Image by jiva(flickr). click for source

These are a few selections on the topic of Pranayama(rhythmic breathing).  Sri Aurobindo & The Mother did not prescribe any particular type of Pranayama for their disciples because their very Presence was sufficient to transform the consciousness of their disciples.

Pranayama balances the five Pranas in the body, improving physical vigor and mental stability. The practice of Pranayama has to be tailored to the individual; some need long years of practice in order to reach an appreciable state of calmness; others may be able to naturally quieten the mind without a lot of practice.

There are many types of Pranayamas defined by ancient sages. The Gheranda Samhita (chapter 5, verses 46-96) describes eight types of Kumbhaka (retentions) : Sahita, Suryabheda, Ujjayi, Sitali, Bhastrika, Bhramai, Murchha and Kevali.   English translations of the Gheranda Samhita by James Mallinson and Sri Chandra Vasu are available in book form.

  • Suryabheda has a heating effect on the body.  It alleviates sinus and vata dosha.
  • Sitali has a cooling effect.  It corrects pitta dosha according to the Kundali Upanishad and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
  • Candrabheda has a cooling effect.
  • Ujjayi controls phlegm (kapha dosha) and alleviates Asthma.
  • Bhastrika harmonizes the breath.

If you want to learn Pranayama, there are well-known Yoga schools and teachers which you may want to explore.  I have a list of books on Pranayama at the end of this webpage.

Sri Aurobindo’s practice of Pranayama

Sri Aurobindo: When I was doing Pranayama I used to feel the breath concentrated in the head. My skin began to be smooth and fair. The women of our family noticed it first, as they have a sharp eye for such things. And it was at that time I began to put on flesh. Formerly I was frail and thin. Then I noticed something unusual in the flow of my saliva. It was that substance perhaps that gave the change of colour and the other things. The Yogis say some sort of Amrita, that is, nectar, flows down from the top of the brain that can make one immortal.

[Nirodbaran, Talks with Sri Aurobindo, Vol 1, 1 JANUARY 1939]

Nirodbaran on Sri Aurobindo: Before he turned to the practice of yoga, Sri Aurobindo had started on certain practices of pranayam having learnt some rules from an engineer friend, Devadhar. Sri Aurobindo said that he practised it “on my own for five or six hours a day for nearly four years. As a result, the brain became full-of light, prakashamaya. The mind worked with great illumination and power. My power of writing poetry as well as prose increased tremendously. Usually I wrote about 200 lines of poetry a month. After the pranayam I wrote pages and pages in a single day and that flow I never lost. I used to feel that an electric energy was all round the brain because of which the mosquitoes did not bite me during the pranayam. My health too improved, even the skin became fair and there was a peculiar substance in the saliva which probably produced these changes. I adopted a vegetarian diet. That gave lightness and some purification. But that was all and there was no farther advance. Besides, politics kept me too busy and owing to irregularity in the practice of pranayam I fell seriously ill. It nearly carried me off.”

[Nirodbaran, Sri Aurobindo for all ages, Chap IV]

Sri Aurobindo explains why Pranayama is useful

Disciple : What part does breathing exercise – Pranayama – play in bringing about the higher consciousness?

Sri Aurobindo : It sets the Pranic – vital – currents free and removes dullness of the brain so that the higher consciousness can come down. Pranayama does not bring dullness in the brain. My own experience, on the contrary, is that brain becomes illumined. When I was practising Pranayama at Baroda, I used to do it for about five hours in the day, – three hours in the morning and two in the evening. I found that the mind began to work with great illumination and power. I used to write poetry in those days. Before the Pranayama practice, usually I wrote five to eight lines per day; and about two hundred lines in a month. After the practice I could write 200 lines within half an hour. That was not the only result. Formerly my memory was dull. But after this practice I found that when the inspiration came I could remember all the lines in their order and write them down correctly at any time. Along with these enhanced functionings I could see an electrical activity all round the brain, and I could feel that it was made up of a subtle substance. I could feel everything as the working of that substance. That was far from your carbon-dioxide!

Disciple : How is it that Pranayama develops mental capacities? What part does it play in bringing about the higher consciousness?

