sagarbo mantrasahitah vigarbho mantravicyutah |
prasasto mantra sahita itarastvadhamassmrtah ||

Pranayama practiced while reciting a mantra is called sagarbha pranayama (with seed) and that without mantra is called vigarbha pranayama (without seed). The Scriptures praise pranayama with mantra whereas the second type is considered to be inferior. (1-97 Yoga Rahasya)

Pranayama is a complex and subtle practice. In India they say that prana is to be tamed like a lion. This saying illustrates the dangers inherent to a bad practice of pranayama. It is then difficult to give specific information in a general article. Nevertheless, one can still give some indications:

There are two visions as far as breathing practice is concerned:

  • A hatha yoga perspective which aims at awakening energy in a violent and mechanical way through a powerful breathing practice (only through the physical breath),

  • Another school of thought closer to Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga aims at easing and balancing breath enough to encourage internalisation and focus.

In Patanjali’s yoga sutras it is said about the practice of pranayama that:

tatah ksiyate prakasa avaranam|| 52||
dharanasu ca yogyata manasah|| 53||

Thus, what covers the interior light is dissolved
and the mind becomes capable of focus

मलाकलासु नाडीष्हु मारुतो नैव मध्यगः |
कथं सयादुन्मनीभावः कार्यसिद्धिः कथं भवेत || ||

malākalāsu nāḍīṣhu māruto naiva madhyaghaḥ |
kathaṃ syādunmanībhāvaḥ kārya-siddhiḥ kathaṃ bhavet 

Vital air does not flow through the central canal because the nadis (energetic canals) are filled with impurities. Thus, how can the state of Umani (mindlessness) appear and how can perfection (siddhi) come? (2.4 Hatha yoga pradipika)

शुद्धमेति यदा सर्वं नाडीछक्रं मलाकुलम |
तदैव जायते योगी पराणसंग्रहणे कष्हमः || ||

śuddhameti yadā sarvaṃ nāḍī-chakraṃ malākulam |
tadaiva jāyate yoghī prāṇa-saṃghrahaṇe kṣhamaḥ || 5 ||

When all the nadis and chakras which host impurities and toxins are purified, then the yogi is able to direct prana.

पराणायामं ततः कुर्यान्नित्यं सात्त्विकया धिया |
यथा सुष्हुम्णानाडीस्था मलाः शुद्धिं परयान्ति छ || ||

prāṇāyāmaṃ tataḥ kuryānnityaṃ sāttvikayā dhiyā |
yathā suṣhumṇā-nāḍīsthā malāḥ śuddhiṃ prayānti cha || 6 ||

Thus pranayama should be practiced daily with a sattvic state of mind so as to evacuate all the impurities of the sushumna nadi and for purification to take place (2.4 Hatha Yoga Pradipika)

asanasasu yatha sraisthyamsirsapadmanasnadvaye |
pranayamesu sarvesu nadisuddhirvisisyate |

If shirasan and padmasana are considered as the most important asanas, the most important pranayama is nadi shodana (1-103 Yoga Rahasya)

Nadi shodana is a pranayama practice with witholding of the breath (kumbaka) that usually follows the practice of anuloma viloma pranayama in the pedagogic progression.

Before starting nadi shodana, it is advisable to learn the basics first (posture, attention to the breath etc). Here are suggestions of preliminary steps to follow:

1- Keep a firm seating position for at least 30 minutes (ideally in the Padmasana, lotus or sidhasana pose), this is made possible through regular and intelligent practice (vinyasa krama) of the poses (asanas)

2- Get some level of mastery of deep breathing, ( the rib cage rises first, then the abdomen swells with inhale, then the abdomen caves in with exhale) with awareness of the tense zones (throat, diaphragm, abdomen etc).

In seating position, observe the natural breath entering and exiting and observe the chest rising and falling back while the natural breath comes in and out. Many muscles are involved in the rising of the chest during inhale so as to make room for the inhaled air. Take time to get aware of the natural movement of breath.

Take a few breaths and inhale fully. Do this slowly and be aware of the muscle movements you make to inhale and exhale. Notice that during exhale, abdominal muscles contract and that the diaphragm rise forcefully to the lungs. Internal intercostal ribs contract too so as to pull the rib cage closest to the body and thus contract the lungs.

3 – First determine what is your natural breathing rhythm (how many seconds for inhale and how many seconds for exhale). Then you balance the duration of inhale and exhale (sama vritti) until ideally reach one breath per minute (30 seconds inhale and 30 seconds exhale). Eventually you add a stop at throat level to get a ujayi pranayama breath.

