'Matysendra, depicted on16th-century temple pillars at Hampi, Karnataka'. Photo by Dr James Mallinson and Dr Daniela Bevilacqua, Haṭha Yoga Project.
Control of the breath is one of the earliest recorded forms of yogic practice. It was described by the Buddha, who talked about trying it before his awakening 2,500 years ago. And although it is not taught explicitly in the Vedas, India’s oldest texts, they do equate breath with the vital energy known as prāṇa, which is related to fire in Vedic rituals.
A rationale for manipulating breathing is explained in the pre-Buddhist Chāndogya Upaniṣad (6.8.2). A sage tells his son: ‘Just as a bird tied by a string flies off in all directions and, on not reaching any other place to stay, returns to where it is tied, in the very same way, dear boy, the mind flies off in all directions and, on not reaching any other place to stay, returns to the breath. For the mind, dear boy, is tied to the breath’ (Mallinson and Singleton 2017:138).
A few centuries later, the Mahābhārata names two yogic techniques of meditation: ‘one is the concentration of the mind, and the other is called prāṇāyāma (regulation of breath)’ (12.294.8). The latter is ‘conditioned’ (saguṇa), using breathing to steady the mind. The first is ‘unconditioned’ (nirguṇa), refining awareness to focused oneness. The two are combined in the Bhagavad Gītā (5.27), which mentions: ‘fixing the gaze between the two eyebrows [and] equalising the inhalation and exhalation’ (Sargeant 2009:269).
Prāṇāyāma is a compound of prāṇa and āyāma, which can indicate ‘extension’ but mostly means ‘restraint’ in yogic texts. For example, in Patañjali’s Yogasūtra (2.49): ‘Breath-control is stopping the flow of inhalation and exhalation’ (Mallinson and Singleton 2017:140). Elsewhere in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, a compilation of his sūtras and commentary, he adds: ‘[mental steadiness] may also result from the exhalation and retention of breath’ (1.34, Mallinson and Singleton 2017:142). An unidentified verse is also quoted: ‘There is no austerity superior to breath-control. It results in the cleansing of impurities and the illumination of knowledge,’ which helps to facilitate liberation (2.52, Mallinson and Singleton 2017:142).
Later texts teach breath-based ways of raising energy. The ultimate goal remains the same: removing obstacles to getting absorbed in meditation. The 15th-century Haṭhapradīpikā (2.75) says breath-control with kumbhaka—or ‘retention’—is the key to this, and therefore to mastering physical yoga. In contrast to the modern fixation on bodily postures, the defining practice in traditional texts is prāṇāyāma.
References to prāṇa date back 3,500 years, to Vedic ritual. There are instructions for priests to hold their breath while reciting chants in the Jaiminīya Upaniṣad Brāhmaṇa (3.3.1). The Ṛg Veda (10.136) also mentions a cryptic ‘long-haired ascetic’, or keśin, who ‘sails through the air’ as if riding the wind by controlling breath (Doniger 1991:137–38). The Atharva Veda (11.4) pays homage to prāṇa as the basis of life. ‘Breath is lord of all, both what breathes and what does not,’ it says. ‘In breath is all established’ (Whitney 1905:632–33).
Other verses list seven types of prāṇa, or ‘upward breaths’, plus seven ‘downward breaths’ (apāna), and seven more that pervade the whole body (vyāna, Mallinson and Singleton 2017:137). An ascetic is portrayed connecting them to his surroundings, from the five material elements (earth, water, fire, wind and space) to the sun, the moon, the stars, the passing seasons and all creatures. Manipulating breath makes him one with the cosmos, and even immortal. Exhalation is also linked to sacrificial offerings (Atharva Veda 15.15-15.18).
The Upaniṣads build on these themes. ‘Breath is immortality’, a timeless animating presence, says the Bṛhad-Āraṇyaka Upaniṣad (1.6.3, Olivelle 1998:251). The Kauṣītaki Upaniṣad (2.1) turns this around to state: ‘Brahman is breath,’ so respiration is communion with the universe (Olivelle 1998:333). The Praśna Upaniṣad (3.5–3.7) identifies five different aspects of prāṇa, a model later borrowed by yogic texts, which name them ‘winds’ (vāyus): ‘The lower breath (apāna) is in the anus and the loins. The breath itself (prāṇa) is established in the eye and the ear, the mouth and the nostrils. The central breath (samāna) is in the middle: it makes equal all that is offered as food.’ The text also highlights a network of thousands of channels (nāḍīs) for vital energy: ‘In them moves the diffused breath (vyāna). Through one of them, the up-breath (udāna) rises’ (Roebuck 2000:337).
