Pranayama - what is it and why do we practice it?

In my first yoga teacher training, despite the best efforts of our tutors, I now know (though I didn't at the time) that I just didn't "get" pranayama.  It felt too slow and I often ended up gasping and having to take extra breaths.  But in 2001 I  discovered that Philip Xerri was going to run his year-long Pranayama Foundation Course in Edinburgh.  It's not an exaggeration to say that it completely changed my practice - and of course my mind, which is intimately connected with the breath.  Philip himself encountered  pranayama originally with Phil Jones in Wales, and went on to train in India with Swami Gitananda.  Philip would tell us stories of how Phil, an ex- miner, survived on very little remaining lung tissue because of his pranayama practice.  Philip gave us a daily practice schedule, building up progressively,  that would often take 45 minutes.  Three quarters of an hour of conscious breathing in different patterns!  But I became utterly involved, and the time flew.  

Since then, and particularly since becoming involved in Satyananda Yoga, I've done other valuable courses, including Swami Vedantananda's 6-month Pranayama Sadhana course, using the Yoga Chudamani Upanishad as its main text. Now pranayama and I are good friends; the kind you turn to for varying needs - comfort, energy, quietness, enlivenment, and sometimes natural "highs" that are perfectly legal! 

The word pranayama comes from two Sanskrit words - prana meaning energy or life-force; and ayama meaning extending or enhancing.  Prana is energy which manifests and is responsible for the action and motion of physical organs; and also for the motion of mind, in the form of thoughts, feelings, emotions, behaviour, attitudes - in fact all inner and outer activity.  Pranayama practices enhance life force.  They are at the heart of hatha yoga practice.   

In his book Prana Pranayama Swami Niranjanananda writes

“The medium of pranayama is the breath.  The practices involve guiding the respiration beyond its normal limit, stretching it, speeding it up, and slowing it down in order to experience the full range of respiration on both the gross and subtle levels. Once this has been achieved, prana can be guided further by the practice of prana vidya.  (page 106).

"We inhale, we take in prana.  We hold our breath in, we harmonise, channel and balance the prana we have received.  And we exhale. Inhalation, retention and exhalation simply represent, not the breathing technique, but a process that affects our pranic body, the pranamaya kosha."  (But the koshas are a topic for another blog!)


Some quotes from ancient texts:

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali - a text of classical or raja yoga - written down, it is believed, around 2000 years ago:

 “Once firm posture has been acquired, pranayama is the regulation of inhalation and exhalation. {Pranayama} manifests as external, internal and restrained movements of breath." Chapter 2 v 49 & 50

"Or {stability of mind is gained} by exhaling and retaining the breath".  Chapter 1 v 34

Yoga Rahasya is a text said to date back to the 9th century CE but rediscovered and edited in modern times. 

“One whose mind is stable has happiness and tranquillity.  For him everything is easily achievable.   For people who are agitated by objects of the senses, pranayama is the best solution”.

Hatha Yoga Pradipika - approx 13th century CE

Chapter 2 verse 2

“When the breath is unsteady, the mind is unsteady.  When the breath is steady,the mind is steady, and the yogi becomes steady.  Therefore one should restrain the breath."

Yoga Chudamani Upanishad -Probably composed around 700 CE.  Name means Crown Jewel of Yoga.  121 mantras dealing with the practices of kundalini yoga.  

“Just as the lion, elephant and tiger are brought under control slowly and steadily, similarly the prana should be controlled, otherwise it becomes destructive to the practitioner” (verse 118)


And finally I hope Philip doesn't mind my taking from his website

"Pranayama is initially the process whereby this immense {cosmic} energy is accessed directly by the systematic application of structured breathing practices.  Continuing pranayama practice utilises this connection with the primary cosmic force to profoundly influence the individual on all levels - physical, emotional, energetic, mental and spiritual."

Yoga Nidra

Yoga Nidra as practised around the world now was developed by Sri Swami Satyananda of the Bihar School of Yoga, from an advanced Tantric technique called nyasa.  During nyasa a yogi mentally touches various parts of his or her body with consciousness while repeating mantras.  When this is done in the prescribed manner the yogi is able to awaken subtle energy within the physical matter of the body.

