I keep getting surprised when I come across yoga teachers who teach pranayama before yoga poses. There are several good reasons why you should place pranayama at the end of a yoga session. If you do them right, pranayama takes your yoga practice to another level. You don’t want to miss out on that by misplacing them. Let me explain why.
What qualifies as pranayama?
Before we get into the question of where to place pranayama, I must clarify what I am talking about. When I am referring to pranayama I mean the traditional breathing exercises of hatha yoga. These are nadi shodan, bhastrika, surya bheda, bhramari, shitali, ujjayi pranayama and some other techniques.
These techniques must be done sitting in a meditation pose. Unless that is the case, especially if the practice involves demanding movements, I do not consider it pranayama.
Today, different kinds of light breathing techniques are called pranayama, by not so fuzzy yoga teachers. Some teachers will even name a few deep belly breaths pranayama. However, pranayama in hatha yoga are rigorous techniques that include holding the breath or breathing very slowly.
See my article “What is pranayama” to learn more about what pranayama is according to the tradition.
Ancient yogis considered pranayama and breath retention to be important
Pranayama is much older than the physical exercises that make up contemporary physical yoga. In the old Sanskrit texts on hatha yoga the “asana” or seat was initially the pose you sat in to practice meditation and breathing exercises. The postures of modern physical yoga are in most cases not much more than a hundred years old.
Already in ancient times, pranayama was considered difficult. Some even equated it with asceticism. The prominent role of pranayama and breath retention is revealed by the vast amount of attention given to it in the Sanskrit texts on hatha yoga.
Ancient traditions place pranayama after asana
To my knowledge, all ancient yoga traditions place pranayama after poses. The logic being that you begin with the gross and progress towards the subtle.
This does not mean that you have to perfect physical yoga exercises before beginning with pranayama. It signifies that when you combine these methods, asanas should come first. One practice will always influence the one done afterwards. Asanas should support the pranayamas since pranayama acts on a deeper level. If you do physical cleansing techniques, like neti, you do them before as preparation as well.
Pranayama is difficult, but asana can make it easier
It takes years of regular practice to master pranayama fully, but when done right even a beginner can benefit significantly from it. This is why it is important to get instructions from an experienced teacher that can create the right conditions.
Breath retentions suggested by some of the medieval hatha yoga manuals are impressive. To start the journey of taming the breath you need to make sure that you are in an adequate state of mind. When you do yoga poses calmly and consciously, they take you into that space.
You need to calm down before pranayama
Our breathing mirrors our state. When we are agitated, the breath is rapid and irregular. When we are relaxed, it is deep, slow and even. With the help of asana, we can trigger this relaxed state before getting to pranayama. Scientists call this process the relaxation response.
The relaxation response activates the parasympathetic nervous system. This leads to a calming down of the electrical activity in the brain, a drop in the heart rate and a slow down of the metabolism. The amount of stress hormones produced goes down, and muscular tension diminishes.
When you are relaxed, you use less oxygen. When you are in a meditative state even your brain uses less oxygen. Therefore it is easier to hold your breath. This is why free divers spend time relaxing on the surface before diving.
Establish concentration first
Once the breath retention starts getting uncomfortable, you need to stay sharp and rise above that sensation. You have to let it leave you unaffected. Otherwise, you start struggling. When you fight you use more oxygen and it becomes even more difficult.
Slow asana practice is a great way to achieve both calm and focus. Dynamic poses are also good, but then you need some relaxation poses at the end before progressing to breathing exercises.
You need all the time you can get to digest
To comfortably practice yoga poses you need to have digested. Before practising pranayama, it is even more critical.
In the hatha yoga scriptures, it is repeatedly advised that the yogi should control his eating habits to favour pranayama. But you do not need to read medieval Sanskrit texts to know the importance of that. Anyone who has tried to breathe slowly without having digested properly will know what I am talking about.
The digestion issue is on its own is another good reason to place pranayama after postures. Ideally, you should wait four hours after your last meal. A decent asana
Pranayama gives little benefit to asana
It would be a valid reason to practice pranayama before asana if pranayama had a positive impact on your postures. Actually, some light techniques such as the wave breath (which is a simple sort of the abdominal auto-massage nauli), the complete breath (deep belly breathing) are excellent as a prelude to asana practice.
However, these are light breath retentions. True pranayama tangibly influences your energy and puts you in a subtle energetic state. Afterwards, you need calm and motionlessness to integrate the effects of the techniques. The more advanced your pranayama practice is, the more time you need for this stage.
At this time you are in a perfect state of mind for meditation. You want to continue with meditation as the effects settle in. Such as when you use sandpaper with finer and finer grains to polish a piece of wood.
Why do some yoga teachers place pranayama before asana?
With all these good reasons how come some teachers insist on placing pranayama before asana anyways?
One reason is that some yoga teachers call the deep breaths before the physical poses pranayama, though they aren’t. Like the standing breathing exercise at the beginning of a Bikram yoga session.
Deep breathing does have its place, and it can be beneficial when you do it right. I have nothing against it, and I use simple breathing exercises as warm up as well. However, I think it is good to call things for what they are to avoid confusion.
But there are even teachers who place the actual pranayamas at the beginning of their classes. This is the case for the world-famous Swami Vishnudevananda. He was a disciple of Swami
It is such a pity to teach nadi shodan in this way. For years I wondered why he did it. Then I heard an explanation that sounds probable though it is silly. The reason is that when Vishnudevananda started to teach in Canada, participants would leave before the end of the classes. In order for all the participants to benefit from the most essential technique, he placed pranayama in the beginning.