For many of us, breath work or pranayama is merely a technique for relaxation or to attain general well-being. We usually partake in an oversimplified version of it in a post-asana session or to calm the mind before meditation.
The yogic texts, on the other hand, lay a lot of emphasis on the science and philosophy of breathing – proclaiming it to be a worthy pursuit to the benefit of all those who seek enlightenment.
Pranayama is the fourth step (anga) in the eight steps to samadhi (ultimate union/enlightenment) outlined by Sage Patanjali in Ashtanga Yoga. It's is to be practiced after you have started practicing asana and attained some level of proficiency in postural yoga.
This is a lot of discrepancy in what people define as the "best book" to learn pranayama. Some want quick instructions in a step-by-step format and others mandate an accurate recounting of the origin, theory, and philosophy of yoga breathing. Philosophy and Sanskrit terms are also highly contested, as some readers find them authentic and others find them unpalatable.
We list pranayama books that reconcile the esoteric with the approachable. Our primary considerations for selecting the best pranayama books were -
Accurate and methodical explanations of each pranayama
Approachable language and well-organized content
All books have sections on physiology/philosophy, as any comprehensive guide ought to. Some go into more detail than others. The inclusion of photographs or illustrations is not necessary but it did score brownie points. Based on this criteria, we selected a few books and present brief reviews of each, hoping it will inform your decision.
Our Top Picks for the Best Pranayama Books
Most Comprehensive: Light on Pranayama by B K S Iyenger (Amazon)
"An axiomatic and comprehensive guide to pranayama by a timeless master."
Best for Beginners: Prana and Pranayama by Swami Nirjananda Saraswat (Amazon)
"An easy-to-follow and eloquent articulation of a weighty subject."
Best Hands-on Guide: The Science of Pranayama by Swami Sivananda (Amazon Link)
"A to-the-point articulation of the basics techniques and theory in a concise format."
For Modern Readers: Pranayama: The Breathe of Yoga by Gregor Maehle (Amazon Link)
"A book that is well researched, easy to grasp, and tuned to the needs of a modern reader."
Best Video Series: Yoga International: Fundamentals of Pranayama (On Amazon)
"For yogis who prefer the familiar format of streaming episodes over reading books."
The 5 Best Books to Learn + Understand Pranayama
An axiomatic and comprehensive guide to pranayama by a timeless master.
In his 50 years of service to the yoga community, B. K. S. Iyengar played a crucial role in popularizing yoga in the West. Iyengar was awarded three of the highest civilian honors in India and Time magazine listed him as the 100 most influential people in the world in 2004. He has taught millions of people through his videos, books, and centers all over the globe. His books like Light on Yoga and The Path to Holistic Health are nothing short of modern classics that have consistently ranked as a bestseller across continents.
Light on Pranayama is the ultimate pranayama compendium containing the physiological, psychological, and spiritual aspects of breathing. It devotes the first hundred pages to delineating the theoretical and anatomical aspects of breathing. Iyengar spares no detail in explaining the anatomy and physiological benefits of each exercise. As a beginner, you might feel averse to the philosophy and Sanskrit terms right now, but you will yearn to understand these things when you develop a serious practice.
An equally copious amount of the literature talks about supplementary practices such as postures (asana), locks (bandha), and hand gestures (hasta mudra). Once you are aware of all the foundational aspects, the book dives into the methodologies and practical aspects. Each pranayama is presented with extensive and easy-to-follow instructions. Iyengar has gone through a laborious and meticulous approach to cataloging every dimension and aspect of pranayama. There is no shortage of diagrams, photographs, protocols, and precautions.
This isn’t a step-by-step content guide but it does provide information on how to integrate pranayama into your daily practice. Iyengar skillfully extracts the philosophy when needed and breaks down complex techniques into simple practices that can be applied by everyone.
Light on Pranayama is one of the most comprehensive books on the subject and can be an enlightening foray into the world of yoga breathing. It's an A-to-Z guide that covers all the classic theory, philosophy, anatomy, and techniques, making it a must-read for every yogi.
An easy-to-follow and eloquent articulation of a weighty subject.
Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati is the disciple and successor of Swami Satyananda Saraswati. In 1994, he established the Bihar School of Yoga – the first yoga university. He was awarded the highest civilian award of India for propagating yoga across the world.
In the 282 pages of Prana and Pranayama, Swamiji shares his immense knowledge on the subject with an affable tone and a brisk pace. The book comprises wide-ranging topics described in an easy-to-understand language while consistently referring to classic texts.
The first section spans 65 pages and deals with the philosophy of prana. Swamiji lucidly explains the concepts of prana (life-energy), koshas (sheaths), chakras (energy centers), nadis (energy pathways), and pranic fields within the human body. The second section tackles the physiology of breathing in the context of pranayama. It outlines the yogic viewpoint on the science of the breath. In the latter half, the book progresses to the actual practice and backs it up with the highlights of modern scientific research.
The meat and potatoes are in the third section where you find methods and protocol to identify and experience prana within the breath. As you progress to intermediate and advanced practices, each pranayama has been presented in an individual section with guidelines. The book concludes with suggestions for supplementary practices and sections on asanas, mudras, and bandhas relevant to Pranayama. In the process, Swami Nirajanananda references Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Shiva Samhita, and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
Swamiji articulates a weighty subject without compromising the more profound and powerful intricacies. In doing so, he appeals to practitioners at every level by making pranayama palatable, personable, and practicable.