Modern medical knowledge contradicts this. Although breathing keeps organs alive, it enters the lungs through the nose and throat. However, it can also be felt elsewhere by directing attention to other sensations. The yogi’s subtle body is effectively visualised into experience, but ways of doing so are first taught in Tantras a few centuries later.
More than 2,000 years ago, texts about dharma (a term associated with duty, law and virtue) said retaining the breath could have purifying powers. Several prescribe prāṇāyāma to atone for misconduct. ‘For destroying all faults it is this which is pre-eminent,’ declares the Baudhāyana Dharmasūtra (4.1.30, Mallinson and Singleton 2017:140). The Manusmṛti (6.71) explains how it works: ‘Just as metals’ impurities are burnt up when they are smelted, so faults in the sense organs are burnt up by restraint of the breath’ (Mallinson and Singleton 2017:140).
The effect of prāṇāyāma is likened to tapas, which means both heat and physical effort that produces it. ‘Suppressing the breath three times, in accordance with the rules and supplemented by the recitation of the syllable ‘Oṃ’ and the three Vedic exclamations [bhūr, bhuvaḥ and svaḥ, referring to the heavens, the earth and the atmosphere between], should be regarded as a priest’s supreme generation of inner heat,’ says the Manusmṛti (6.70, Doniger and Smith 1991:124). Although this text mentions priests, austere forms of tapas were widely practised by ascetics, who renounced Brahmin rituals to seek liberation by themselves. Known collectively as śramaṇas, meaning ‘strivers’, they included early yogis, Jains and Buddhists.
The Buddha discusses his studies with yogic teachers, who were trying to solve the problem of karma, which means action. According to this doctrine, whose source is unknown, life results in rebirth because whatever people do has karmic outcomes, and the succession of cause and effect spans endless lifetimes. To sever the chain, one had to stop producing karma. Ascetics tried remaining inactive, performing austerities to burn through old stocks. One of these was what the Buddha calls ‘non-breathing meditation’ (Majjhima Nikāya I.243–246, Mallinson and Singleton 2017:138).
His description sounds painful. ‘Extreme winds slashed my head as if a strong man were attacking my head with a sharp sword,’ he says, yet he persevered, until ‘an extreme heat arose in my body; it was as if two strong men were to take a weaker man by the arms and roast him over hot coals.’ He eventually gave up, noting: ‘I, indeed, by means of this severe and difficult practice, do not attain to greater excellence in noble knowledge and insight which transcends the human condition. Could there be another path to enlightenment?’ (Mallinson and Singleton 2017:138–39).
Critics often warn that breath-control is dangerous. ‘There is no point in spending a long time cultivating the breaths [or] practising hundreds of breath-retentions, which cause disease,’ says the 12th-century Amanaska (2.42), which notes the mind can be stilled without exertion: ‘When [the no-mind state] has arisen, the mighty breath spontaneously and immediately disappears’ (Mallinson and Singleton 2017:41). Later teachings acknowledge the risks. ‘Just as a lion, elephant, or tiger is tamed step by step, so the breath is controlled,’ says the Haṭhapradīpikā (2.15–2.16). ‘Otherwise it kills the practitioner. Correct prāṇāyāma will weaken all diseases. Improper practice of yoga will strengthen all diseases’ (Akers 2002:36–37).
In Patañjali’s teachings on yoga, prāṇāyāma is part of an eightfold yogic method. This starts with guidelines on ethical conduct (yama and niyama) and a stable seated posture (āsana). Breath-control promotes an inward focus (pratyāhāra), preparing the mind for concentration and stillness (via dhāraṇā, dhyāna and samādhi), in which the inner light of knowledge shines on consciousness alone. Illusions that cover this light can be dissolved by prāṇāyāma, which Patañjali calls ‘external, internal or stopped; regulated according to location, time and number; [and] long and subtle’ (2.50, Mallinson and Singleton 2017:140). The breath is held out or in, or suspended suddenly. Each causes ‘eruption’ (udghāta), an upward surge of vital energy (Mallinson and Singleton 2017:141).
