What Is Pranayama and How Does It Fit Into the Yogic Path?
By Marco Luethi
Pranayama is composed of two Sanskrit words, prana and yama—the life force underlying all of existence and its control, respectively. It’s a central part of the yogic journey, one of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga, and a powerful way of connecting with subtle energies.
Most commonly understood, pranayama relates to the control of the breath, but this isn’t the full picture. Prana can be absorbed through eating fresh foods and spending time in the sun, but a lot of it is assimilated as we breathe.
Mastering the breath is a direct way of continually engaging with and absorbing this life force—which we can benefit from as a formal practice, combined with asana practice, or as a background to our everyday lives.
Pranayama doesn’t stand alone but is incorporated into a holistic practice of yoga, in which the awareness and contemplation of the yamas and niyamas (yogic ethics) are essential. Aligning our social and personal behavior helps create the best conditions for practice, which reinforces behavior that leads to greater harmony. Without this, prana can be dissipated into things that lead us away from the Self.
Pranayama in Practice
As with most techniques you learn on the yogic journey, pranayama practices are about direct experience. Understanding firsthand what it feels like to tap into prana is more fundamental than anything that can be read or discussed. Practice makes up the core of the teachings, and through practice, you intuitively start to know what the teachings point to.
Sama-vritti, also known as “the square pranayama,” is one of the first pranayama techniques we teach at Hridaya and is quite straightforward. You experience the breathing cycle in four phases: inhalation, full retention (when the lungs are full of air), exhalation, and void retention (when the lungs are empty). You spend an equal amount of time in each phase, like the sides of a square—inhale for four seconds, hold for four, exhale for four, and hold for four, before starting a new round. As you get more comfortable with the practice, you can begin to increase your count to six, or even eight, seconds, maintaining a 1:1:1:1 ratio as you gradually develop more control of the breath and awareness of prana.
In the yogic tradition, it’s well-known that the mind and the breath are interconnected. Learning to breathe can be helpful when you’re feeling stressed, as it’s a way of regulating your reactions and coming to a place of stillness and control. This is why you often hear, “oh, just take a deep breath and relax,” as it’s the very connection between the body and mind that is being engaged.
By practicing sama-vritti pranayama for even 10–15 minutes a day, you will start to understand what prana is, bringing more inspiration to your practice. Each pranayama session furthers the development of the mind-body link, and as your control of prana matures, the benefits radiate into the rest of your life.
Understanding the Benefits of Pranayama
When pranayama is integrated into a more comprehensive yoga practice, it can be hard to tell what’s doing what. But over time, it gives rise to a tremendous calmness and a slowing of the “monkey mind.” This doesn’t mean that there aren’t still strong emotions that can arise, but that there’s a background of relaxation and quietness that you start to recognize as underlying everything.
Pranayama does this in part by purifying the nadis—the subtle energy channels. In this process, you remove energetic obstructions and purify the subconscious mind to open to the experience of Pure Consciousness. It’s one thing to know this potential in theory, but long-term practice will allow you to feel and incorporate it in an ongoing connection to your innermost Self.
The Gheranda Samhita, one of the three classical Hatha Yoga texts, says that just one conscious breath can be pranayama. So, you can incorporate pranayama at any time—as your practice deepens and you learn different techniques, you can adapt these to each occasion as a way of finding balance.
The calmness and one-pointedness of mind that arises from the consistent practice of pranayama naturally supports the experience of the higher limbs —pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (divine union). Just 15 minutes of pranayama before a meditation session can create the proper conditions to open to deep states of consciousness.
Bringing more intensity to a pranayama session, gently challenging yourself and going to your limits, yields profound relaxation. In that state, you may glimpse the Truth of being, dropping any identifications with the personality and body and intimately recognizing that you are not the struggle, the body, or the mind, but Pure Awareness, free from all contractions. Coming back to this space every day, again and again, leads to a tremendous shift in the understanding of who you truly are.
Pranayama in a Group
Practicing pranayama in a group offers a time to meet others with presence. The human longing for connection can manifest as chit-chat, which masks the need to be listened to, understood, and experience true intimacy. Choosing to spend time together in practice instead of connecting at the level of the personality can meet these needs on a deeper level and forge strong bonds of spiritual friendship.
There’s also something in the yogic sciences, the universal quality of energies, which is all the more noticeable when you’re in a group tapping into the same qualities. For example, that energy is magnified if you work on anahata chakra together through a practice like vowel pranayama. You focus on the chest area and the quality of radiant open-heartedness and perceive a universal field of love being expressed individually and collectively.
After a group pranayama session, these feelings endure. A sense of awe and wonderment is there, even when not actively remembered. You may take some of the more profound and nourishing aspects of life for granted, so finding ways to strengthen our connection to them is essential.
The power of group practice also lies in its ability to motivate you to practice more and in different ways than you would on your own. In this way, it can open you up to new experiences and insights. We’re often karmically inclined to dislike something that may be very beneficial for us; through practicing with others and reflecting on this process, we can start to untie some of these knots.
Expanding Your Boundaries
The main challenge that accompanies this process is the need to keep it up, to cultivate it as an ongoing practice. This applies to anything on the spiritual path. It’s a matter of taking tapas and committing to practice regularly. Being consistent is vital for authentic spiritual transformation to take place over a long period of time, as you must purify the subconscious mind. Profound shifts don’t usually happen after one session, so dedication and effort are required. Sometimes the changes are so gradual that you only see them in hindsight—so regular practice is especially important when you feel discouraged or distracted.
Even while it can be beautiful, meditating as a group can sometimes result in avoiding actual meditation. You sit there and allow the time to pass, letting the mind wander. If there isn’t verticality in your approach, it can be a real problem! Practicing Hatha Yoga and pranayama can help you work through stuck energies, ultimately making your sadhana more efficient.
It’s important not to approach pranayama in a goal-oriented manner but to allow the boundaries of what you feel is possible to arise so you can be with and question them. When you feel the need to breathe, you may become fearful; as you learn to control your breath, you can start to examine these feelings. You can invite the fear of death, as you know you aren’t going to die by doing pranayama.
Be Dedicated, not Pushy
As you develop your pranayama practice, remember that being forceful with yourself isn’t harmonious and won’t bring the results you seek. In yoga, intensity comes from an increase in awareness, which in turn gives rise to the process of purification. There’s a subtle difference between these two approaches that becomes clear as you practice. So whenever you notice a pushy tendency arising, try to relax and maintain the Witnessing Attitude. This is how you learn.
Stay dedicated to your practice and trust in how it evolves. Find ways to support yourself to do both, whether in a sangha, with friends, or on your own. Once things begin to shift and you perceive the flow of prana, it can inspire you and help you go deeper into all aspects of your sadhana. Experientially knowing prana—how it’s evoked and how to connect to it outside of formal practice—helps other facets of the path fall into place. So have faith, keep the fire alive, and, most of all, enjoy your practice!
Marco is a teacher serving at our center in Longeval, France.