Ashtanga Pranayamas

Learning Pranayama in the Ashtanga Tradition – The 5 Ashtanga Pranayamas and their benefits

There are 5 pranayamas that were researched and put together to go with the Ashtanga practice.  Just like the ashtanga practice they are quite intense pranayamas, and you learn them just like you learn a series, one pranayama at a time slowly adding on.

It is best to have some experience with the basic pranayamas of nadi shodhana, kapalabhati, and bhastrika before you learn the ashtanga pranayamas.

For more in-depth information in breathing holding, here is a link to my blog Introduction to Breath Holding. For more information on the benefits of why you want to learn pranayama see Pranayama, Spiritual and Scientific.

When you are ready to learn the ashtanga pranayamas, I teach it to you as I learned it; one on one with my teacher after practice.  You take your rest after asana practice in  Mysore class, then you sit up and learn the pranayamas one by one slowly .

The first two pranayamas seem to be to get you used to holding your breath out and holding your breath in. 

The last three pranayamas are where the “real work” is done.

The first two Ashtanga Pranayamas

In the first pranayama you hold your breath out 3x then you hold your breath in 3x.   On the second pranayama you take a breath and hold it in, you release that breath and hold it out.  So you are getting used to kumbhaka after each half breath — after each inhale and exhale.

Baahya benefits:

  • Balances CO2 and O2 in the body.
  • Calming and balancing to the nervous system
  • reduces digestive issues

Pranayama #1

BAAHYA KUMBHAKA — also called Antah Kumbhaka (internal) and Bahih Kumbhaka (external).

All Kumbhakas — breath holds are done with Jalandhara bandha and all 3  bandhas.

Sit in Lotus or Meditation Posture

5 deep yogic breaths with sound

1st Ashtanga Pranayama

(Rechaka) exhale (Kumbhaka) hold 12 (Puraka) inhale
(Rechaka) exhale (Kumbhaka) hold 12 (Puraka) inhale
(Rechaka) exhale (Kumbhaka) hold 12
(go directly to inhale holds)

(Puraka) inhale (Kumbhaka) hold 18 (Rechaka) exhale
(Puraka) inhale (Kumbhaka) hold 18 (Rechaka) exhale
(Puraka) inhale (Kumbhaka) hold 18 (Rechaka) exhale 

If you want to progress these increase:
Exhale holds to 16 beats
Inhale holds to 24 beats

5 deep yogic breaths with sound

Pranayama #2

(Puraka) inhale (Kumbhaka) hold 15 (Rechaka) exhale
(Kumbhaka) hold for 12

(Puraka) inhale (Kumbhaka) hold 15 (Rechaka) exhale
(Kumbhaka) hold for 12

(Puraka) inhale (Kumbhaka) hold 15 (Rechaka) exhale
(Kumbhaka) hold for 12 

To progress increase:
Inhale holds to 20
Exhale holds to 16

Wherever you stop your pranayama — remember to finish with Sitali “the cooling breath” which as at the end of all the pranayamas.

Nadi Shodhana is the third pranayama and the hardest of the ashtanga pranayamas.  Nadi Shodhana means nerve cleansing, it is an alternate nostril breath with kumbhaka after each half breath.  The alternate nostril breathing is balancing and calming to our nervous systems as it directly effects the autonomic nervous system. Before you learn the ashtanga version of Nadi Shodhana experience with basic Nadi Shodhana is a must, here is my link to Nadi Shodhana with information, benefits, and how to learn it.

Start this pranayama slowly, and start with shorter holds at 6 beats instead of 12.  Some may eventually progress the holds from 12 to 18 beats, but many will not find this necessary with this pranayama.

How to perform Nadi Shodhana Pranayama Ashtanga Style:

Place your right hand in vishnu mudra (pictured to the right slightly below this text) and use your left hand to count with the numbers below to help you keep track of where you are:

Place your hand to your face but do not yet close a nostril, set your breath by beginning with a full:

  • Inhale R
  • Exhale L

Using your index finger to close your Left Nostril and your thumb to close your Right Nostril:

  1. Inhale R hold 12 counts
  2. Exhale L hold 12 counts
  3. Inhale L hold 12 counts
  4. Exhale R hold 12 counts
  5. Inhale R hold 12 counts
  6. Exhale L hold 12 counts
  7. Inhale L hold 12 counts
  8. Exhale R hold 12 counts
  9. Inhale R hold 12 counts
  10. Exhale L hold 12 counts
  11. Inhale R hold 12 counts
  12. Exhale R hold 12 counts
  13. Inhale R hold 12 counts
  14. Exhale R hold 12 counts
  15. Inhale R hold 12 counts
  16. Exhale R hold 12 counts
  17. Inhale R hold 12 counts
  18. Exhale L hold 12 counts
  19. Inhale L hold 12 counts
  20. Exhale L hold 12 counts
  21. Inhale L hold 12 counts
  22. Exhale L hold 12 counts
  23. Inhale L hold 12 counts
  24. Exhale L hold 12 counts
  25. Inhale L hold 12 counts
  26. Exhale R hold 12 counts

To Finish:

  • Inhale R nostril
  • Exhale L nostril

Remember to end with Sitali if you are stopping your pranayama here.

