While modern practitioners of yoga may assume that all of the practices are considerably safe and efficacious, positive connotations have not always followed particular disciplines. According to Barbara Stoler Miller’s translation of Patanjali’s Yogasutras, yoga can be defined as the cessation of turnings of thought in order to attain spiritual freedom from material nature (Miller). The practices involved with yoga mainly consist of the eight auxiliaries; moral principles, observances, posture, breath control, withdrawal of senses, concentration, meditation, and pure contemplation.
Pranayama or breath control, as one of the eight auxiliaries, is one of the essentials in most considerations of yoga. As a necessary discipline to be a successful practitioner of yoga, pranayama is a crucial step to the cessation of turnings of thought stated in many yoga texts.
However, ancient texts often warn against dangers of practicing yoga, or rather specifically pranayama, which contrasts with modern connotations around this practice. In fact, a majority of ancient texts across varying traditions, though mainly hathayoga, regard some sort of danger within pranayama while Patanjali’s Yogasutras along with modern day texts do not generally associate any danger.
As a basis for the teachings of pranayama, Patanjali’s Yogasutras briefly explains breath control and, in consistency with the rest of the text, do not provide extensive discussion surrounding the topic. The extent to which the practice is held is debatable by the vague section of instructions:
“When the posture of yoga is steady, then breath is controlled by regulation of the course of exhalation and inhalation. The modification of breath in exhalation, inhalation and retention is perceptible as deep and shallow breathing regulated by where the breath is held, for how long and for how many cycles. A fourth type of breath control goes beyond the range of exhalation and inhalation. Then the cover over the light of truth dissolves. And the mind is fit for concentration.” (Miller, 2.49-53)
The instructions are open to interpretation but held to the same value of concern as the other beginning five auxiliaries of yoga. The aphorisms are mainly straightforward except for the mention of the fourth type of breath control within this excerpt. Because the fourth type of breath control mentioned is unclear due to lack of instruction, it must be assumed as a sensation unknown before beginning the practice. Other than this obscure sentence, pranayama can be regarded as simple and a generalized assumption of “breath control”. It can be related to practices of breath control today and seems presumably harmless.
Processes prior to attempting pranayama begin the questionable and somewhat dangerous acts. It is said that “in later hathayoga texts, beginning with the fifteenth-century Hathapradipika, we find a series of preliminary cleansing techniques which remove gross impurities such as fat and mucus from the body, cure a variety of related diseases and render one fit for the practice of pranayama” (Mallinson and Singleton, 49). If a series of purification acts need be completed in order to practice pranayama, there is a level of ambiguity for one who is certified to begin their practice of pranayama.
There are varying purification techniques as preliminaries to yoga both physical and spiritual. However, breath control is also considered an act of purification of in itself. The acts of exhalation, inhalation and retention are rearranged and instructed in differing traditions, each with differing goals. In Hemacandra’s Yogasutras, it is instructed that one should “continuously hold prana and the other breaths wherever they have a painful disease in order to cure it”. In this Jain tradition, pranayama is defined as holding the breath inevitably in order to cure a disease. There is additionally no further instruction to how long this may be or when one could be certain if they have cured their disease. Similar practices are common in ancient texts and therefore all create the possibility of self-harm due to the common demand of retention within the pranayama practice.
According to the Mahasaccakasutta of the Majihimanikaya I, The Buddha assessed the practice of pranayama as unfit for the human condition because of its harsh manner. The story tells of the Buddha becoming very ill due to the immense pain experienced when practicing pranayama. Every time the Buddha had repeatedly tried meditation with the stopping of the breath he had experienced a different type of pain. The gods then converse and question whether the Buddha is dead or dying when the Buddha becomes incredibly skinny and falls ill. The Buddha is conversing with gods throughout the story and in the end, he asks the gods if there is another way to reach enlightenment without the pain of these practices.
The Buddha recognizes the ascetics who have practiced breath retention in the past but concludes that he has not attained greater knowledge or wisdom through this self-inflicted “torture” (Mahasaccakasutta). Therefore, the story deems this act of pranayama as unreasonable to incorporate into the practice of yoga due to its harmful nature. Furthermore, using a religious figure such as the Buddha gives credibility to the warning against pranayama and further instills the threat of the practice.
