Pranayama (Sanskrit: ) is a Sanskrit word meaning "lengthening of the prana or breath". The word is composed of two Sanskrit words, Prāna, life force, or vital energy, particularly, the breath, and "āyāma", to lengthen or extend. It is often translated as control of the life force (prana). When used as a technical term in yoga, it is often translated more specifically as "breath control". Literal translations include A. A. Macdonell's "suspension of breath and I. K. Taimni's "regulation of breath".

The Qigong practice in China may also have its roots in Pranayama.


Pranayama (Devanagari: प्राणायाम, ) is a Sanskrit compound.

V. S. Apte provides fourteen different meanings for the word prana (Devanagari: प्राण, ) including these:

  • Breath, respiration
  • The breath of life, vital air, principle of life (usually plural in this sense, there being five such vital airs generally assumed, but three, six, seven, nine, and even ten are also spoken of)
  • Energy, vigor
  • The spirit or soul

Of these meanings, the concept of "vital air" is used by Bhattacharyya to describe the concept as used in Sanskrit texts dealing with pranayama. Thomas McEvilley translates "prana" as "spirit-energy".

Monier-Williams defines the compound as (m., also pl.) "N. of the three 'breath-exercises' performed during (See , , This technical definition refers to a particular system of breath control with three processes as explained by Bhattacharyya: (to take the breath inside), (to retain it), and (to discharge it). There are also other processes of pranayama in addition to this three-step model.

Macdonell gives the etymology as + āyāma and defines it as "m. suspension of breath (sts. pl.)".

Apte's definition of derives it from + and provides several variant meanings for it when used in compounds. The first three meanings have to do with "length", "expansion, extension", and "stretching, extending", but in the specific case of use in the compound he defines as meaning "restrain, control, stopping".

An alternative etymology for the compound is cited by Ramamurti Mishra, who says that:

"Expansion of individual energy into cosmic energy is called (energy + , expansion).

The word "yama" (Devanagari: याम, ) means "cessation or more generally "control" or "restraint".

Hatha and Raja Yoga Varieties

Some scholars distinguish between hatha and raja yoga varieties of pranayama, with the former variety usually prescribed for the beginner. According to Taimni, hatha yogic pranayama involves manipulation of pranic currents through breath regulation for bringing about the control of chitta-vrittis and changes in consciousness, whereas raja yogic pranayama involves the control of chitta-vrittis by consciousness directly through the will of the mind. Students qualified to practice pranayama are therefore always initiated first in the techniques of hatha pranayama.

Bhagavad Gita

Pranayama is mentioned in verse 4.29 of the Bhagavat Gita.


Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Pranayama is the fourth 'limb' of the eight limbs of Raja Yoga mentioned in verse 2.29 in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Patanjali discusses his specific approach to pranayama in verses 2.49 through 2.51, and devotes verses 2.52 and 2.53 to explaining the benefits of the practice. Patanjali refers to pranayama as the control of life force that comes as a result of practicing the various breathing techniques, rather than the numerous breathing exercises themselves.

Many yoga teachers advise that pranayama should be part of an overall practice that includes the other limbs of Patanjali's Raja Yoga teachings, especially Yama, Niyama, and Asana.

Medical claims

Several researchers have reported that pranayama techniques are beneficial in treating a range of stress related disorders, improving autonomic functions, relieving symptoms of asthma, and reducing signs of oxidative stress. Practitioners report that the practice of pranayama develops a steady mind, strong will-power, and sound judgement, and also claim that sustained pranayama practice extends life and enhances perception.


Many yoga teachers recommend that pranayama techniques be practiced with care, and that advanced pranayama techniques should be practiced under the guidance of a teacher. These cautions are also made in traditional Hindu literature.

See also



  • Bhattacharyya, N. N. History of the Tantric Religion. Second Revised Edition. (Manohar: New Delhi, 1999) p. 174. ISBN 81-7304-025-7
  • Chidananda, Sri Swami (1991). Path to Blessedness, 2nd Ed. The Divine Life Society. World Wide Web (WWW) Edition ISBN 978-817052086-3.
  • Feuerstein, Georg (1998). Tantra: The Path of Ecstacy. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
  • Flood, Gavin (1996). An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Gambhirananda, Swami (1997). Bhagavatgītā: With the commentary of Fourth Reprint edition.
  • Harper, Katherine Anne; Brown, Robert L. (2002). The Roots of Tantra. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.
  • Iyengar, B. K. Sundara Raja (1985). The Light On Pranayama: The Yogic Art of Breathing. ISBN 0-8245-0686-3
  • Iyengar, B. K. Sundara Raja (1995). Light on Yoga. ISBN 0-8052-1031-8
  • Macdonell, Arthur Anthony (1996). A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.. Reprint edition.
  • Mishra, Ramamurti S. (1963). The Textbook of Yoga Psychology. Monroe, New York: Baba Bhagavandas Publication Trust. Reprint edition, 1997.
  • Saraswati, Swami Niranjanananda (1994). Prana Pranayama Prana Vidya. ISBN 81-85787-84-0
  • Shaw, Scott. The Little Book of Yoga Breathing: Pranayama Made Easy. ISBN 1-57863-301-X
  • Taimni, I. K. (1996). The Science of Yoga. Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House. Eight reprint edition.

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