The practice  connects you to your subconscious and unconscious minds.  The main aim of yoga nidra practice is the exploration of consciousness, with the ultimate aim of increasing self-awareness; but it has the side-effects of deep relaxation, rejuvenation, healing and increased inner strength.  The characteristic feature of Satyananda Yoga Nidra is the systematic rotation of consciousness in the body, and other stages that include settling, sankalpa (resolve), breath awareness, pairs of opposites, visualization and so on.  A practice is led by the teacher speaking out loud, the students lying in shavasana or seated in a chair.  It can take from 12 to 45 minutes depending on the level of experience of the students, the time available and the aims of the practice.

The technique of Yoga Nidra enables us to remain aware while we enter into the dream and sleeping states of consciousness. The state of Yoga Nidra occurs when we can remain conscious during the deep sleep state (called prajna in the Mandukya Upanishad).

The technique is a practical and easily accessible.  It creates deep relaxation for health, mental peace and higher awareness. 

Development of the technique of Yoga Nidra

In his book Yoga Nidra Swami Satyananda tells of his experience when as a young student he fell asleep while people nearby chanted mantras, many of which he had not heard before.  Even though he was deeply asleep during the chanting, on awakening, when he heard these mantras again, he seemed to know them.  A yogi explained to him that his subtle body had heard the mantras.  Swami Satyananda states in his book “After this discovery, I began studying the tantric scriptures in a new light.  I came across many important but little known practices, which interested me very much.  After practicing them myself, I decided to construct a new system, called Yoga Nidra, which would incorporate the essence of these practices without any of the complicated ritualistic drawbacks.”

Swami Satyananda’s great contribution to us all is that he has made very complex and advanced techniques accessible to everyone.  He recognized that these ancient tantric techniques had great potential but needed to be simplified and translated into forms that could be used in our modern lives. He saw the great need for simple methods that have the power to reduce stress and suffering.  He recognized that by simply placing our awareness onto a part of the body that part would be relaxed and recharged. This would then open the doorway into other areas of the body-mind for further healing and rejuvenation.

The Sankalpa

The Sankalpa is a resolve that supports the effort you make in daily life, perhaps to overcome a habit.  You can make a sankalpa either about something in your outer life or your inner life; if the former, it shouldn't be about something trivial as sankalpa is very powerful.  It's best to phrase it as a positive desire or intention rather than a "I will not" idea.  The sankalpa you make can be short term (next few weeks or months) or long term.  You may need to exercise patience and be prepared to wait until a suitable sankalpa comes up that has meaning for you; but some people find that as soon as the concept is explained they know what their sankalpa is.  Don't change the sankalpa until it is fulfilled. You don't just have to use it in yoga nidra; you can perhaps say it to yourself every morning or remember it  when you need it in daily life.


Saraswati, Swami Satyananda, Yoga Nidra, Bihar School of Yoga, 1976

Saraswati, Swami Shankardev, from website

Yoga pathways part 5

Raja Yoga – the Yoga of mind training.   The word Raja means Royal.  Raja yoga is a about methods of meditation  to guide us through the self-inquiry needed to make personal changes.  It is also known as Classical Yoga as expounded in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (approx. 200 BCE).    Each of the 196 sutras or verses, in four chapters, contains a wealth of dense information requiring deep thought and practice.  In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali we find terse instructions for calming the mind and preparing it for meditation practice.  In the second chapter there appears perhaps the most well-known part of the system, known as ashtanga yoga (not to be confused with the modern structural flowing asana practice known as  ashtanga vinyasa) because it describes a method of 8 (ashta) branches or limbs (anga).  The first two are called the 5 yamas – guidance for our behaviour towards others- and the 5 niyamas- guidance for our personal development. More details on these in the next blog - but they are the work of a lifetime.  

The remaining 6 stages are

  • Asana - in Patanjali, means the sitting posture for meditation
  • Pranayama - breathing practices
  • Pratyahara - withdrawal of the involvement of the senses in engaging with the world
  • Dharana - concentration practices
  • Dhyana - complete absorption, or the state of meditative awareness
  • Samadhi - enlightenment or realization

Despite being called the eight limbs of yoga, suggesting we tackle them one by one, I prefer the analogy of a wheel with Samadhi at the centre and the other 7 limbs radiating out like spokes.  This to me represents what I've found - that you have to work on all of them, they're not like a step-ladder.

“Yoga is experienced when the mind has settled into stillness. When the mind has settled, we are established in our essential nature, which is unbounded consciousness.”

