Hinduism Prāṇāyāma in Modern Yoga
by
Magdalena Kraler
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0285

Introduction

An ancient practice that can be traced to the vedic period, prāṇāyāma (lit. “breath control”) is subject to considerable change within modern yoga. These developments start around 1850 and gain more momentum in the 1880s. From this period on, the development of prāṇāyāma is driven by the influence of newly emerging translations and circulation of print media; alternative religion (transnational occultism in general and theosophy in particular); the transnational field of breath culture and hygiene; and a scientification of the practices. This had an impact as to how the practices were conceived and explained, but also on the practices themselves. However, more traditional aspects of prāṇāyāma as practiced within Pātañjalayoga, hatha yoga, and the sandhyā rite also persist. Along with these, concepts of prāṇa (“vital breath/force” sensu lato, “breath” sensu strictu) and the subtle body (particularly nāḍī physiology, chakra systems, and Kundalini arousal) are still crucial for how prāṇāyāma is explained and understood. In general, one can observe a tendency of practices becoming less austere and rigorous, but easier and more readily to be received by the general public. As a result of this dissemination, hatha yoga’s emphasis on rigorous breath retention (kumbhaka/kevala kumbhaka) is dwindling. Instead, concepts like “rhythmic breathing” (equalizing the length of the breath phases), “deep/full/complete breathing” (inflating/emptying the lungs to their fullest), and prolonged exhalation become the main focal point of modern prāṇāyāma. It is designed to foster health, mental and bodily poise, a still mind, and miraculous powers (siddhis). As in premodern yoga, a main objective of prāṇāyāma is to prepare one for higher meditational states of yoga that necessitate a healthy body, and even more so, a quiet mind. On this path, the (premodern and modern) yogi may acquire miraculous powers or even attain final liberation (kaivalya, mokṣa, jīvanmukti). In light of modern yoga’s overall emphasis on āsana (postures), prāṇāyāma loses some of its centrality and status that it had in premodern yoga. Nevertheless, it is a key practice of modern yoga, and its study fosters understanding of modern yoga’s key concepts like prāṇa, the subtle body, and the achievement and fine-tuning of higher yogic states. As in premodern yoga, prāṇāyāma never stands alone but is linked to various other aspects of the yogic path. Within modern yoga, its link to āsana practice becomes stronger (e.g., in Yogendra combining rhythmic breathing and āsana or in Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga Vinyasa flows). Prāṇāyāma’s importance in relation to meditational practices and chanting of mantras (e.g., oṃ, haṃsa) persists in the modern period.

General Overviews

De Michelis 2004 has discussed Vivekananda’s prāṇa theory and his proprioceptive approach to prāṇāyāma as a healing tool. Alter 2004 treats Kuvalayananda’s approach to investigate the efficacy of prāṇa and prāṇāyāma in the laboratory at Kaivalyadhama Yoga Institute and Research Centre. Green 2008 compares breath and meditation practices within Hindu and Urdu vernacular culture in colonial Northern India. Van de Veer 2007 offers insights into the rendering of Eastern breathing practices as currencies to negotiate nationalistic agendas. Gharote 2007 discusses various premodern and modern approaches to prāṇāyāma and prāṇa theories. Baier 2009 has identified and described important players of the transnational alternative religion. Singleton 2010 has set frames for understanding modern yoga as a transnational movement significantly influenced by physical culture and hygiene. Zoehrer 2021 has treated modern prāṇa theories in relation to the mesmeric fluidum. Foxen 2020 provides an overview of Euro-American “harmonial” breath cultures that influence modern āsana and prāṇāyāma practices. In building on these sources, prāṇāyāma in modern yoga has, to date, most extensively been studied by Kraler 2022.

  • Alter, Joseph. Yoga in Modern India: The Body between Science and Philosophy. Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004.

    An important standard work that analyzes the philosophical and sociocultural negotiations of modern yoga’s “science” agenda and its religious, nationalistic, and universalist expression from an anthropological perspective.

  • Baier, Karl. Meditation und Moderne: Zur Genese eines Kernbereichs moderner Spiritualität in der Wechselwirkung zwischen Westeuropa, Nordamerika und Asien. Würzburg, Germany: Königshausen & Neumann, 2009.

