Pranayama on the Go?

Written by Shashi Joshi.

Namaste. How was your day so far? Are you done with your asana practice? How about your chanting? Did you also remember to do the daily dose of pranayama? Or, did you skip it because of lack of time? Would you rather have a pranayama on the go, like fast food, if that were ever possible? Well, there is! It is in-built, right into the Sanskrit language.


I do not know about other languages of the world, but Sanskrit has a uniqueness of having two pranayama-s built into it. Let us see how.

In the Sanskrit alphabet (varna-maalaa, garland of sounds), there are eleven commonly used vowels, and two vowel-ish sounds. These are the anusvaara and visarga, aM and aH respectively.

Anusvara (aM)

Without going into too much language technicalities, here is what the anusvara is all about. First of all, it is not anusaara, but anusvaara. Each consonant group has a nasal sound for it. In English, we have these five nasal sounds in the words - bank, bench, band, now, me. Yes, you read it right, those four n's are all different, even if you did not know! The anusvaara is denoted by the dot on top of the consonant and sounds like a hum, lips just touching for the hum, and separating for the ma sound.

Lot of Sanskrit words have the half 'm' at the end. For example, phalam (fruit), yaanam (vehicle), raamam (to raama). Inside a sentence, a word's trailing 'm' may be written asanusvaara (dot on top), if it is not the last word of the sentence. Technically anusvaara is reserved for those consonants that do not have a nasal of their own, like ya, ra, la, va/wa, sha, Sha, sa etc.

This sound, of humming in trailing words is not coincidental or accidental; it is found at an alarming frequency. Almost all noun forms have five (out of 21) endings in 'm' - raamam, raamaabhyaam, raamaanam etc.

Every time you say such words, you are doing a short bhramari pranayama, which has many benefits - "Inhale through both the nostrils. Exhale through both nostrils and use the throat to make a soft sound, like the buzzing of a bee.

Besides having a profound effect on ears, nose, eyes and mouth, it enlivens your looks; improves the glamor of the face, improves concentration levels, relieves migraine pains, reduces stress and mental agitation, hypertension, and successfully combats and helps prevent many a disease. Practice of bhramari is beneficial in pregnancy as well."

Visarga (aH)

The aH is an extra gust of air, and makes the sound aspirant. It is almost like second 'h' of 'huh'. It is akin to doing a short bhastrika, where you use your belly like a bellow and let a quick gust of air out. By the way, belly and bellow are related. The way we breathe in and out, is just like the bellow (or the other way around)! So, when you say yogaH, at the end is an extra gust of air like in doing bhastrika! You may have seen or heard them in the Yoga sutra-s as in 'yogaH-chitta-vritti- nirodhaH'. When you do sandhi, the H of yogaH becomes yogash.

Or, in the famous chant 'om namaH shivaaya, shivaaya namaH om'.

Out of the 21 forms of a noun (singular, dual, plural times seven cases), five end in aM and eight end in aH, making a total of 13 out of 21 or 62% as a form of quick pranayama!

Acoustic Power of a Mantra

Now let us see the power of a mantra using these sounds, the pure acoustic effect, even if you don't know the meaning (maha-mrityunjaya mantra) -

om tryambakaM yajaamahe, sugandhiM pushtivardhanam |
urvaarukamiva bandhanaat, mrityormukshiya maamritaat om ||

Total nasal sounds (including n, m, and M) = 16, 8 in each line!

If you say this mantra slowly, and with proper emphasis, you are doing 16 short bhramari-s! No wonder it will have effect on you. A sincere recitation of this mantra will cure most of your headaches in five minutes or less. Just try it! Slow down the nasal sounds.

There have been some articles on the internet, even on famous websites, questioning the age of yoga. Some have even suggested it be no older than 100 years! No one takes that seriously, but how old is it? This pranayama feature of Sanskrit is there from the very beginning, in the Veda-s themselves, and even before they were composed, as part of the language. By the time of Buddha around 500 BCE, most of the important developments had already happened. What Patanjali did in Yoga-sutra is to compile and codify the existing knowledge along with his own input. The concept of Yoga is no less than say 7000 years old, all the way up to the Indus Valley civilization, also known as Sindhu-Sarasvati civilization. 7000 years ago, the civilization that did the first proto-dentistry, drilling on live tooth, surely realized the health benefits of pranayama!

All the yoga enthusiasts and teachers, start speaking clearly, all the Sanskrit words, and you are doing pranayama simply while speaking! Exercise on the go! Proper diction, stress and duration will not only give you the extra attention (hopefully not the British style) but also a good exercise of the vocal cord and chest. More than you asked for, huH?

Shashi, a serious Sanskrit enthusiast for over twenty-five years, and a Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Computer Science, brings in simple, logical, intuitive ways to learn the language, the script and interpreting its immense wisdom for modern times in a down-to-earth, non-mystical yet undiluted way. He runs Practical Sanskrit - the most popular Sanskrit Page on Facebook. He is also author of the popular book "Attitude Shift - Sanskrit Maxims for Contemporary Life and Leadership", "Learning Sanskrit Workbooks" series and is working on "Understanding Devotion - through Sanskrit prayers."

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