Prana and Pranayama is a good book to build an understanding of Pranayama and practice it in daily life. Although it doesn’t get the recognition it deserves, perhaps on account of its modest “packaging”, this is nothing short of a seminal text on the subject.
A handy articulation of the basics techniques and theory in a concise format.
Swami Sivananda gave up his medical practice and embraced spirituality to establish the first Sivananda Ashram at Rishikesh, India. He contributed a vast and continuous stream of spiritual literature that found favor with yoga enthusiasts everywhere.
His spiritual literature played a big role in attracting visitors from across the world to his Ashrams. In fact, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, who established the Bihar School of Yoga, was one of Sivananda's disciples.
The Science of Pranayama, his take on the subject, if presented in a compact book that focuses on the methods rather than the theory and philosophy of prana. It has a terse tone and to-the-point approach that will suit those who are already familiar with the basics of prana.
The first chapter deals with the basic concepts of prana and explanations of Ida, Pingala, and, Sushumna. It briefly delves into the ideas of nadis, Kundalini (creative energy), and chakras before it starts with descriptions of pranayama alongside black and white photographs.
The second chapter deals with peripheral and supplementary practices to make the most out of pranayama. It addressed the five essential elements: place, time, diet, posture, and Nadi-Shuddi. As you progress, you learn about rhythmical breathing, postures, and Hatha yoga concepts like Ghata Avastha.
While this book might be faulted for the use of Sanskrit terms, the quantity is relatively scant. It is something you need to get accustomed to if you want any veritable knowledge on the subject anyway. The book contains a glossary at the end, and you will benefit from internalizing the English meaning of the commonly used Sanskrit terms. The "science" in the title may seem a bit misleading. The book is more of an analysis of Pranayama with an occasional foray into the physiological and psychological effects of breathing.
The text is deciphered from – and rooted in – the yogic sciences, not modern science. This book works best as a hands-on guide to pranayama. If you are already familiar with Pranayama or have been practicing it for a while, you should consider other options.
A book that is well researched, easy to grasp, and tuned to the needs of a modern reader.
Gregor Maehle is a prolific writer with several books on yoga such as Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy and Samadhi – The Great Freedom. It’s easy to see why he is so adept at explaining and representing the ideas once you realize he spent many years in India learning Sanskrit and yoga from some of the most revered names in the realm.
In Breath of Yoga, Maehle covers the therapeutic, mental, and spiritual benefits of pranayama in ways a modern reader can grasp easily. This includes the meaning, function, and role of prana in yoga. He follows that up with detailed explanations (+ illustrations) of pranayamas such as Alternate Nostril Breathing, Bellows Breathing, and Selective Nostril Breathing.
He presents subsidiary and complementary practices such as mantra (chanting), matra (counting), and various yoga kriyas you can use before or after pranayama. He is one of the few authors who elaborate on how breath work affects brain hemispheres and the nervous system. He also touches upon the apt diet, best postures, and applications of breath retention.
In terms of philosophy, he is one of the few authors that ventures into Kundalini, helping the reader understand the link between prana and Kundalini Shakti (creative energy). Lastly, to keep things actionable, he presents suggestions on how to work through all the techniques in the book and integrate pranayama within the larger context of your yoga practice.
Maehle does an excellent job of explaining why pranayama is the bridge between postural yoga and meditation – a bridge every yogi must cross dutifully. While some may appreciate the thoroughness, others may find the repeated referencing of scriptures to be a distraction. Either way, The Breath of Yoga is rich in insight, in-depth explanations, and written with passion.
It's an age of video content and online streaming, and we would be remiss to forgo the 'Yoga International - Fundamentals of Pranayama Series' in our list of the best resources to learn Pranayama. The caveat is that you need an Amazon Prime membership, which most of us have anyway. If not, you can sign up for a free trial and stream the videos to see if the content resonates with you.
In the video lessons, Jim Bennitt unpacks the rudiments of prana, yoga breathing, and how to modify the breath to control the mind. The series (or 'Season One' as they call it) is divided into 11 episodes. You can stream individual episodes, the entire season, or get free access with Yoga International content after the trial period.
The lessons start simple, with sessions covering the ratio of breathing, asanas to prepare for pranayama, and an AMA style video where Jim answer's frequently asked questions about yoga breathing. It goes on to cover six of the most frequently used pranayamas - Kapalbhati, Nadi Shodhana, Sitali, Sitkari, and Bhramari Pranayama.
Personally, we find the enchanting smell of books (Biblosmia!) to be nothing short of a drug, but many modern yogis will appreciate the familiar format of streaming episodes over reading paperbacks. Luckily, there is something out there for everyone.
If you have Amazon Prime or Audible accounts, you can listen to the audio books of our selections on the Audible App. It's a great resource to gain access to a large resource of yoga and pranayama books. Plus, you can listen to them while driving or using the subway. Either way, Amazon Audible's free trial gives you a month to check out the books we have recommended.
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