4 – Then bandhas are introduced during the practice of ujayi: first mula bhanda, then Jalandhara bandha and finally uddiyana bandha.

5 – Then alternate breathing can start (anulom viloma) by focusing attention on posture and tense zones (neck, shoulders, fingers, throat, diaphragm etc).

6 – Then you try to balance rhythm in alternate breathing (sama vritti) ideally 30 seconds inhale and 30 seconds exhale which makes a full breath per minute.

7 – While pursuing this practice, you add bandhas again, first Mula bhanda, then Jalandhara bandha and finally Uddiyana bandha.

badhatrayavihino yah pranayamassanisphalah 

na kevalam kintu sarvaroganamaspadam bhavet  ||

Practicing pranayama without the three bandhas does not produce good results,

and can even create good conditions for the development of many afflictions. (1-95 Yoga Rahasya)

8 – Then you can add practice on withholding and dissociate rhythm (visama-vritti) following a progress through various stages of inhale – withholding – exhale – withholding: you should move to the next step only when you are at ease with the previous step which usually takes from a few weeks to a few months per step.

Stages (the traditional unit used to measure time for Pranayama is the “matra” which varies according to traditions: usually between one and three seconds) :


For example if inhale lasts 5 seconds we get these rhythms:


The number of pranayama cycles per day is also important. Some hatha yoga scriptures talk of 80 but then again I believe that one should show some common sense and moderation. These figures are given for ascetics who follow very strict rules in life.

Some zealous (or even zealot) western yogis claim to belong to these traditions but do not follow all the rules. This can sometime have dangerous consequences … as any incomplete knowledge in this field is often more dangerous than no knowledge at all.
Yoga should be practiced differently whether one follows the way of the sanyasin (shaktikrama) or that of the man of the world (Adhyatmikakrama).

Remembering that mastery of breath by the modern man is personalised and thus depending on everyone, their goals, their health, their ayurvedic doshas etc. (Some types of pranayama influence our doshas, aggravating vatta or pitta for instance).

Generally speaking, between 12 and 24 cycles before meditation can already calm the mind and generate interiority.

9 – Then the mantras that go with the different phases of breath control can be introduced. Pranayama then becomes “sagarbha” (with seed) as opposed to pranayama without mantra “agarbha” (without seed)

sagarbo mantrasahitah vigarbho mantravicyutah |
prasasto mantra sahita itarastvadhamassmrtah ||

Pranayama practiced while reciting a mantra is called sagarbha pranayama (with seed) and that without mantra is called vigarbha pranayama (without seed). The Scriptures praise pranayama with mantra whereas the second type is considered to be inferior. (1-97 Yoga Rahasya)

kecittu saptavyaharasahitam sirsasammitam ||
gayatrimarthasahitam vyaharanti budhottamah ||

Initiates advise the use of the Gayatri mantra with the pronunciation of the seven planes of being (sapta vyahrtis) and the head (siras) as well as the contemplation of the meaning of the mantra during the practice of pranayama (1-115 Yoga Rahasya)

A time unit is called “matra” in sanscrit and lasts between one and three seconds. This unit is used to measure the duration of pranayama. During japa (repetition of the mantra), to count one second per syllable is right. Thus this gayatri sagarbha pranayama is constituted of 64 syllables. 21 for the vyahritis, 24+1 for Gayatri and 18 for the part with the siras. That is how one should practice sagarbha pranayama.

In practice, about 20 seconds are needed to recite gayatri mentally, to which 5 seconds are added for inhale and 10 seconds for exhale. If the practice of bandhas are added after exhale, 40 seconds are thus necessary to complete a breath cycle based on this pattern.

10 – It is eventually possible to tackle the stages of superior refinement involving the emotions and the mind (bhavana) as well as the nyasas during pranayama.

We let go of the breath to go further towards spontaneous withholding generated by the absorption of the mind … kevala kumbaka

One of the great tapyasin and Indian yogi (Siva Sala Yogi Maharaj) when asked about pranayama answered me: “just long enough to induce meditation, then the attention should be brought beyond breath … toward samadhi”.

The famous Shankara offers a conclusion about sagarbha pranayama:

The negation of the phenomenal world is called Rechaka (exhale),

the thought, “I am one with the supreme” is called Puraka (inhale),

And the upkeep of this thought is called Kumbhaka (witholding of the breath).

That is the true pranayama of the sages,

Whereas ignoramuses keep on torturing their nose…

(Aparokshanubhuti, 118-120)

Thus the restriction of the modifications of the mind consisting in observing the identity of the chitta and the absolute is the true pranayama.

Calming the mind through the breath is good but calming the breath through the mind is better.

Stéphane Chollet

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