Bhastrika is the 4th Ashtanga Pranayama and is already in my Meditations section of Learn and Thrive, with a lot of information and how to do it. Here is the overview of how it is taught in the Ashtanga practice:

  • Take a deep inhale and strongly and forcefully exhale and inhale to your fullest capacity making your rib cage expand and contract like a bellows for up to 30 blasts.
    • Initially each breath (one inhale and one exhale) will be slow, then over time increase to each breath about one second, as you progress you may want to make them faster or shorter or a set of each.  Inhales and exhale are equal. Bhastrika can be done fast or slow — I have seen bhastrika done slow at 6 breaths / minute and also much faster, both speeds have benefit. Experiment yourself. As a beginner, its better to start slower and gradually increase pace if you so desire. “Normal” pace is about 1 blast each second.
  • End with a slow exhale, then Inhale lift your chin, tuck your chin into Jalandhara bandha and hold your breath in for 30-45 seconds.
  • Exhale slowly through your nose only.
  • Repeat for a total of 3 rounds.

Finish by taking 5 deep yogic breaths.

Surya Bhedana & Chandra Bhedana

Surya means Sun, and Chandra means moon.  Bhedana means piercing, causing to flow, or separating.

This pranayama is where you get to practice longer holds increasing prana absorption,  digestion of air, and improving cellular health.  This is also an alternate nostril pranayama.

Surya and Chandra are referring to our Ida and Pingala nadis in our nostril, the right nostril is the pingala or the sun nadi and is connected to the sympathetic nervous system, the left nostril is the moon ida nadi, and is connected to your parasympathetic nervous system. Surya and chandra bhedana are therefore about clearing our nadis to allow the sun energy or moon energy to flow.  

Sun energy is associated with the physical body, physical work, outward focus.  Moon energy is cooling, introspective and passive, artistic.

While we are working toward slightly longer hold times — Do not “time” yourself, this western propensity leads to “performance” which is opposed to the spirit of yoga and not in your best interest.  Instead just count your heartbeats in multiples of 8 and hold your breath to a comfortable level.  I recommend starting with a count of 16 and over time working your way up to 32.  It is not recommended to hold your breath beyond 64 counts.


  • Surya BhedanaCreates heat in the body
  • Chandra Bhedana cools the body.
  • Surya Bhedana Activates Pingali increasing extroversion
  • Chandra Bhedana activates Ida inducing introversion
  • Both Energize the body and reduces laziness
  • Chandra Bhedana cab help with heart burn since it is cooling

With this knowledge you can also use this pranayama to balance your in the winter or the summer.  As a regular ashtanga pranayama we do both together.

How to perform Surya and Chandra Bhedana

With your right hand in Vishnu mudra (see above) or your index and middle fingers resting on your third eye and your thumb and ring finger in position to close a nostril:

  • Inhale through both nostrils
  • Exhale through Left nostril

Adding holds with all 4 bandhas (mula, uddiyana, jiva, and jalandhara)

  • Inhale Right – hold for 16 counts
  • Exhale Left
  • Inhale Right – hold 16 counts
  • Exhale Left
  • Inhale Right – hold 16 counts
  • Exhale Left
  • Inhale Left – hold 16 counts
  • Exhale Right
  • Inhale Left – hold 16 counts
  • Exhale Right
  • Inhale Left – hold 16 counts
  • Exhale Right

No breath Holds:

  • Inhale Right
  • Exhale Left

Take 5 Breaths

SitaliThis is like your ‘finishing lotus flowers’ of asana practice, wherever you stop your pranayama always end with sitali, the cooling breath.  Pranayama builds heat in our body due to breath holding (we exhale heat from our body, when we hold our breath, this heat stays in us), we want to release the heat after a pranayama session.


  • Cools the body and mind
  • Improves temperature regulation through the brain centers
  • cools and reduces mental and emotional excitation
  • Induces relaxation

How to perform Sitali:

  • Deep Inhale through curled tongue – Hold 10 counts – Slow exhale through your nose
  • Deep Inhale through curled tongue – Hold 10 counts – Slow exhale through your nose
  • Deep Inhale through curled tongue – Hold 10 counts – Slow exhale through your nose

5 deep yogic breaths

Practicing all 5 of the ashtanga pranayamas after an hour + yoga practice may not happen for many due to time constraints.  Nancy gave me a copy of the yoga course syllabus and examination that Pattabhi Jois had given her.  I noticed on the syllabus that he split the pranayamas; on the syllabus he wrote:

  1. First year Primary Series + ujjayi pranayama
  2. Second year Intermediate Series + Rechaka Kumbhaka, Puraka Kumbhaka (The first pranayama), Puraka Rechaka Kumbhaka (the second pranayama).  He also added the pranayamas Samavrithi (which means equal breathing — meaning inhales, inhale holds, exhales, and exhale holds are the same length) and he added Vishama Vrithi where the 4 parts of the breath are all held in ratios, for example 1:4:2:1 would be inhale for 1 count : hold for 4 counts : exhale for 2 counts : hold your breath out for 1 count.
  3. Third year Advanced Series Part A + Bhastrika and Surya Bhedhana (the last 2 pranayamas)
  4. Fourth year Advanced Part B + pranayamas Sitali, sitkari, moorcha pranayamas.

How I translated this in my own practices:

  • When I do primary series I do the first two pranayamas
  • When I do second series I do nadi shodhana
  • When I practice third series I do bhastrika and surya bhedana

I practice many other pranayamas during my morning meditations as well.

Pranayama handout I received from Nancy when I first started learning Pranayama — it’s the first 3 pranayamas.

End with pranayama closing chant:  pranayama closing


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