BOOK REVIEW: Prana and Pranayama by Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Prana And PranayamaPrana And Pranayama by Swami Niranjananda
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is the Bihar School of Yoga manual on pranayama, or yogic breathing exercises. The book is a one-stop reference for yoga students and teachers wishing to review the philosophy and physiology of breathing practices, as well as to put together lessons or a plan of action for practice that consists of both preparatory exercises and classical pranayama.

Students in the West may be more familiar with B.K.S. Iyengar’s “Light on Pranayama,” which offers a similar set of material and is this book’s main competitor for most readers. In my view, Swami Saraswati’s book is a bit more pragmatic and gets caught in the weeds less, but offers fewer detailed photos and is a little bit less precisely organized. If one is considering between the two books, I’d say the advantage of Iyengar is a 200-week course plan that some individuals may find a handy way to systematically advance their practice pranayama. The disadvantage of Iyengar is that he goes into vastly greater detail than most people will be able to take advantage of via book. (For example, there’s 22 pages of precise explanation of closing off one’s nostrils for digital pranayama.) In short, both books give the reader everything they’ll need in a pranayama reference, Swami Saraswati’s book is a bit more laid-back, and Iyengar’s a bit more oriented as a step-by-step instruction manual.

The twenty-one chapters of this book are organized into three parts, but we’ll call it four because the last part is divided in two sub-parts. The first part of the book is entitled, “Philosophy of Pranayama” and it dives into the definitions of prana, kosha (sheaths), chakra, nadi (channels), pranic fields, and discusses the connection between prana and chanting.

The second part of the book (ch. 8 – 13) explores the physiology of breath. This section explains the anatomy of the musculature that drives respiration (e.g. the diaphragm, intercostals, etc.), the processes of respiration and circulation, and the importance of the nose in breathing (which is more extensive than the average person could imagine.) This section also discusses the classical distinction between pranayama and rudimentary breath practices (i.e. whether there is breath retention, or kumbhaka), and has a separate chapter explaining retention. It also has a couple chapters that present the research on the benefits and effects of pranayama practice. (Full-disclosure: this isn’t up-to-date in the edition I read, and that was the 2016 — first digital — edition. So, I wouldn’t go here looking for information on the state of research because there’s been a virtual explosion of research that’s more recent than what is covered in the book. However, it will give one a gist what has been known for a while.)

Part III consists of two sub-parts. The first is called “Pre-Pranayama” and it includes many exercises to help one become familiar with one’s breath as well as to develop the foundational breaths (e.g. abdominal / diaphragmatic verses chest breathing) that are built upon in the final section. Part III.B presents the classic pranayama. The four chapters of this section are conveniently organized into: guidelines for practice (e.g. contraindications and general concepts to keep in mind), nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), tranquilizing / calming breaths, and vitalizing / excitatory breaths.

There are five appendices as well as a glossary and two indexes (an index of practices and a general index.) The five appendices provide instruction on practices that are employed in pranayama, but are not pranayama themselves. These include supplementary practices, asana (seated postures for doing pranayama more than asana for opening the rib-cage, etc.,) mudra (“seals” postures of specific body parts), and bandha (locks). The presence of the first four appendices mean that one doesn’t have to buy other books (e.g. the APMB) to access this information. The fifth appendix gathers the sutra from “Hatha Yoga Pradipika” that deal with pranayama and provide an English translation. (HYP is a 15th century manual of Hatha Yoga that is much more detailed than Patanjali’s sutras.) There are graphics throughout the book as needed to convey information, mostly line drawings.

I found this book very useful and well presented. If there is one change that would improve the book it would be less crow-barring of science and traditional / philosophical beliefs about the body to be consistent with one another. I see the value of presenting both sets of information as both this book and the Iyengar book do, but a muddle is created by trying to force the explanations into consistency when they aren’t. (I think this book does it a bit more than Iyengar, but only because Iyengar puts much less emphasis on science than does this one.) The problem is that one ends up with low-quality pseudo-science amid the strong studies, and most readers won’t be able to tell scientific consensus and from the lunatic fringe. (e.g. The belief that kirlian photography is evidence of pranic fields or qi is far from scientifically supported.) That said, for most practitioners it doesn’t much matter as it doesn’t affect the nature of the practices, which are sound and well-described.

If you’re looking for a pranayama reference, this is a great option.

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