Pranayama FAQ: A Beginner's Guide to the Basics




What is pranayama?


In simple words, Pranayama is a spiritual practice mentioned in Ashtanga Yoga that deals with the control of breath and expansion of the life-force (prana). The Hatha Yoga Pradipika says that pranayama is the heart of yoga and without it, all asana is hollow and lifeless. It is the 4th step in the 8-fold path of Yoga, preceded by yama, niyama, and asana.


What are the health benefits of pranayama?


The scriptures state that the regular practice of pranayama helps us stay healthy. Pranayama improves energy levels, blood flow, digestion, mental clarity, and memory. The Shiva Samhita states that daily practice can bring you closer to the self and do away with the fear of death.


There are 14 different pranayamas that can be performed in varying degrees of complexity (intermediate and advanced variations) with or without bandhas and mudras. It would be daunting to generalized the overall impact of each sub-type.


What are the different types of pranayama?


There are 14 types of Pranayama – yogic breathing exercises. They include Agnisar, Anulom-Vilom, Bahaya, Bharamari, Bhastrika, Chandra Bhedna, Kapalbhati, Nadi Shodhana, Pranav, Sheetali, Sitkari, Surya Bhedna, Udgeeth, and Ujjayi. Omkar and Karna Rogantak are also referred to as pranayama by modern practitioners. Some of these are used during warm-up and others are categorized as cleansing, relaxing, heating, and cooling pranayamas.


Can I do pranayama if I have never done yoga?


The Yoga Sutras state that you must prepare the body (through yoga asana) before you approach the mind. An unfit body that is suffering from years of neglect will become a hurdle in pranayama. It will do more harm than good in the long run. You can do some of the generic pranayamas like Anulom-Vilom, yogic breathing, and Brahmari.


However, you should refrain from intermediate to advanced pranayamas, especially the variations with uneven ratios of inhalation-exhalation-retention and bandhas (locks). Try to attain an intermediate level of competency in yoga asana before you attempt pranayama.


What is the age limit for doing pranayama?


Those above 18 and below 50 can safely practice pranayama. There are some references in the scriptures that state kumbhaka (retention) can lead to undesirable effects on children and young adults. Similarly, those above 50 are likely to have chronic ailments that can be aggravated by certain pranayamas. If you are outside that age bracket, you should consult an experienced practitioner to find out how to proceed.


What is the ideal time for pranayama?


“Bramha Muhutra” – we’ve written a detailed article on the reasoning behind this and why it is essential to practice pranayama early in the morning.


How long should you do pranayama?


The amount of time depends on your level of expertise, experience, and expectations. Beginners should start with 10 to 20 minutes and progress to 30 minutes (intermediate). If you have time, you can extend it to 45 to 60 minutes and end your practice with a 10-minute rest in savasana.


What is the best pose to do pranayama?


There is no one pose that is better than the other as long as all posture-related requirements are fulfilled. The commonly used poses for pranayama include:

  • Siddhasana (Accomplished Pose)

  • Padmasana (Lotus Pose)

  • Ardhapadmasana (Half-Lotus)

  • Bhadrasana (Gracious Pose)

  • Sukhasana (Cross-legged)

  • Swastikasana (Auspicious Pose)

  • Virasana (Hero Pose)

  • Vajrasana (Thunderbolt Pose)

  • Baddhakonasana (Bound Angle or Cobbler’s Pose)

Is pranayama dangerous?


Pranayama is not dangerous, doing pranayama in the wrong way is dangerous – just like yoga asana, or working out, or even driving a car. This principle applies to anything we do. We have to learn the right way to do it and understand the contraindications before we delve into it.


What is the best and worst place to do pranayama?


Avoid any form of breathing exercise in a damp/humid room with poor ventilation, outdoors in fog/smog, in a room with fumes (i.e. fresh paint fumes), and in a noise or crowded place. In short, you should be practicing pranayama in a quiet, well-lit, and well-ventilated room.


Can you eat a meal before and after pranayama?


It is said that pranayama must be done when you are neither hungry nor full. As a rule of thumb, do no practice pranayama until 3 hours have passed after eating your last meal. Do not eat anything for 30 minutes after your session to allow your body to return to normal. Many techniques generate effects in the body that will be squandered on digestion if food is eaten right away.


Can I drink water before or after pranayama?


As a rule of thumb, avoid water for 15 to 30-minutes before and after pranayama. A wave of calm surges over you once you’re done with the breathing exercises. Savor the silence and serenity. By the time you wind up your practice, you’ll be good for a drink of water.


Can you do pranayama while lying down?


Pranayama must be done while seated in the right posture. Your neck, head, and back should be erect and aligned. It is not advised to perform any pranayama while lying down. You may attempt certain basic practices like yogic breathing and breath observation while lying down. However, all serious practice must be done in the seated pose.


Can pranayama be done while walking or standing?


No! Pranayamas must be performed ONLY while sitting in asana or on a chair. The head and back should be erect, relaxed, and in a straight line. Pranayama is not a breathing exercise and it most certainly isn’t some “add-on” to multi-task alongside your existing routine for “maximum mileage”.


Do I need to know Sanskrit to do pranayama?


Luckily, breathing is an art, not a language. Thereby, you don’t need to know Sanskrit to practice Pranayama as long as you are okay with occasionally butchering the names of some of them. There is no dearth of English-based resources on the topic, including our detailed an intricate e-book that covers all aspects of Pranayama.


Can I learn pranayama online or by reading books?


Yes. A good eBook can be a valuable resource to get started. There are many great books on the topic and we’ve written about the 3 best books to learn pranayama. That being said, the finest way to learn a spiritual tradition is to learn it from an experienced practitioner in person.


Can you do pranayama during menstruation?


Yes. Women can practice the cooling and deep-breathing related pranayama during menstruation. This includes Bhramari, Anulom vilom, Ujjayi, Sheetali, and Sitkari. You can also try yogic breathing or deep (relaxed) breathing in Savasana (Corpse’s Pose) to balance emotions and calm the mind.


However, it is best to avoid any variation that includes fast breathing, bandhas (locks), and kumbakha (retention) during menstruation. Also, it’s best to avoid heat-generating pranayama like Surya Bhedana, Kapalbhati, and Bhastrika as they strain the abdomen/stomach and can lead to heavy flow.


Can you do pranayama during pregnancy?


Pregnant women can practice pranayama like Ujaayi, Nadi Shodahana, and Anulom vilom. They should avoid kapalbhati, Bhastrika, and other advanced forms that include uneven ratios, retention, and bandhas (locks). Surya bhedana and Chandra bhedana can also be performed as and when required. It is advised that they take a break in the last few weeks of their final trimester and for a month after delivery. If you have a Cesarean delivery, you should wait for 3 to 6 months before you resume your normal routine.


Can pranayama help you lose weight?


While pranayama may contribute to weight loss directly or indirectly, it is impertinent to view it through the twisted lens of ‘marketing-hype’. The goal of pranayama, as mentioned in the scriptures, is to act as the 4th step to Samadhi – oneness. It is not a ‘get-thin-quick’ scheme, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.


If you’re here thinking of picking up pranayama to drop a few pounds fast, there are 100+ better ways to do it than to partake in a rigorous practice like pranayama. Not only does it belittle the spirit of Ashtanga, but it also invalidates the first three steps of Ashtanga – Yama, Niyama, and Asana.


Will I have to become Hindu to do pranayama?


Pranayama is a spiritual practice that is by no means underpinned by any religion. The only thing you need to be is Human – a persistent, persevering, and spiritually inclined human.