Posted by Amy Seal, 20-Feb-2023


Much has been said regarding pranayama over the millennia and it is taught now in a spectacularly diverse range of ways. So, before I begin to offer my take on the subject I should like to establish the caveat that what follows represents only one opinion among many and as with all yoga: vive la difference! That being said, what I do say is informed by what is now becoming an embarrassingly large number of decades that I have been practising and teaching pranayama.

The first question I believe one must ask in deciding on how to go about teaching pranayama is what is one really hoping primarily to achieve on behalf of the students by the inclusion of pranayama in a class? Is it included to gently awaken students to an awareness of how much more effectively they can breathe? Is it included to offer one’s students some simple accessible techniques that can be used in a first aid or allopathic sense? As an example, offering Bhramari Pranayama as an option for people challenged with getting to sleep or Agnisar Kriya, Swarna or Bhastrika to aid digestion or for diminished energy levels, or perhaps a cooling breath such as Sheetkari for overheating, say when peri-menopausal. Clearly these are all valid and beneficial applications of pranayama ceteris paribus.

Other approaches are informed by the tenets of various limbs of yoga, for example: Hatha Yoga with its purpose here being to balance the polarities in our body as represented by Ida and Pingala Nadi with the intention being purification at the energetic or pranic level. Kriya Yoga or Kundalini Yoga would further suggest that by balancing Ida and Pingala, Sushumna Nadi is activated and due to this occurring one is able to ultimately experience one’s full potential. Finally, from the Raja Yoga perspective Pranayama can be employed as the bridge between the bahirangas and the antarangas. (the outer and inner of the eight limbs) or in and of itself as a pathway to Dhyana.

One school of thought suggests that as teachers of pranayama we should be mostly guided by what our students want at any given point of time. While this approach has obvious merit and while as a general rule I usually embrace this teaching principle, when it comes to pranayama it is not my preference!

I believe that before students can make an informed decision on what to learn and what to skip they should be made aware of the scope and range of options from which they can choose. Furthermore I would suggest this is best achieved by systematically including pranayamas in our class plans in a way which safely and effectively introduces this wonderful domain of yoga to our students. And therefore when I teach pranayama I endeavour to encourage my students to learn such practices systematically and not in an ad hoc manner. That being said if I do have a student who has a particular issue for which a particular pranayama is potentially beneficial then I would most likely show them that practice even though I would have held back on its introduction otherwise.

Another determinant in selecting from the vast quiver of pranayama practices we have at our disposal today is whether not only am I aware of such and such a practice, but more importantly can I do it, and by that I don’t just mean technically or physically can I do it, but do I really know it? By “knowing” I am not referring to intellectually knowing it but do I have a direct personal cellular and extensive experience of this practice? Because it is my view that if not, then I should not be instructing others in that practice. When we bolt practices on to our repertoire I suggest we are doing yoga a disservice and more importantly regardless of our benevolent intent we are quite possibly doing our students a disservice. Technical mis-instruction can lead to poor foundations and incorrect practice which obviously needs to be avoided. An error of equal significance is where the depth, velocity and frequency of breath are inappropriate to the student’s skill, temperament and/or constitution. More often than not the error I have noticed is the recommendation of too many breaths, too many rounds, too much force, too fast or in some cases too slow a breath.

Perhaps the most telling example of this that I have seen is in the teaching of the category of practices that I know as the Vitalising Pranayamas: Agnisar Kriya, Swarna, Bhastrika and Kapalabhati. These are indeed marvellous practices of course but if taught without regard to the individual’s readiness and capacity I believe they can in fact be harmful. The most common mistake I see is where teachers demonstrate these practices at a rapid rate, with high force and for an extended number of repetitions and rounds; while this may be appropriate for the teacher’s level of skill it is quite unlikely, unless teaching a highly adept group of students, that they are adequately prepared for such a routine.

All practices in this category, while having the potential to be done rapidly and forcefully and for some duration, do not have to be done in such a manner, and particularly initially, for them to be beneficial. Before such a level is undertaken I would suggest that students first technically master the practice at a slower rate, for fewer breaths and rounds, and with considerably less force. So with particularly the well-known classical pranayamas of Bhastrika and Kapalabhati, rather than encouraging students to follow the teacher’s rate of breath I suggest they start with just one breath every two seconds rather than two breaths per second, then over time (weeks or even months) move up to one breath (given this is easily achieved) per second for somewhere between 3 and 5 rounds of 10 gentle and accurate breaths. By accurate I mean with this breath being nigh on purely abdominal with minimal thoracic activity.

Implicit in this recommendation is that the student should already be proficient in breathing essentially purely abdominally without aid of thoracic assistance and without effort. This in turn requires that adequate time is allocated to acquiring this skill in the preceding classes. In truth this can take several months of systematic practice, even if the student is practising outside class which is not always the case.

Equally important along with abdominal breath mastery is that the student has already a good level of proficiency with kumbhaka (retention of both the inhaled and the exhaled breath). The reason I regard this as important is that timely employment of kumbhaka in between rounds significantly reduces the potential for these practices to evoke both hypo- and particularly hyper-ventilation; which is commonly experienced particularly by over-zealous alpha-type students. Hyper-ventilation is more often than not a symptom of incorrect technique.

So, in summary with regard to the vitalising pranayamas I am suggesting that as a rule they are not taught to beginning students, and they are taught after good quality abdominal control has been established and with kumbhaka. That they are initially learnt with a gentle controlled and quite slow breath, and that rounds and repetitions are kept low. If students find the initial form accessible, it is far more likely they will persist and in a natural organic time the force and frequency will evolve in a safe and sustainable manner.

In general there is a logical sequence for introducing categories of practices to one’s students: firstly the Prana Nigraha breath control practices (Abdominal, Thoracic, Clavicular, Yogic Breath, Viloma, using pausing, and Samavritti or equal breath) then the classical pranayamas which in turn fall into three categories: Balancing, Tranquilising and Vitalising. Please note there are within the Tranquilising category two subsets: warming and cooling. Cooling practices include Sheetali, Sheetkari and Kaki Pranayamas, the warming include Ujjayi and Bhramari. When to introduce these practices is typically season-dependent, although constitution may be a factor also. Tranquilising pranayamas are stress-reducing, immediately beneficial, and accessible, also they facilitate the introduction to kumbhaka and in turn further enhance the tranquilising practices. As such I prefer to introduce them first.

Finally what about Nadi Shodhana? Well that is another topic, to be explored next time!

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