Sri Aurobindo : It is the Pranic – vital – currents which sustain mental activity. When these currents are changed by Pranayama, they bring about a change in the brain. The cause of dullness of the brain is some obstruction in it which does not allow the higher thought to be communicated to it. When this obstruction is removed the higher mental being is able to communicate its action easily to the brain. When the higher consciousness is attained the brain does not become dull. My experience is that it becomes illumined.

[A.B. Purani, Evening Talks With Sri Aurobindo, 19-9-1926]

The Mother Mirra Alfassa on Pranayama

Satprem: Do you object to my doing some pranayama[[Pranayama: breathing exercises. ]] before I begin working?

Mother: I think it would do you good, mon petit.

Satprem: I began three days ago, but I keep getting entangled with the traditional formation around it: “Oh, it’s dangerous, it’s dangerous, be careful.” So this morning I thought I’d better speak to you about it.

Mother: Are you doing it without instructions?

Satprem: There’s a traditional way of doing it, I know the formula.

Mother: How does it go?

Satprem: The time varies. You inhale through the left nostril for let’s say 4 seconds, then you hold your breath for 16 seconds, raising the diaphragm and closing all the openings; after 16 seconds you exhale for 8 seconds through the other nostril.

Mother: Are these the “official” figures?

Satprem: Yes; I mean that’s the proportion: inhale 4, hold 16, exhale 8.

Mother: Sixteen?

Satprem: It has to be double the exhalation. If you do 8, then it’s 8-32-16.

Mother: I did it (Pranayama) myself for years, using the same system: inhale, hold, exhale, remain empty. Without knowing it, Sri Aurobindo and I did it nearly the same way! This is to tell you that the danger is mainly in what you think. No, the “danger” is MAINLY a thought formation.

You can achieve excellent control of the heart. But I never practiced it violently, never strained myself.

I used to do it simply like this: breathe in very slowly to the count of 4, then hold for 4 like this, lifting the diaphragm and lowering the head (Mother bends her neck), closing everything. Then while I held the air, and I would concentrate it wherever there was a physical disorder (a pain or something wrong somewhere). It’s very effective. The way I did it was: inhale very slowly to the count of 4, hold for 4, exhale very slowly to the count of 4 and remain empty to the count of 4 – you are completely empty.

I had trouble breathing in slowly enough – that’s a bit hard. I began with 4 and eventually managed to do 12. It took me months to reach that, it can’t be done quickly. To breathe in very slowly and hold all that air isn’t easy. I count: 1-2-3-4 … no quicker.

And exhale slowly – that’s very difficult – being careful to empty the top part of the lungs, because air often stagnates there. This seems to be one of the most frequent causes of coughs and colds. I was familiar with the method: you learn to hold the air and then release it slowly, slowly, so as to keep singing nonstop.

I advise you to practice it.

How much time do you spend on it?

Satprem: Eight to ten minutes, three times a day before my Japa.

Mother: Oh, that’s very good.

Satprem: I don’t know why, but I got entangled with that traditional formation which says it’s dangerous.

Mother: Someone put it on you, mon petit!

Satprem: It troubled me.

Mother: No, it’s not at all dangerous, at least if you don’t overdo it. If you do it simply…. I think some people practice pranayama with the idea of gaining “powers.” That idea of gaining powers fouls it up more than anything. But if you do it simply as a help to your progress, there’s no danger.

At any rate, Sri Aurobindo and I both did a lot of things considered dangerous, and absolutely nothing happened to us. Not that it’s necessary to do dangerous things, but nothing happened to us, so it all depends on how you do them.

I think you can safely forget about this formation.

