̥ttiḥ deśakālasaṁkhyābhiḥ paridr̥ṣṭo dīrghasūkṣmaḥ ॥50॥

Meaning that Pranayama is threefold and the term 'vrtti' in the sutra applies to all the three sub-divisions of Pranayama viz. Bahya-vrtti, Abhyantara-vrtti and Stambha-vrtti ie. operative externally, internally and in the way of suspension. Otherwise known as Rechaka, Puraka and Kumbhaka.

  • At a more advanced stage, retention alone becomes Pranayama. Vyasa, the commentator on Yoga Sutras explains the transition from the threefold Pranayama to the state of retension as Pranayama with the help of an analogy.[6] He says,

यथा तप्ते न्यस्तमुपले जलं सर्वतः सङ्कोचमापद्यते, तथा द्वयोर्युगपद्भवत्यभाव इति ।[5] yathā tapte nyastamupale jalaṁ sarvataḥ saṅkocamāpadyate, tathā dvayoryugapadbhavatyabhāva iti ।

Meaning: As the water dropped on a heated rock shrinks from all directions, the breath activity also 'shrinks' simultaneously ie. there is simultaneous cessation of movement from both the exterior and interior direction. And this cessation of movement leads to suspension or retension.[6]

Yoga Yajnavalkya Samhita (6:25) also equates pranayama with retention, describing three grades of pranayama, depending on the periods of breath holding:

  1. adhama pranayama (produces sweating)
  2. madhyama pranayama (produces tremors in addition to sweat)
  3. uttama pranayama (produces levitation)[3]

Furthermore, it is understood that kumbhaka is of two kinds. Namely,

  1. Sahita or Mishra
  2. Shuddha or Kevala

While both refer to cessation of movement, in the former the cessation is preceeded by either exhalation or inhalation. That is the difference between the two. It is suggested that one whose practise is not advanced enough should practise Sahita form until the energy channels are purified. Because only when the impurities have been eliminated, does Kevala become possible.[6]

Because, in their initial stages, the practices of pranayama clear up the nadis ie. energy pathways in the body at the pranic level. The scriptures say there are over 72,000 nadis or pathways of prana in the pranic body and six main chakras. However, in the average individual, many of these pathways are blocked and the chakras release energy only partially. In other words, we do not utilize our full potential in terms of energy, mind and consciousness. The negative conditions we experience, whether physical or mental, are the cause as well as the consequence of the blockages. With the practice of pranayama, these pathways of energy are gradually freed so that prana moves through them smoothly.

While at higher levels of practice, the direction of the pranic flows is influenced and a greater quantum of energy is released from the chakras. And expert guidance becomes essential to steer the practitioner through these stages that unfold many new experiences as a result of activation of these processes.[3]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 Yoga - Level B (Chapter 3), Open Basic Education Programme (Bharatiya Jnana Parampara), Noida: National Institute of Open Schooling.
  2. Pandey A. (2022), Human Self, Work and of Human Being: Indian Worldview and Implications for Management Practices and Scholarship, Indigenous Indian Management, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 3.14 3.15 3.16 3.17 3.18 3.19 3.20 3.21 3.22 3.23 3.24 3.25 3.26 3.27 Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati (2009), Prana and Pranayama, Bihar: Yoga Publications Trust.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Upadesha 2
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Patanjala Yoga Darshana, Pada 2 (Sadhana Pada)
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 Swami Veda Bharati (2001), Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Volume II Sadhana Pada), Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited.
  7. Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Upadesha 1
  8. 8.0 8.1 Shiva Samhita, Patala 3
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 Senthil Kumar K. and Others (2013), Consolidate effect of Vibhagha Pranayama, Nadi Shuddi Pranayama, Savithiri Pranayama and Kapalabhati Pranayama on the Pulmonary Functional Status of Young Healthy Male Subjects, International Journal of Medical Research & Health Sciences (Volume 2 Issue 3 July-September), Accessed on 1st November 2022.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 10.6 10.7 10.8 10.9 David Frawley (1999), Yoga & Ayurveda, Wisconsin: Lotus Press.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Sunil Kumar Yadav (2015), Effect of Bhastrika & Kapalbhati Pranayama on Selected Physiological Variables of Sports Men, International Educational E-Journal (Volume IV, Issue II, Apr-May-June 2015), Accessed on 2nd November, 2022.
  12. Yogapedia (Nadi Shuddhi).
  13. Abhishek Pandey and others (2022), Effect of Nadisuddhi Pranayam on Reaction Time and Autonomic Activity of the Heart, European Journal of Molecular & Clinical Medicine (Volume 9, Issue 4), Accessed on 2nd November, 2022.
  14. S. Prakash & K Upadhyay-Dhungel (2015), Chandra Anuloma Viloma Pranayama modifies Cardiorespiratory Functions, Janaki Medical College Journal of Medical Science (Volume 3, Issue 1), Accessed on 3rd November 2022.
  15. Varun Malhotra & others (2008), Chandra Anuloma Viloma Pranayama modifies autonomic activity of heart, Accessed on 3rd November 2022.
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 Amrutha Kalyani & Others (2017), Effect of Bhramari Pranayama on Dimensions of Health: A Meta-Analysis, Indian Journal of Ancient Medicine and Yoga (Volume 10 Number 2 April-June 2017), Accessed on 3rd November 2022.
  17. Neeta Gupta & Neharshi Srivastava (2019), Stress Management Via Bhramari Pranayama among Executives of Private Sectors, Accessed on 3rd November 2022.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 Manisha R. Kadam & Kavita V. Indapurkar (2019), Bhramari Pranayam a Literature Review, Journal of Emerging Technologies and Innovative Research (Volume 6, Issue 6), Accessed on 3rd November 2022.
  19. 19.0 19.1 Pranita K Shinde & Others (2020), Role of Bhramari Pranayama in Prevention and Promotion of Mental Health - A Review, International Ayurvedic Medical Journal, Accessed on 3rd November 2022.
  20. Maheshkumar Kuppusamy & Others (2017), Effects of Bhramari Pranayama on health - A systematic review, Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, Accessed on 4th November 2022.
  21. Amrtanadopanishad