Teaching the Pranayama Square in a Yoga Class

16th February 2020

The Pranayama Square (Sama Vritti)

In Sanskrit sama means equal and vritti means rotation or flow. Sama Vritti Pranayama is therefore Four Parts Even Breathing or the “Pranayama Square”.
It is an important exercise as it teaches awareness and control of each of the four stages of the breathing cycle:

  1.  Puraka (Inhalation)
  2.  Antar Kumbhaka (Retention after Inhalation)
  3.  Rechaka (Exhalation)
  4.  Bahya Kumbhaka (Retention after Exhalation)

In Sama Vritti each of these stages is given an identical time so it diversifies from ‘normal’ breathing where the retention is generally very short with many people unaware that a retention stage even exists.

Preparation for Pranayama Square

The Pranayama stage of a typical yoga class is after the asanas and before Savasana. Ideally the students should be seated in Easy Pose (Sukasana) although it may also be done in Savasana. Students that cannot comfortably sit cross legged should find a posture that is comfortable for them with blocks supporting the knees. Some students will benefit from sitting on a block or having a wedge under the sacrum.

The back should be straight and chin parallel to the ground or bent slightly towards the chest (not deeply enough to form a chin lock – Jalandhara Bandha) with shoulders relaxed. Hands should be on the knees with palms up or down and elbows soft. A Hasta Mudra may also help focus the mind and are thought to channel the body’s energy flow whilst enabling the yogi to draw themselves inwards (Carver, 2016). So Chin Mudra may be held. This posture gives the attitude of humility (Stiles, 2007, p206).

Alternately the hands may be placed on the belly to aid awareness of the physical impact of the breath on the belly and diaphragm.

Students should be instructed to close their eyes or hold a downward gaze (drushti) and focus on the natural breath noticing the short retention after each inhale and exhale. Breathing is through the nose. The teacher will introduce the concept of the Pranayama Square and explain that the inhale, retention, exhale and retention will all be held for an identical length of time. With students new to Sama Vritti the practice may begin with a count of 4:2:4:2 to enable them to become used to the physicality of holding the retention for a short period before the full count of 4.

Teaching the Pranayama Square

The teacher should guide the students for the first few rounds, counting out the inhale, hold, exhale and hold.

Close your eyes. Breathe in and out through your nose.
Relax your jaw and tongue. Relax the space between the eyebrows. Relax your shoulders.
Slowly start to deepen the breath, bringing it deeper into your belly.
As you inhale, feel your belly expand like a balloon; as you exhale, feel your navel draw toward your spine.
Now keeping your face and shoulders relaxed but with a straight back:

  • Inhale for, one, two, three, four
  • Hold for, one, two, three, four
  • Exhale for, one, two, three, four
  • Hold for, one, two, three, four

After a few guided rounds students should then be encouraged to count for themselves in silence.

As students become familiar with the practice they may be encouraged to lengthen the count to, for instance 5:5:5:5 if that feels comfortable to them. Any count is fine so long as there is no strain on the breath and the student is able to match the inhales and exhales.

Students familiar with Ujjaya breath may use that to make the sound audible.

Effects and Benefits of Sama Vritti

Sama Vritti is a powerful pranayama technique that can help clear the mind, relax the body and allow the practitioner to focus. Because awareness is directed to the breath and counting, the mind is less likely to wander than with more limited breath focus.
According to Tummee.com the benefits of Sama Vritti are as follows:

  • Inhalation (Puraka): The inhaling of air through both the nostrils is a natural process. But, in pranayama practices the prana at a subtle level is the energy responsible for life force. The awareness of this breath is prana in yoga. Hence in Puraka, the benefits derived are:
    • Improves lung capacity.
    • Wakes up the sluggish cells in the body.
    • Encourages the right kind of breathing.
    • Long and deep inhalation (puraka) builds awareness.
  • Retention after inhalation (Antar Kumbhaka):
    • The prana is not moving within the body, and it stays calm.
    • The retained prana within the body stimulates the dull organs and the glands.
    • It distributes the energy equally within the entire body.
    • Antar Kumbhaka moves upwards and hence sits at the crown of the head.
    • The retained energy prepares the body for meditation.
  • Exhalation (Rechaka):
    • Antioxidants are thrown out efficiently.
    • Helps to reduce stress and anxiety.
    • Room for fresh supply of air as the body expels out everything.
    • Keeps the diaphragm active.
    • Increases immunity.
  • Retention after Exhalation (Bahya Kumbhaka):
    • The entire body comes to a state of silence, as there is no prana that is moving.
    • This silence calms the body and the mind physiologically and psychologically.
    • Prana moves from the base of the spine upwards, and when there is no inhalation or exhalation – the root of the spine also gets to be calm. This helps with meditation.
    • Helps to control the state of mind, and this is important for the practice of Meditation.

