Pranayama is one of the basic practices of yoga, though it is often neglected in exercise based yoga classes as taught in gyms and fitness centers.  Prana means energy, life force or breath.  Yama is translated as restraint, or control.  When we work with our breath, we gain access to our life force energy.

Pranayama is traditionally thought to be a much more powerful practice than asana and therefore some systems of yoga don’t introduce pranayama until some mastery of asana is attained. However, basic pranayama is accessible to the most beginner student, even those whose physical impairments and injuries prevent most asanas.  In addition, pranayama is an access point to the subtler aspects of yoga and is tremendously helpful in developing body awareness, mindfulness, focus and stamina.

This chart is a comprehensive breakdown of the forms of pranayama commonly taught today.   Basic exercises should be taught frequently and consistently to all levels of classes.  Intermediate exercises will be most beneficial once the basic exercises are mastered.  Advanced exercises should be approached with caution, especially for people with nervous system disorders.

Basic Exercises
Teach frequently for all levels.
Pranayama Description purpose Cautions
Natural breathing Observe the breath without controlling it. Increase breath awareness, body awareness, mindfulness. None.
Ujayii Engage glottis to control breath flow. Can be gentle or vigorous. Focus, stamina, breath awareness, calming None.
Sama-vritti: Even Breath Make your inhales the same length, quality, and texture as your exhales. Can be done with or without counting. Balancing, calming None.
Diirga: 3 Part breath Expand the belly first, then the ribcage, then the upper chest as you inhale & contract in reverse as you exhale. increase breath awareness, lung capacity, and oxygen intake. None.
Top Down Breath Expand the chest as you inhale & compress the belly as you exhale. increase breath awareness, lung capacity, and oxygen intake. None.
Intermediate Exercises
When comfortable with the basic exercises above.
Pranayama Description purpose Cautions
Vishama-vritti Un-even breath (inhale longer or exhale longer) Longer inhale = energizing
Longer exhale = calming
None. Beginners should be cautioned to practice without strain.
Antara kumbhaka Breath retention after inhale Energizing pregnancy, eye or ear problems, high blood pressure.
Bahya kumbhaka Breath retention after exhale Calming – stimulates PNS. pregnancy, eye or ear problems, high blood pressure.
Viloma Interrupted breath – “against the grain” Eases anxiety, increases energy, increases lung capacity. Beginners should take a normal breath between rounds.
Brahmari – ‘bee’s breath’ Inhale, hold antara kumbhaka, and hum on exhale. Calming – stimulates PNS. None.
Sitali Inhale through the tongue, exhale through the nose. Cooling, calming. None.
Nadi shodana Alternate nostril breathing Balancing None.
Stair Step Breath Inhale 4 counts, exhale 2, repeat until at full breath capacity. Normal exhale. Also can reverse pattern. Preparation for more advanced pranayama such as kapalabhati. None. Beginners should take a normal breath in between rounds.
Advanced Exercises
Strong medicine – prescribe cautiously.
Pranayama Description purpose contraindications
Kapalabhati Sharp short exhalations, unconscious inhale Energizing pregnancy, eye or ear problems, high blood pressure.
Bhastrika “Bellows Breath” forceful even inhalations & exhalations Energizing pregnancy, eye or ear problems, high blood pressure.
Agni Sara Uddiyana Bandha with Bahya kumbhaka Energizing and good for digestion. pregnancy, eye or ear problems, high blood pressure.
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