Over various commentaries and criticisms of ancient texts, pranayama is given a general warning. Reviews of the practices such as Abhinavagupta’s Tantraloka note “pranayama is not to be performed, because it harms the body” (Mallinson and Singleton, 12). Without concrete examples from ancient times of dangerous events regarding pranayama, the recorded warnings indicate truth to the possibility of self-harm in this practice. K.S. Joshi regards the danger of pranayama in his book, Yogic Pranayama: Breathing for Long Life and Good Health, saying “it is believed, and by large, that the common man should not indulge in the practice of pranayama” (Joshi, 21). He goes on to note how ancient practices of pranayama were rather harsh and therefore dangerous but could be widely beneficial to people today under strict instructions in order to cure diseases or simply improve one’s life in general.
This proves the point further that the warnings of pranayama in ancient times were valid due to extremities. Pranayama was practiced in variations but usually seemed to test the human condition rather than today’s gentler form of awareness and steady focus on the breath as many contemporary yoga studios incorporate into their postural practice.
Aside from the references to danger within pranayama, we see a change in ideas when Swami Vivekananda in the 19th century chooses particular explanations of pranayama to bring to his modern day world. In his attempt to let go of negative implications, Swami Vivekananda ignores any cautionary statements but rather uses more concrete examples of breath control where “his explanations of the breathing exercises of pranayama, the fourth component of the eight-fold practice, … are found in the Puranas, Tantras, and Hatha Yoga works but not in the yoga sutras” (White, 131).
Although the yoga sutras have a general and low risk instruction of pranayama, the use of the other traditions allow for more specific instructions of breathing. Pulling particular explanations from the Puranas, Tantras and Hatha Yoga, despite the warnings, Vivekananda could include practices of the simple awareness of the act of breathing as all of these traditions imply throughout various texts. Therefore, Swami Vivekananda’s revolutionary renovation of yoga allowed for an outlook of pranayama as peaceful and not an often harmful act.
In modern postural yoga, one rarely, if ever, hears a warning against the practice of pranayama. Instead it is simply a crucial incorporation of the breath throughout varying postures. Additionally, there is wide acknowledgement of pranayama today of its health benefits and ability to lessen the extremity or cure diseases (Joshi). Pranayama has become the “new” scientific discovery for varying forms of health. But how pranayama is regarded in the yoga studio is most often a practice that “cleanses and balances the subtle channels of the body”(Singleton, 29). Because of contemporary yoga’s popularized incentive for mental and physical health, the original criticisms of pranayama is not applicable to the ever-growing industry.
Pranayama is deemed dangerous by ancient texts rather than in contemporary yoga. The pranayama that was practiced in ancient times seems to be done in extremity rather than an observance of the breath as people consider today. Like many other aspects of yoga, pranayama has struggled to reach a single definition and has varied over time. The previous warnings made are in good measure, as various accounts have made pranayama a dangerous act. However, its basic principle is generally for the benefit of the person practicing and to simply notice the human condition of the breath. Overall, the ancient texts incorporate dangerous acts of pranayama for a more direct practice to enlightenment, when modern practices use a gentler tactic for protection of practitioners.
Hemacandra’s Yogasutras. from auto-commentary of Svopajñavrtti.
Joshi, K.S. Yogic Pranayama: Breathing for Long Life and Good Health. Orient Paperbacks, (A Division of Vision Books Pvt. Ltd.), 2006.
Mahasaccakasutta in Majihimanikaya, vol. I, ed. R. Chalmers (London: Luzac and Co. (for the Pali Text Society), 1967).
Mallinson, James and Mark Singleton. Roots of Yoga. Penguin, 2017.
Miller, Stoler Barbara. Yoga: Discipline of Freedom, The Yoga Sutra Attributed to Patanjali. Bantam Books, 1998.
Singleton, Mark. Yoga Body: the Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Oxford University Press, 2010.
White, David Gordon. The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: a Biography. Princeton Univ. Press, 2014