But instead of doing equal amounts of time, it might be better to do less for inhaling and more for holding the breath. The holding part is extremely interesting! When the air is inside, let’s say you have a headache or a sore throat or a pain in your arm, anything – then you take the air … (Mother demonstrates) and direct it to the unwell part … very, very helpful and pleasant and interesting. You see the force go to the spot, settle in and stay there, all sorts of things

[Mother’s Agenda, February 24, 1962]

See Also

  1. Pranayama page prepared by the Moscow Integral Yoga Center
  2. Vital Sheath

Books discussing Pranayama

  1. Swami Niranjanananda. Prana and Pranayama (amazon)
  2. Read Chapter 13 of Sŕivatsa Ramaswami’s book Yoga for the three stages of life (amazon) (google books)
  3. Swami Rama.  Path of fire and light (amazon) (google books)
  4. Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballentine, Alan Hymes. Science of Breath (amazon) (google books)

22 thoughts on “Pranayama

  1. Pingback: Issues in Sadhana (spiritual quest) for those practicing the Integral Yoga « Skylight

  2. Vishakha

    Thanks a lot to Tusharbhai for sending me this URL in Email. I had few questions that i did not have answers. Very helpful.

  3. Sandeep Post author

    Ramana Maharshi on Pranayama

    Disciple: What is the interrelation between regulation of thought and regulation of breath?

    Ramana: Thought (intellectual) and respiration, circulation, etc. (vegetative) activities are both different aspects of the same – the individual life. Both depend upon (or metaphorically ‘reside’ or ‘inhere’ in) life. Personality and other ideas spring from it like the vital activity. If respiration or other vital activity is forcibly repressed, thought also is repressed. If thought is forcibly slowed down and pinned to a point, the vital activity of respiration is slowed down, made even and confined to the lowest level compatible with life. In both cases the distracting variety of thought is temporarily at an end. The interaction is noticeable in other ways also. Take the will to live. That is thought-power. That sustains and keeps up life when other vitality is almost exhausted and delays death. In the absence of such will-power death is accelerated. So thought is said to carry life with it in the flesh and from one fleshy body to another.

    Source: (Talks with Ramana Maharshi: Talk 28)

  4. Sandeep Post author

    Pranayama is discussed in the Yoga-Kundali Upanishad and the Shandilya Upanishad

    The Yoga-Kundali Upanishad discusses the following methods:

    (i) The surya-kumbhaka. Assuming the padmasana posture, and drawing in the external air through the right nostril, fill in the air as much as possible. Then expel it through the other nostril, or drive the air up for purifying the higher regions of the body (skull). The result is four kinds of disorders resulting ftom vata and the intestinal worms are cured.

    (ii) Ujjayi, sitali, bhastri and pranayamas are drawing in the air through the nostrils, the tongue and bhastri is expulsion of the vital air and then filling in a little air up to the lotus of the heart holding the same as long as possible, and then expelling it. Here retention of breaths of two kinds -the mixed and the pure. The mixed is conjoint with expelling and in-filling. The pure one is devoid of these two processes, and with the rousing of the kundalini is brought about. Benefits: lightness of body, bright eyes, and cheerful countenance.

    (iii) bhastri-kumbhaka. Keep the neck and belly in a line, control well the mouth, and expel the air through the nose in such a way that it occupies the cranium from the throat. After the kumbhaka has been well mastered, the bandhas should be practised.

    The Sandilya Upanishad narrates three kinds of pralnayama : ujjayi, sitkara and sitala, in which the drawing-in of the air is through the nostrils, the mouth and the tongue, holding the same as long as possible in retention (kumbhaka), and then expelling it.

    (N.S. Subrahmanian. Encyclopaedia of the Upaniṣads New Delhi : Sterling, 1985, p 414 and 452 )

  5. ipi

    Swami Sivananda on Pranayama:

    Through the practice of Pranayama, the Sadhak(aspirant) can attain long ife. A healthy man takes 14 or 16 breadths in a minute. The number of breadths increases during sleep,exercise, running etc. Retention of breadth through the practice of Kumbhaka bestows longevity to the Yogic student. The lesser the number of breadths, the more is the duration of life.

    The number of breadths is more in a dog and a horse. It is nearly fifty in a dog and so its duration of life is about 14 years. It is thirty-five in a horse. So its duration of life is 29 to 30 years. An elephant breadths about 20 times in a minute and so it lives about a hundred years. A tortoise breadths five times in a minute and therefore it lives about four hundred years. A snake breadths twice or thrice in a minute. It lives for 500 to 1000 years.