Stiles (2007, p206) says that “the primary benefit it to balances all the aspects of Vata’s five pranas and prepare the mind for withdrawing from the world (pratyahara) into concentration (dharana)”.

Personally I find it an enjoyable and accessible pranayama technique that enables me to quickly enter a meditative state. The focus on the controlled breath with counted retentions is helpful in grounding in preparation for either meditation or deep relaxation. I have found that students find it a relatively simple technique to follow so long as instruction is guided and clear.
As someone who has previously taken Wim Hof workshops where the breath is held for an extended period (and as a trumpet player) I find the retention an enjoyable challenge.

Precautions for Pranayama Square

As the breath is held twice in Sama Vritti some sources suggest that pregnant women and students with blood pressure issues should refrain from the practice.
Other sources eg Stiles (2007, p206) claim no contraindications.

Stiles (p206) said that the most common problem is stressful breathing where students put effort into perfecting the posture with too tight a neck position which creates tension in the upper body.

If students are struggling with the pattern (4:4:4:4) reassure them to use (4:2:4:2) until they feel more comfortable with the longer retention. Stephens (2010, p248) says that “With practice, puraka and rechaka come into balance and form the foundation for all other pranayama practices, including ujjayi pranayama.”

Some students my find that they begin to panic at some stages, particularly the retention. They should be reassured that an occasional quick in breath is fine. Desikachar (1995, p59) says “If someone is labouring to breathe deeply and evenly, it will immediately become apparent; he or she will feel the need to take a quick breath in between the long, slow breaths. One important precept of Ayurvedic medicine is never to supress the body’s natural urges. Even during pranayama practice we should let ourselves take a short breath if we feel the need to do that”.


References and Bibliography

Carver, L. (2016) 10 Powerful Mudras and How to Use Them, The Chopra Center. Available at: https://chopra.com/articles/10-powerful-mudras-and-how-to-use-them (Accessed: 30 October 2019).
Cronkleton, E. (2018) What Are the Benefits and Risks of Alternate Nostril Breathing?, Healthline. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/alternate-nostril-breathing (Accessed: 29 October 2019).
Desikachar, T. K. V. (1995) The Heart of Yoga. Inner Traditions International.
Hewitt, J. (1977) The Complete Yoga Book. Ebury Press.
Iyengar, B. K. S. (1966) Light on Yoga. 2015th edn. Harper Thorsons.
Lysebeth, A. van (1979) Pranayama The Yoga of Breathing. London: Unwin Hyman Ltd.
Patanjali (no date) The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
Saraswati, S. S. (1996) Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha. Edited by Bihar School of Yoga.
Schofiled, S. (2018) The Ins and Outs of Alternate Nostril Breathing, YogaLondon.com.
Spence, D. (no date) ‘Pranayama Course Notes AntFragility Yoga’, V3.03.
Stephens, M. (2010) Teaching Yoga: Essential Foundations and Techniques. North Atlantic Books.
Stiles, M. (2007) Ayurvedic Yoga Therapy. Lotus Press.
Svatmarama (2002) The Hatha Yoga Pradipika. 1st edn. Edited by B. D. Akers. YogaVidya.
Tummee.com (no date) Square Breathing. Available at: https://www.tummee.com/yoga-poses/square-breathing (Accessed: 30 October 2019).
YogaJournal (2017) Single Nostril Breath, Yoga Journal. Available at: https://www.yogajournal.com/poses/single-nostril-breath (Accessed: 29 October 2019).