    This work, published in German in two volumes, treats Genevieve Stebbins and Yogi Ramacharaka (a.k.a. William Walker Atkinson) as examples how occultism and physical culture were intertwined and became relevant for early developments of modern yoga. Suitable as an in-depth reading on the developments of meditation in the modern period and how they relate to yoga.

  • De Michelis, Elizabeth. A History of Modern Yoga: Patañjali and Western Esotericism. London and New York: Continuum, 2004.

    A standard reader to understand modern yoga’s early history as it was partly rooted in West Bengal (then Greater Bangla), which anticipated Vivekananda’s rise as a modern yogi. It treats crucial figures of the Hindu reform movement Brahmo Samaj such as Debendranath Tagore and Keshub Chandra Sen to help understand Swami Vivekananda’s rise as a modern yogi. De Michelis also illustrates Vivekananda’s “esoteric” biography, contextualizing it with Neo-Vedanta and 19th-century occultism. In Part 2, this work provides general overviews such as a typology of modern yoga, and its salient theories and practices as formulated by Vivekananda and B. K. S. Iyengar.

  • Foxen, Anya. Inhaling Spirit: Harmonialism, Orientalism, and the Western Roots of Modern Yoga. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190082734.001.0001

    A work that outlines a hidden “harmonial” tradition to involve breathing practices within Euro-American contexts from Antiquity to the modern period. Its centerpiece treats key figures of Northern American fin-de-siècle physical culture, dance, and occultism. Offering a comprehensive overview of breath-movement practices around 1900, its emphasis is on Euro-American developments of “harmonialism” rather than those of (modern) yoga as it emerged in South Asia.

  • Gharote, Manmath L. Prāṇāyāma: The Science of Breath. Theory and Guidelines for Practice. 2d ed. Lonavla, India: The Lonavla Yoga Institute, 2007.

    Although not a scholarly book, it provides a useful overview for scholar-practitioners of several premodern sources on and approaches to prāṇāyāma with brief explanations. Easy to follow as an introductory work; one should be aware that it is informed by the legacy of Swami Kuvalayananda.

  • Green, Nile. “Breathing in India, c. 1890.” Modern Asian Studies 42.2–3 (2008): 283–315.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0026749X07003125

    This pertinent article includes vernacular discourses of prāṇa and prāṇāyāma in late colonial India, drawing on Hindu and Sufi meditation and prāṇāyāma manuals. Highlighting the importance of emerging print culture in modernity, the author also considers sociopolitical aspects like the impact of the svaraj movement, Hindu nationalism, and the power relations involved.

  • Kraler, Magdalena. Yoga Breath: The Reinvention of Prāṇa and Prāṇāyāma in Early Modern Yoga. PhD diss., University of Vienna, 2022.

    A PhD dissertation that innovatively structures, theorizes, and analyzes the most salient aspects of prāṇa and prāṇāyāma within modern yoga between 1850 and 1945. Its centerpiece is the analysis of the breath practices of ten yoga pioneers who were active in India and/or the United States. It is currently the most comprehensive study on the history of modern prāṇāyāma, outlining the transnational developments of the practices.

  • Singleton, Mark. Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195395358.001.0001

    A pioneering work to read modern āsana practice as a product of transnational exchange and adaption. In our context, its importance furthermore lies in addressing key actors of Euro-American breath-movement practices like Genevieve Stebbins, Annie Payson Call, and J. P. Müller. However, it only provides marginal analyses on the role of breath cultivation in modern yoga.

  • van de Veer, Peter. “Global Breathing: Religious Utopias in India and China.” Anthropological Theory 7.3 (2007): 315–328.

    DOI: 10.1177/1463499607080193

    Discusses yogic breathing and Qigong as historical and political phenomena forged by the forces of colonialism, nationalism, and capitalism. Investigating the transformation that these breath practices underwent in the modern era, the study’s value lies in its contextualization, as opposed to an isolated investigation, of the instructions and effects of practices.

  • Zoehrer, Dominic. “From Fluidum to Prāṇa: Reading Mesmerism through Orientalist Lenses.” In The Occult Nineteenth Century: Roots, Developments, and Impact on the Modern World. Edited by Lukas Pokorny and Franz Winter, 85–110. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-55318-0_5

    Zoehrer discusses the intimate link of modern prāṇa theories to the notion of the mesmeric fluidum. Offering a concise overview, it provides important insights into players of theosophy, New Thought, and modern yoga.

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