    The fewer the desire and wants, the lesser the number of breadth and vice versa. He who practices Japa, meditation, Brahmacharya(celibacy) and studies religious books or holy scriptures will have lesser number of breadths and more concentration. Lesser number of breadths means increase in concentration, rich inner spiritual life in Atman and more peace.

    (Sadhana by SRI SWAMI SIVANANDA, p.60 Some Secrets of Sadhana)

  6. ipi

    Ramana Maharshi on Pranayama:

    Breath-regulation (pranayama) is for him that cannot directly control his thoughts ; it serves as a brake serves a car, but one should not stop with breadth-regulation ; after its purpose is gained – the quieting of the mind’s restlessness – one should take up the practice of concentration ; in course of time it will become possible to dispense with the control of the breath ; the mind will then become quiet as soon as meditation is attempted. When meditation is well established it can no more be given up ; it will go on automatically even during work, play and other activities. It will go on even in sleep. The means for getting well-established in meditation is meditation itself; neither japa(mental repetition of words or sentences) nor a vow of silence is necessary. If one takes to selfish worldly activity there is no good taking a vow of silence. Meditation extinguishes all thoughts and then the Truth alone remains.”

    On another occasion the Sage said: “When camphor burns, no residue is left. The mind must be like camphor ; it must melt away and be wholly consumed by the earnest resolve to find and be the real Self: by this resolve the ‘Who am I?” Quest becomes efficacious. When the mind is thus consumed – when no trace of it as mind is left – it has become resolved into the Self.”

    Being asked how one can find his Guru, the Sage said: “By intense meditation.”

    (Maha Yoga of Bhagavan Sri Ramana by “Who” (K. Lakshmana Sarma), p.192)

  7. Sandeep Post author

    Leander Paes, an Indian tennis player, just completed a career grand slam in men’s doubles by winning the Australian Open in 2012 at the age of 38(yes, 38). Leander practises Pranayama which he learnt at the age of 12.

    Interviewer: In the past, barring a few, tennis players generally retired in their early or mid-30s, but that’s changed now. What’s the reason?

    Leander: I can’t speak for anybody else, but I partnered with Martina Navratilova and she was 49 going on 50 when we won Wimbledon. Having a confidante like her, having the friendship that I share with her… not only is she an unbelievable legend in tennis, a great motivator, she actually also taught me tricks on how to keep the body and mind fresh. I lead a pretty clean lifestyle… I don’t drink or smoke, needless to say any drugs or stuff like that. I’ve always had this hyper kinetic energy, so I don’t really need much sleep at night. I also practise Ujaya, a form of breathing exercise that I learnt at 12. It helps provide maximum oxygen to muscles and relaxes your mind and that contributes to overall longevity.

  8. Sandeep Post author

    Pranayama discussed in the Agni Purana 354:6-13

    Pranayama signifies the suppression of the breath Wind, and consists in the three factors, Rechanam, Puranam and Stambhanam. In Rechanam, one of the nostril, should be pressed with the fingers, and the Wind In the stomach should be slowly let out Puranam consists in taking In a long breath, in the way indicated to the preceding line, whereas Stambhanam consists in retaining the Wind inside the stomach, as in an inflated Water-drum. Again the act of Pranayama is divided into three classes, such as the Uttama, the Madhyama, and the Kanyasa; according as Its duration lasts so long as one can ordinarily count thirty-six, twenty-four, or twelve. A perfect Pranayama of the Uttama class is followed by shivering and, a copious flow of perspiration, etc. One should not tread on untrodden grounds in connection with the practice of Pranayama, as such an attempt may be attended with such dreadful consequences, as Asthma, hic cough, etc
    Pranayama rightly practiced, serves to maintain a healthy equilibrium among the vital forces of a man, and brings on highness of gait, clearness of voice, and a general bettering of hls strength and beauty.

    A Prayanama is called either an impregnated (Sagarbha) or non-impregnated (Agarbha) one, according as it is or is not accompanied by a repetition of a Mantra. An impregnated Pranayama
    should be practIced for the subjugation of senses.

