Essential Pranayama Guidelines for first-timers with all the generic Dos and Don'ts
According to Swami Satyananda regular practice of pranayama “removes blockages in the Pranamaya Kosha, enabling increased absorption and retention of prana. Once the mind has been stilled and prana flows freely in the nadis and chakras, the doorway to the evolution of consciousness opens, leading the aspirant into higher dimensions of experience.”
That is why pranayama is the precursor to meditation and spiritual practices. Even in our yoga routines, pranayama is always done after asana and before meditation. Yoga Poses cater to the physical body and meditation caters to the mental sheaths of the body. Pranayama is the link between the physical and mental body sheaths.
"There is an intimate connection between the breath, nerve currents and control of the vital breath - prana. Prana becomes visible on the physical plane as motion and action, and on the mental plane as thought. Pranayama is the means by which a yogi tries to realize within his individual body the whole cosmic nature." - Science of Pranayama, Swami Sivananda.
This post provides general guidelines for yoga teachers and students who practice, learn, or teach pranayama. We will link back to this resource in our instructions and education material.
Essential Guidelines for Pranayama
The best way to approach pranayama is with common sense, moderation, and a firm respect for your natural limits. Keep the following guidelines in mind as you build your practice.
Physical Posture - Suitable sitting positions for pranayama
Pranayama is always done while sitting unless an exception is stated within the instructions. A relaxed, workable meditation posture is necessary to breathe efficiently. The head, neck, and spine should always be in a straight line and perpendicular to the floor. The spine should be elongated without compromising the natural S-shaped curve.
Rest your hands on the knees and keep the shoulders relaxed. The eyes should be closed but you can keep them open while learning or exploring a practice. Padmasana, Vajrasana (group), and Siddhasana (or Siddha Yoni for women) are the ideal sitting postures for pranayama. Beginners should use Easy Pose and work through different asanas while learning about their benefits.
Can you do pranayama while sitting in a chair?
Most pranayama practices can be done while sitting in a chair if that suits you. If you cannot sit in a cross-legged pose, you may try Dandasana (Staff Pose) with the back against the wall. If that is not sustainable, use a yoga chair or a regular chair without leaning against it. The spine should be straight. In a nutshell, sitting in a chair does not detract from the benefits of pranayama.
Time and Duration: Preferably early morning or as appropriate
The best time to practice pranayama is at dawn. It's because the stomach is empty, the body is rested, and the mind is free from thoughts and impressions. It results in a significant difference while learning new techniques or experiencing the full benefits of pranayama.
In yoga theory, special preference is given to a window of time called Brahma Muhurat – it starts 1 hour and 30 minutes before sunrise and lasts until 30 minutes after sunrise. In this two-hour window, the lungs are active, the mind is clear, and the air is rich in Sattva (or Sattvik qualities).
If you can’t wake up early, sunset is the next best option. Moreover, some pranayamas can be done at any time of the day, and relaxing and calming pranayamas can be done before bedtime. Shower before the practice and avoid drinking cold water, eating food, or bathing for 15 minutes after the practice. Though it isn't mandated, we recommend practice at the same time each day.
Space: Clean, well-ventilated, and moderate temperature
The space you choose should be calm/quiet, hygienic, with pleasant temperature – neither hot nor cold. There should be good ventilation but no excessive currents of air/breeze. Do not practice in air-conditioned rooms or while sitting directly under a fan.
Pranayama can be done outdoors but in the shade. Direct sunlight can overheat the body. The only exception to this is sunrise or sunset as the direct rays are not harsh.
Clothing: Natural, baggy, and comfortable
Wear loose, breathable clothing made from natural fibers. Dress according to the weather and use a yoga blanket for warmth when needed. You should ideally practice in the same place every day. It builds important long-term neurological connections and deepens your practice.
Yoga Props: Not mandatory but recommended
You can practice pranayama while sitting on a carpet or a yoga mat. Do not sit on the bare floor as it will affect body temperature and conduction of energy currents. Always use a reasonably thick yoga mat or blanket, preferably made from sustainable materials and natural fibers.
Natural options are ideal because they provide optimal conduction of pranic energy while doing yoga. In addition to a yoga mat, beginners can use a yoga bolster to elevate the hips and reduce strain on the knees. You can use a yoga blanket to cushion the ankles or other areas for comfort.
We have written several buying guides and 'best-of' roundups of yoga props and accessories to help you make an informed purchase. Check them out after you go through this post.
Pace: Start slow and make small changes
The breath is subtle and unforgiving. It is way more delicate than the body. Therefore, always start a new practice slowly. You cannot master yoga breathing in a month or even a year. Slow and gradual progress is necessary to allow the body to acclimatize and adjust.
Pranayama during illness: Simple versions are permissible after consultation
Never practice pranayama during illness, congestion, or respiratory distress without consulting a physician and/or yoga expert. During illness, pregnancy, or chronic health conditions, you can practice breath awareness and relaxing breathing techniques in Corpse Pose. Do not strain the breath or attempt breath retention at any point. Furthermore, consult your healthcare giver to be doubly sure that it is permissible.
Contraindications - Always check safety precautions and side effects
Always learn about the contraindications of a breathing technique before attempting it. People with hypertension, heart disease, or any chronic health condition should only start practice after consulting their physicians. This applies to pregnant and breastfeeding women as well.
Never push too hard, rush through practice or increase the count ambitiously. Breathwork is subtle. "Strain" does not equal growth in this context. There are two reasons for this – a) the lungs are delicate and b) our breath is connected to the mind and body. Any discomfort will manifest in the mental and physical aspects, which may put you off the practice.
How to handle discomfort?
It's important to use your self-awareness to distinguish between pain and the discomfort that arises from trying something new. Tingling in the legs, itching, feeling lightheaded, itching or ‘oozing heat’, and other feelings may manifest initially when you attempt certain breathing techniques. Most of it is short-lived and temporary. That’s your body’s natural reaction to purification or stimulation.
Stop the practice if you experience any difficulty in breathing or feel dizzy. Stay seated and breathe normally, it will subside in a few seconds to a few minutes. If any ill-effect persists for more than a few days, consult a yoga expert for competent advice. Always end your pranayama session with a few minutes of relaxation. This can be done by even breathing in Easy Pose or relaxation in Corpse Pose for a few minutes.
Diet for Serious Practitioners
The Prana Sutra team firmly believes that food is a source of prana. We encourage local, wholesome, seasonal, and nutritional food, preferably according to your Ayurvedic dosha. Traditional herbs (from natural sources) can be used after consultation with an expert.
Eat a balanced diet with the generally recommended serving of vegetables and fruits and micro/macronutrients based on your age, gender, and health condition. Any food that is warm, freshly cooked, and homemade is ideal. Eliminate or at least avoid processed foods, soda (carbonated drinks), and things that make you feel sluggish, dull, and uneasy.
TL;DR Version: Quick Summary
Here is a brief summary of the essential guidelines for pranayama covered in this post -
On an empty stomach, early morning, and after elimination and showering.
In a cross-legged posture on a yoga mat
In a clean, well-ventilated room that is neither too hot nor cold
Same time of the day and same place/location
Wear loose-fitting clothes made from natural fibers
Be patient, don’t strain, and stop if you feel uneasy.
This article has been created in close consultation with yoga experts to ensure the general population can practice pranayama safely. There are innumerable rules in classical yoga texts concerning advanced pranayamas, variations, and specific iterations of the techniques. Thereby, the above-mentioned guidelines may change as you progress to higher levels of practice. Seek the guidance of a guru to learn them correctly.