There is also spontaneous breath-control, a mysterious cessation ‘resulting from limitation of the sphere of activity of inhalation and exhalation, and from gradual conquest of the levels’ (2.51, Mallinson and Singleton 2017:141). Later texts describe a similar phenomenon as kevala kumbhaka, a pure retention ‘unaccompanied’ by breathing. The 13th-century Dattātreyayogaśāstra (73–74) says it is ‘mastered as a result of holding one’s breath for as long as one likes,’ after which ‘there is nothing in the three worlds that is unattainable’ (Mallinson and Singleton 2017:156). An accomplished yogi can kill lions and tigers with one blow, while overcoming disease and the need for much sleep (80–83, Mallinson and Singleton 2017:156).
A simpler practice produces these powers, explains the Dattātreyayogaśāstra (59–66). The yogi ‘should block the right nostril with the thumb of the right hand and gradually inhale through the left nostril without interruption as deeply as he can. Then he should perform breath-retention.’ This is sahita kumbhaka, a pause ‘accompanied’ by breathing. ‘Next he should exhale through the right nostril gently, not forcefully. He should inhale again, through the right nostril, and gently fill his abdomen. After holding [his breath] for as long as he can, he should gently exhale through the left nostril,’ performing 20 repetitions four times daily: in the morning, at noon, in the evening and at midnight (Mallinson and Singleton 2017:155–56).
Three months of this purification yields signs of progress: ‘At first sweat appears. [The yogi] should massage [himself] with it. By slowly increasing, step-by-step, the retention of the breath, trembling arises in the body of the yogi,’ who hops like a frog. ‘Through further increase [in the duration] of the practice, levitation arises. Sitting in the lotus position, [the yogi] leaves the ground and remains [in the air] without a support’ (75–79, Mallinson and Singleton 2017:156). Despite these feats, this is preliminary work, preparing the body for subtler practice drawn from Tantras.
Most Tantric systems of yoga have six parts. These are largely the same as Patañjali’s eight, but leaving out ethics and substituting reasoning (tarka) for postural guidance. Tantric rituals are usually seated, and often start with purifying breath-control. The earliest known Tantra, the fifth-century Niśvāsatattvasaṃhitā (4.110), introduces the phrase ‘purification of the channels’ (nāḍīśuddhi) for alternate-nostril breathing (Mallinson and Singleton 2017:144). It also uses terms for inhalation (pūraka), exhalation (recaka) and retention (kumbhaka) that later yogic texts adopt (Mallinson and Singleton 2017:485).
Other Tantras map the subtle yogic body, consisting of channels (nāḍīs), wheels (cakras), knots (granthis) and energy points (marmans). The most common model appears in the 10th-century Kubjikāmatatantra (11.34–37), which lists six cakras on the central spinal channel, called Suṣumnā. They are the mūla—or ‘root’—ādhāra (at the perineum), svādhiṣṭhāna (genitals), maṇipūra (navel), anāhata (heart), viśuddhi (throat), and ājñā (between the eyebrows). It also talks about the energetic goddess Kuṇḍalinī, whose serpent form straightens up through the cakras, dissolving the mind in awakened consciousness.
This process is induced by prāṇāyāma. ‘The fire kindled by the breath continually burns Kuṇḍalinī,’ says the 14th-century Yogabīja (96–97), which like many yogic texts mixes Tantric ideas with ascetic techniques. ‘Heated by the fire, that goddess […] enters into the mouth of the Suṣumnā channel in the spine [and] together with the breath and the fire pierces the knot of Brahmā,’ one of three blockages. The others, also named after gods, are called Viṣṇu and Rudra. Locations vary by text, but each is progressively higher up the spine.
Two other channels are also important. ‘Iḍā ends at the left nostril; Piṅgalā is taught to be [the same] on the right,’ says the 13th-century Vasiṣṭhasaṃhitā (28–39). ‘Know the moon to be in Iḍā; the sun is said to be in Piṅgalā’ (Mallinson and Singleton 2017:195). Breath-control pushes vital energy out of these channels and into Suṣumnā. The Sanskrit for physical yoga—haṭha—means it works ‘by force.’ (Mallinson and Singleton 2017:5). Another definition is more esoteric, based on balancing prāṇa in Iḍā and Piṅgalā to open Suṣumna. ‘The sun is denoted by the syllable ha and the moon by ṭha,’ says the Yogabīja (148–149). ‘Because of the union of the sun and moon it is called haṭhayoga’ (Mallinson and Singleton 2017:32).