    (Manmatha Nath Dutt. Agni Purana, vol. 2, Delhi, India : Sri Satguru Publications, 2009, p 1305)

  9. Sandeep Post author

    Pranayama discussed in the Linga Purana Chapter 8, verses 45-62

    The wind within the body is prana. Its restraint is yama. As stated by the brahmins it is threefold: (I) slow( manda), (2) middling (madhya) and (3) uttama (superior).

    The restraint of the prana and apana is called pranayama. The magnitude of the restraint of breath is stated to be twelve moments.

    The slow (manda) consists of twelve moments which form one stroke or blow (udghata). The middling consists of two strokes. The superior has three strokes, i.e. thirty moments. The three respectively generate sweating, shivering and rising up. When the following symptoms are seen the pranayama is excellent, for it denotes the onset of bliss. The symptoms are: reeling due to drowsiness, horripilation, sensation of hearing some sound, pressing of one’s own limbs, shivering, vertigo born of sweating, fixation, absence of knowledge and unconsciousness.

    Pranayama is of two types: sagarbha and agarbha. If it is pursued with japa, it is sagarbha; if without japa, it is agarbha. It is like an elephant or an eight-footed animal sarabha or a formidable lion. When caught and tamed properly it becomes submissive. Similarly, for the yogins, the wind which is by nature unstable and uncontrollable becomes normal and subservient by proper practice. Just as the lion or the elephant or the Sarabha, though ferocious, is tamed after a while with proper training, so also the wind attains normalcy and equanimity, due to constant acquaintance and practice.

    (Linga Purana, Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass, 1973, pp 31-32)

  10. Sandeep Post author

    Pranayama described in the Devi Bhagavata Purana, Book 7, Chapter 35 “On the Yoga and Mantra Siddhi”.
    This description outlines the difference between Sagarbha and Vigarbha varieties

    Taking in the breath by the Idâ (the left nostril) so long as we count “Om” sixteen, retaining it in the Susumnâ so long as we count “Om” sixty-four times and then exhaling it slowly by the Pingalâ nâdi (the right nostril) as long as we count “Om” thirty-two times. (The first process is called Pûraka, the second is called Kumbhaka, and the third is called Rechaka). This is called one Prânâyâma by those versed in the Yogas. Thus one should go on again and again with his Prânâyâma. At the very beginning, try with the number twelve, i. e., as we count “Om” twelve times and then increase the number gradually to sixteen and so on. Prânâyâma is of two kinds : Sagarbha and Vigarbha. It is called Sagarbha when Prânâyâma is performed with repeating the Ista Mantra and Japam and meditation. It is called Vigarbha Prânâyâma when “Om” is simply counted and no other Mantram. When this Prânâyâma is practised repeatedly, perspiration comes first when it is called of the lowest order; when the body begins to tremble, it is called middling; and when one rises up in the air, leaving the ground, it is called the best Prânâyâma. (Therefore one who practises Prânâyâma ought to continue it till he becomes able to rise in the air).


  11. Mark


    Sri Pandit writes:

    “If we can open our doors, free our channels to the inflow of the life-energy from the sea of life-energy around us, then we can become aware of the immense potentialities, on every level of our being, that still wait to be tapped. By opening ourselves to the universal life-force, by linking our individual life-force with that, a means of communication can be established. In the traditional yogas this is done by pranayama and other exercises, as in Rasjayoga or the Hathayoga. Sri Aurobindo points out that it is also possible to do it by the exercise of concentration and application of our higher mental will. It is possible to excert that will, purify the nerve channels and consciously invoke the larger-life to flow into us.” Pandit, The Yoga of Self-Perfection, The Divine Shakti, pp 182.

    What does Sri Aurobindo mean by “the exercise of concentration and application of our higher mental will.” And where can I find further details regarding this instruction?

    Thank You!

      1. Mark

        I have tried to find exactly where Pandit is expounding upon this in The Synthisi of Yoga, but I am unable to follow Sri Aurobindo’s thought completely. I believe it is on page 756 (of Synthesis) that Pandit is speaking from.

