The Samahita Blog

What is Pranayama? Pranayama as a specific yogic approach to breathwork: the art of no breath

Paul Dallaghan
By Paul Dallaghan

Prānāyāma has been referred to in modern literature as ‘yogic breathing’. This is an attempt to differentiate breathing exercises as noted in the yogic texts from general breathwork. Yet the term ‘yogic breathing’ is unsatisfactory as it neither defines or accurately explains the nature of prānāyāma and instead implies some alternate obscure way of breathing. Ironically, prānāyāma correctly defined means ‘no breath’.

The earliest recorded definition of prānāyāma is from about the 4th century C.E., in the Patanjalayogashastra, a composite text considered the most comprehensive and systematic explanation on yoga, its mechanism and experience (1). It prescribes no doctrine but rather details the outcome of yoga, the necessary mental attributes, and different states of consciousness. Prānāyāma, as part of the mechanism of yoga, is a composite of two Sanskrit words: prāna + ayāma:
Prāna as detailed in the yoga sutras is clearly meant as the breath. Many interpreters extrapolate the meaning to include esoteric understandings of bodily and psychic energy, which some later texts make reference to. This is not the meaning Patanjali attributes in the Yoga Sutras.
Ayāma means to pause or extend. Patanjali describes four occasions when the breath pauses, either controlled or natural. The breath is paused and as a result a round of respiration is extended. This may lead to other subtle physiological and psychological consequences which to later interpretators becomes the subject of prāna but in this definition refers to the pause in breathing, essentially temporarily restraining the respiratory function.

Later teachings after the first millennium referred to a word ‘kumbhaka’ to denote the retention of the breath synonymous with prānāyāma (2). These Hatha yoga teachings form part of a comprehensive yoga practice. Their techniques, however, place emphasis on differentiation in the form of inhalation and exhalation while employing a retention after the inhale and only in certain cases after the exhale. These Hatha yoga kumbhakas include all the points detailed under breathing exercises in What are Breathing Exercises to be considered as the practice of prānāyāma with very specific direction on the inhale, retention, and exhale. Though related in essential quality to the definition of prānāyāma by Patanjali the subtle difference lies in the latter’s emphasis on the nature of no breath without any regard to the inhale and exhale. Patanjali allows for a forced approach, which is the training in Hatha yoga, but also allows for a passive approach whereby the pause in the breath, essentially a state of no breath, arises naturally. This is a transition from an engaged action to a mindful attention on the space between an inhalation and an exhalation, essentially the state of breath, almost no breath, in a meditative approach. Hatha yoga achieves the same outcome but prescribes several engaged and practiced breathing exercises with controlled retentions until a passive no breath stage becomes a natural meditative state of mind.

Paul Dallaghan’s expertise with breathwork, body and meditative practices comes from three sources: over 25 years of daily dedicated practice and teaching these techniques; immersion in the original culture through one-on-one direct training in practice and study of ancient texts; doctoral scientific research at a leading US university (Emory) on yoga and breath in terms of stress, health and aging. Paul occupies a unique space to impart genuine teaching and science on these practices, acknowledged by his teacher and lineage (Kuvalayananda) in India as a Teacher-of-teachers and a Master of Breath, identified to carry the tradition (Pranayama). This places him as the only master-level yoga and breath practitioner currently immersed in scientific academic research on breathwork, stress and health. His sincere and ongoing role is to teach, write and research to help put out experienced and authentic information on these areas in a world full of confusion and conflicting messages both off and online.

For more on his background see his bio.

References

  1. Patanjali Yoga Sutras
  2. Hathapradipika of Swatmarama

More from the Samahita Blog