The fire of prāṇāyāma is stoked by uniting two more forces: upward-moving prāṇa and descending apāna. Their flows are reversed using ‘locks’ (bandhas) and ‘seals’ (mudrās), which work with muscular effort and visualisation. The main actions for breath-control involve drawing up the pelvic floor (mūlabandha), an abdominal lift (uḍḍīyānabandha) and locking the chin between the collarbones (jālandharabandha). They seal the ‘pot’ (kumbha) of the torso in retentions, combining prāṇa and apāna to heat Kuṇḍalinī.
Generally speaking, says the Haṭhapradīpika (2.45): ‘Jālandhara is to be done at the end of inhalation. Uḍḍīyāna is to be done at the end of [internal] kumbhaka and the beginning of exhalation,’ with the root lock held throughout (Akers 2002:44). If Kuṇḍalinī ascends the whole spine, it floods the body with nectar (amṛta). However, this is a side-effect; the goal is absorption in consciousness, for which prāṇāyāma is essential preparation. The Haṭhapradīpikā (4.114) concludes: ‘As long as the moving breath doesn’t enter the Suṣumnā [and] as long as the meditating mind is unlike the natural state, talk of true knowledge is arrogant, deceitful chatter’ (Akers 2002:113).
In addition to retentions and alternate-nostril breathing, the Haṭhapradīpikā teaches eight prāṇāyāma techniques, all labelled kumbhakas. One is commonly heard in modern yoga: ujjāyī, a ‘victorious’ closed-throat wheeze. The others are bhastrikā, deep ‘bellows’ breathing; bhrāmarī, a ‘buzzing’ hum while exhaling; śītalī, a ‘cooling’ inhalation through curled tongue; śītkārī, a ‘whistling’ equivalent; sūryabheda, ‘piercing the sun’ by breathing into the right nostril and out of the left; mūrcchā, holding the breath to the verge of ‘fainting’; and plāvinī, ‘floating’ like a lotus leaf on water.
Six preparatory actions (ṣatkarma) are also taught to cleanse impurities. One involves rapid breathing: kapālabhāti, or ‘shining skull’. This is widely seen as breath-control today, having been popularised on Indian TV by the guru Ramdev. A related form of cleansing is the ‘fire breath’ (agnisāra or vahnisāra), taught in the 18th-century Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā (1.19): ‘Move the navel plexus to the spinal column one hundred times. This gets rid of intestinal diseases and increases the digestive fire’ (Mallinson and Singleton 2004:5).
Contemporary instructions add more details. Breathing can be paused mid-stream (viloma), or a nostril closed while exhaling (anuloma) or inhaling (pratiloma). There are also variations in rhythm, from equal-length breaths and retentions (samavṛtti) to irregular patterns (viṣamavṛtti), for which the classic ratio is 1:4:2:1 for inhalation, retention, exhalation and retention.
Chants are sometimes taught as an accompaniment, although few of these appear in yogic texts apart from Oṃ, which encompasses everything. Some Sanskrit syllables are linked to cakras as ‘seed’ or bīja mantras. Two others are always recited. ‘The breath goes out with a ha sound and in with a sa sound. This is the mantra haṃsa haṃsa. All living beings repeat it,’ says the Yogabīja (146–47). ‘The repetition is reversed in the central channel and becomes so’ham,’ or ‘I am that,’ a declaration of oneness from the Upaniṣads (Mallinson and Singleton 2017:32).
Modern teachers also hint at longevity. In Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar says: ‘The yogi’s life is not measured by his days, but by the number of his breaths’ (Iyengar 1966:43). However, he stops short of saying prāṇāyāma ‘postpones old age,’ musing: ‘Why worry about it? Death is certain’ (Iyengar 2005:104). His cautious tone reflects a general wariness today of teaching breath-control. Describing one technique as ‘fraught with danger,’ he warns: ‘do not practise it on your own without the personal supervision of an experienced guru’ (Iyengar 1983:120).
Although it is wise to build up slowly, taking care to avoid putting the body under strain, being mindful of breathing is a helpful practice in itself. ‘Through the breath, we develop an awareness of the subtle force within the body,’ notes the Bihar School of Yoga’s prāṇāyāma book (Saraswati 2009:6), ‘and directing the mind to become aware of the subtle activities is the beginning of yoga.’
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