Breathwork and yoga go hand-in-hand, requiring you to focus on the present moment and concentrate on the task at hand. They give you a break from the chaos of life, grounding you in the moment and offering an array of benefits.
But is there a specific way you should practice? Is pranayama supposed to go before or after asana? Generally, it’s best to do pranayama after asana, as asana helps prepare your body for pranayama.
This article explores pranayama and asana, the order you should do them, and a step-by-step guide to learning your first pranayama.
What is Pranayama?
Pranayama is the term for breathing exercises practiced during yoga. The Patanjali Yoga Sutra 2.49 describes pranayama as “Tasminsati shwasaprashwasayorgativicchedaha pranayamaha.” In a simple-put translation, “prana” indicates the universal life force, and “ayama” translates to regulate or lengthen.
In truth, pranayama is more than breath control. It goes beyond it, controlling “prana” through the breath. In most cases, these techniques employ numerous breathing techniques, often breathing through the nose in a specific pattern of inhalation, retention, and exhalation.
Purpose of Pranayama
Pranayama is often practiced in yoga to draw awareness back to the breath, as it can bring harmony between the body, mind, and spirit. The practice is known for its benefits on mental, physical, and emotional health:
- Soothes the mind, helping to alleviate stress and anxiety
- Centers the focus, bringing attention and dissolving brain fog
- Boosts energy, encouraging positive moods
- Supports the immune system
- Revitalizes the body and mind
- Encourages creativity
Best Times of Day to Do Pranayama
Most yoga experts agree that pranayama is a good thing to do first thing in the morning. When you wake up, ready to start the day, your mind isn’t whirling with the day’s tasks quite yet, your stomach is empty, and you can remain distraction-free for a few more minutes.
Ideally, you have plenty of energy from a good night of restful sleep and can start with a clear, focused mind. This makes the morning an excellent time to practice pranayama.
Of course, the day doesn’t always pan out as planned, so the morning might slip away, ebbing into the afternoon before you have time to practice. This is entirely okay – you don’t necessarily have to practice pranayama first thing in the morning.
Here are a few alternative options to ensure you squeeze it into your day:
- Before breakfast
- Before lunch
- Before dinner
- Before bed
You’ll probably notice a trend here: an empty stomach. Ideally, you should practice when your body has had plenty of time to digest your last meal. So, this makes the few minutes before mealtimes an excellent time to do pranayama.
Asana in Yoga
Before moving onto the correct order of pranayama and asana, let’s define asana. In yoga, asana refers to the yoga poses and postures you practice. The Sanskrit word “asana” translates to seat, referring specifically to meditation, but it can translate to “posture” or “seat” and often refers to the movements in yoga as a whole.
Pranayama and Asana: Which Order is Best?
While pranayama and asana are both important to the yoga practice, they have their place. Of course, you can practice them in whatever order you prefer, but you may find that adjusting your practice to the suggested flow may help things go more smoothly.
Generally, it’s best to practice asana before pranayama. Why? It comes down to a few key points:
Pranayama requires concentration and focus, as breathwork is a conscious effort. While you could jump directly into pranayama from an everyday task, practicing asana first can help steer the mind to the present moment.
Life can become busy, creating a constant whirlwind of to-dos, worries, and stressors in your mind. If you were to jump directly into pranayama from the chaos of life, you might find it difficult to concentrate on breathing.
However, if you mindfully practice gentle asanas before moving into pranayama, you may find it easier to concentrate. Practicing asanas first can redirect the mind and bring your concentration and attention to the task at hand, which is particularly helpful when transitioning your focus to your breathwork.
In hatha yoga scriptures, yogis are advised multiple times to control their eating habits to work in favor of pranayama. Of course, manipulating your diet to accommodate pranayama might not be an option, especially if work or other life circumstances get in the way.
Ideally, you should practice your pranayama on an empty stomach. Practicing on a full stomach can be uncomfortable, as the undigested food can get in the way of deep breathing. Of course, this isn’t always an option, so practicing asanas before pranayama can help.
Slow, gentle asanas stimulate blood flow to the abdomen, speeding up digestion and helping your body prepare to practice pranayama comfortably. Having this extra time to do slow asanas, even if it’s only ten or twenty minutes, can make a significant difference when you practice pranayama.
When moving into pranayama, it’s essential to be relaxed. While your focus will be directed on your breathwork, you should be comfortable and calm. It can be difficult to slow your breathing into deep, even breaths if you’re anxious, stressed, or otherwise agitated.
Asana can help lull your body into a relaxed state before you start pranayama. Focus on gentle asanas that soothe the body and mind, calming your breath and lowering your heart rate. The slow asanas can trigger what scientists call the relaxation response.
As your body shifts into a more relaxed state, your parasympathetic nervous system activates, effectively soothing electrical activity in the brain. This leads to a drop in the heart rate and slows the metabolism, allowing your body and mind to ebb into a more relaxed state.
Once your body moves into the relaxation response, transitioning into pranayama is much easier. When your body is relaxed, it’s much easier to hold your breath, as your brain demands less oxygen. So, you may find it easier to hold your breath during breath retention parts of pranayama.
How to Practice Pranayama
There are multiple pranayamas you can learn and practice at home. For a complete experience and to reap the full benefits of pranayam, we recommend learning them with a trained teacher. Once you get the hang of things, you can begin practicing on your own, enjoying the benefits of regularly practicing at home.
But if you don’t have a yoga studio nearby or access to a trained teacher, here is a pranayama to try. This one is called Nadi Shodhan pranayama, or alternate nostril breathing. To do this breathing practice, follow these steps:
- Start in a seated position with your spine straight and shoulders relaxed. While you should keep your posture upright, try to avoid holding tension in your body.
- Gently rest your left hand in your lap with the tips of your index finger and thumb lightly touching. Fold the remaining fingers into your fist.
- Next, you’re going to press your right nostril closed with your right hand. Gently rest your index finger on your forehead between your eyebrows and keep your right ring finger and pinky finger on your left nostril (don’t hold it closed). Rest your middle finger on your nose.
- When you’re ready, press your thumb against your right nostril to prevent air from flowing through.
- Exhale, then inhale deeply, bringing air in from the left nostril.
- Close your left nostril using your ring finger.
- Pause with both nostrils closed, then open your right nostril and exhale completely in a slow breath.
- Now, you’ll repeat this on the other side. Breathe in your right nostril, open the left nostril, then breathe out from the left nostril.
- Once you complete both sides, you have done one round of Nadi Shodhan. Repeat the cycle for at least five minutes or nine rounds through.