Yoga Sutras Chap 1 verses 2-3

Raja Yoga also includes:

  • Nada Yoga (of sound)
  • Mantra Yoga (of liberation)
  • Laya Yoga (awareness of changes in consciousness)
  • Kundalini and kriya yoga ( awakening and experience of the chakras and nadis)

Yoga pathways part 4

 Karma Yoga is defined as  perfection in action; action performed with meditative awareness; the yogic path of selfless service; or, as it's often expressed, work without thought of reward or considering the fruits of one's actions.  It's one of the four yoga paths described in  the Bhagavad Gita (approx. 500 BCE), an allegorical dialogue between Arjuna, the seeker of truth (aka us) and Krishna, the Lord.  Down the millenia echoes the controversy as to whether it is better to retreat into silence and meditation or to stay and act in the world.  The Gita says it's not either/or, it's both.  Arjuna, a warrior, had quailed and become depressed, refusing to fight because it involved killing family members.  Krishna points out that

"He who shirks action does not attain freedom, nor does he gain perfection by abstaining from work.......But they excel who control their senses through their mind and use them for selfless service.   Fulfill all your duties; action is better than inaction."

"Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work a man attains the supreme goal of life"

Bhagavad Gita, chap 3, various verses

Mahatma Gandhi is a shining example of a karma yogin. 

In June 2010 I was initiated into karma sannyasa - spiritual life for the householder - by Swami Satyasangananda.  It was for me such a powerful experience that I can't remember as much of her talk as I'd like; but I recall she said that karma yoga is to do everything perfectly!    I did know that becoming a karma sannyasin and receiving the geru (orange) dhoti was symbolic of renunciation (sannyasa) and dedication to  leading one's life according to yogic principles.  It was also a stage in the spiritual journey that began for me some years previously when I received the name Bijam.  But you don't have to become a karma sannyasin to practise karma yoga.  Or even a yogin.....ask any parent of young children, or other unpaid carers who do it for love, about selfless service!  It's open to all of us to perform our work with a higher level of concentration and awareness.  On any Satyananda Yoga retreat or in the ashram karma yoga is included in the programme; indeed, as in Rikhia, karma yoga is the programme.

A final quote: 

"My mother was a teacher for 32 years and she said if you can help somebody, you do it.  And it's free - no strings attached.  That was the way I was brought up."  From "They just say: there goes that crazy Scottish guy"

The Herald Magazine 01.02.14

Further reading: 

"Karma Sannyasa"  by Swami Satyasangananda

"The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living "  by Eknath Easwaran

Yoga pathways part 3

    Bhakti Yoga – the yoga of devotion.  Finding inner stillness by transforming our basic nature, making love pure, transcendental and focused,  providing a  direction for the emotions.  Bhakti Yoga is a very powerful            tool for the creation and expression of love without boundaries - universal love.  The faculties of the heart are cultivated by following the yogic path of Bhakti. The process sounds simple - the practices include  kirtan     (joyful led chanting usually in Sanskrit); mantra; cultivation of an attitude of love (bhava) and so on.  But of course it's not easy as it requires a transformation of our basic personality. I find it comforting that  we can           transform our personal difficulties by practice.  That's why it's called practice of course because we're not perfect!  

          Have a look at a new FB page www,  Lots of photos and teachings from Satyananda gurus.

      Here are a few of my favourite quotes:

         The mind becomes clear and serene when the qualities of the heart are cultivated: friendliness towards the joyful, compassion towards the suffering, happiness towards the pure and impartiality towards the impure"

          The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali Chapter 1 verse 33


              The Bhagavad Gita  has some of the most beautiful expressions of bhakti in classical texts.  For example:

             “He who works for me, who loves me, whose End Supreme I am, free from attachment to all things, and with love for all creation, he in truth comes to me.”

              Bhagavad Gita, chap. 11


            “Bhakti softens the heart and removes jealousy, hatred, lust, anger, egoism, pride and arrogance. It infuses joy, divine ecstasy, bliss, peace and knowledge.”

              Swami Sivananda


              And here's an extract from "How does it feel to be a man?"  by the Sufi poet Hafiz, full of expressions of divine love:

              My dear, 

              A better question for Hafiz, 

    Would have been

    "How does it feel to be a heart?"

    For all I know is Love,

    And I find my heart Infinite and Everywhere


    Send me some of your favourites by email and I'll add them to this blog