        Thank you. I did read the posting.

      2. Mark

        Sandeep, after further study upon this subject (in Synthesis) I realized that I am not so confused about the concept of the “higher will” stated by Pandit (and SA), but it is the topic of prana and the practice of pranayama. Also, before posting this I had not read your post on pranayama and will do so now. It has been my hope that this suggestion by Pandit (via SA) would allow me to avoid such practices as pranayama only because I am quite unfamiliar with such practices and fear attempting such a practice alone, without a teacher. I will read your post.

        Thank You!

      3. Sandeep Post author

        I haven’t practiced Pranayama either. I just induce contemplation by watching the breath as it slows down. The Buddhists call it Anapanasati

  12. Pingback: Ways of navigating this blog | Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

  13. Al

    Sandeep Ji!

    Although I am a little late to participate in this discussion, allow me thank you, as I asked you privately if you knew what type of pranayam Sri Aurobindo practiced in Baroda. I have been trying to find out for a while, and you said you did not know, but, interestingly enough, the closer to an answer, is provided by your article above when the Mother interacts with Satprem about his pranayam practice.

    Notice that the Mother said that Sri Aurobindo was doing his pranayam in Baroda at about the same time as she was in Paris, and also of about the same type. Since both Satprem and Mother were talking about a type of Nadi Shodhana or Anulom Vilom, my question, and suspicion by the way, was answered. In discussions with another yogi, we thought that that was what Sri Aurobindo was doing.

    I can provide quite a bit of experimental information about pranayam myself. It is correct that Sri Aurobindo did not prescribe pranayam, and this is clearly stated at the beginning of his Yogic Sadhan, as explained on Record on Yoga. His, theirs, was an inverted Tantra, this is very clear, and there was no need for asana, pranayam, and so on.

    Many years ago, before becoming a follower of SA and Mother, I was initiated into Kriya Yoga of Lahiri Baba, by non other than Swami Hariharananda himself. He was a direct disciple of Swami Shri Yukteshwar, 89 at the time he initiated me in person in 1st and 2dn Kriyas. Specifically on the 2nd, I learned a 2nd Kriya Pranayam, Thokar Kriya, which consists of a chakra pranayam using a mantra. The breath in Kumbhaka and Rechaka go up and down the chakras, other things are done, while the Lord Krishna mantra Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya is effected. Disciple of the Yogiraj Shyama Charan Lahiri Baba would complete, in the late 1800s, 1728 of these cycles in one seating, taking them approximately 10 hours to do so (1728 is arrived through what some people called the Vivekananda number from Raja Yoga, meaning 12 seconds for one Dharana, then 144 x 12 = 1728). I have done hours in one seating, and the time per cycle come about the same time as it took them then.

    The pranayam I now practice is unique and only very few in the world do it. It comes from the school of Rishi Singh Gherwal and Yogi Bhajan, Gurujis from Punjab, you can see a primer of my practice in this recent youtube video. It is a primer because my practice is longer and more involved, I do this at least twice daily before meditation, starting at Brahma-Muhurta (4 AM):

  14. Al

    The perfection of the above pranayam, I forgot to mention, comes from current Mahayogi Michael Beloved (Yogi Madvhacharya).

  15. arpanrox

    AI: Yogic Sadhan was disclaimed by Sri Aurobindo as not being his own work and as not representing his own views. He was not even in favour of it’s publication for thecsame reason( Don’t know what he thought about it’s authenticity, but he was opposed cz it was not his own work).He, in talks with a disciple indicated that it was written via “Automatic writing”, and the entity channelling it through him, seemed to him to be Raja Ram Mohan Roy.
    Even in his correspondence with his disciples, when asked clarifications about various ideas expressed in Yogic Sadhan( eg. Will, immediately expressing results when man himself becomes God. The Will no longer remains that of Man but becomes Kali, theWill of God), he explains it in vague terms like “the author probably meant that..” and so on. Thus he clearly deemed it to be the brainchild of another being.
    Btw, Ramoprasad Bismil was quite impressed by Yogic Sadhan and is said to have possessed a hindi translation of it.


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