Introduction to Pranayama


Introduction to Pranayama-Yoga divides respiration into three phases. Puraka or inhalation, Rechaka or exhalation and Kumbhaka breath retention.  Puraka and Rechaka are natural phases, which means Kumbhaka is Pranayama.

Kumbhaka is then divided into three further phases.

  • Bahir is retention at the end of a breath.
  • Antar is retaining the breath on an inhalation.
  • Kevala Kumbhaka means holding the breath with no particular emphasis.  

A judicious practice of pranayama will alleviate all ailments. An improper practice, on the contrary, gives rise to all diseases.

HYP of Svatmarma (10 chapters)


Breath retention should only be practiced under the guidance of an experienced teacher, and this article is not intended as a teaching guide. Yoga tells us holding the breath does have benefits if performed progressively with awareness.

During breath retention no new Oxygen is taken into the body, and Carbon Dioxide is retained. It is the build up of Carbon Dioxide that in the end forces the next breath. Carbon Dioxide is essential for good health, and withholding Co2 does have benefits, up to a point. Holding the breath creates a response called cerebral anoxia. The capillaries, where gas exchange takes place do not all work at the same time, so when the brain calls for more oxygen, the resting capillaries respond through cerebral vasodilation.


Cerebral vasodilation is the widening of the blood vessels, due to smooth muscle relaxing. The main function of vasodilation is to increase blood flow to a particular part of the body most in need.  Cerebral vasodilation also reduces blood pressure.

Cerebral vasodilation

Fast rapid and shallow breathing will express too much Co2, which results in hyperventilation. Left untreated there is evidence this will cause long lasting damage. The brain requires Co2 for healthy functioning, and a lack of Co2  affects the nervous system putting the body on alert . The Sympathetic nervous system is triggered, the heart and respiratory rate increase preparing the body for action.


During the inhalation the heart rate increases, and on the exhalation the heart rate decreases. This is called Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) During the inhalation blood is diverted to the lungs, and this causes less blood to be available to the rest of the body. The heart reacts by increasing heart rate, in an effort to compensate. During the exhalation phase more blood is made available to the body, and the heart slows down. There is evidence that the inhalation phase is connected to the Sympathetic nervous system, and the exhalation is connected to the Parasympathetic nervous system.   

As the Parasympathetic nervous system triggers the rest and relax response, the evidence suggests slowing down the exhalation has benefits.     


The Sästras say that the breath should be attuned to a conception of the void. In other words, when exhaling, it should be supposed that the mind is vacant, has no thought in it.

Exhalation with such thought calms the mind; otherwise not. The effort with which breath is exhaled has three steps.

  • First, the effort to exhale it slowly
  • Secondly, the effort to keep the body still and relaxed
  • Thirdly, the effort to keep the mind vacant or without any thought
  • This is how the breath is to be exhaled

Then, to remain as far as possible in that vacant state of the mind is Pränäyäma.


In this method there is no effort to take in the breath, which will take place naturally, but it should be watched that the mind continues to remain vacant at that time also.

That the ego is disentangling itself from the body and the ‘feeling of self’ in the core of the heart is moving on to the wordless, thoughtless state of concentrated ‘0M ‘—this thought is possible only at the time of exhalation and not at the time of inhalation.

That is why no reference to inhalation has been made in the Sütra.

In exhalation and retention of breath, the nerves of the body get relaxed and the mind gets into a sort of vacant, inactive state which is not possible at the time of inhalation.


To practise this method, the breath should be exhaled with prolonged and appropriate effort. The whole body and the chest should be kept still and inhalation and exhalation should be done by the movement of abdominal muscles. When this is practised assiduously for some time, a happy feeling or feeling of lightness spreads all over the body. Further practice is to be continued with this feeling, and when that is mastered, retention need not be practised after each exhalation, but at intervals, which will not tire the devotee excessively.

When the practice is advanced, gradually it might be easier to have retention after each exhalation.


The special feature of this practice is to arrive at a unification of exhalation and retention so that the two can be achieved in the same process, and no separate effort has to be made for each.

At the time of exhalation, the entire volume of internal air need not be ejected. When some air remains, the exhalation should be reduced and passed on to retention. Carefully mastering this, it should be watched that both the body and the mind remain still and in a vacant state, specially at the time of natural inhalation in none too fast a manner. When with practice, it can be continued for a long time without interruption, and can be done whenever wanted, then the mind gets settled without any fluctuation and this may lead to the state of concentration (Samädhi).


With breathing, in one effort, a disturbed mind can be easily anchored to a particular place internally; that is why it is one of the approved ways of achieving stability of the mind.

This sort of Pränäyäma can be practised constantly, it is very suitable for attaining tranquillity.


There would appear to be considerable scientific evidence supporting the claim by Yogis of the benefits of Pranayama. It is important to remember when embarking on a practice, to seek the advice of a well trained teacher with a solid personal background in Pranayama.

Martin Thompson   


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