Pranayama and yogic breathing have increasingly become buzzwords often deprived of their original context and meaning. In this post, we will shed some light on these yogic milestones, by analyzing the traditional meaning of Pranayama, defining the main principles that underpin all Pranayama practice, and illustrating typical breathing rhythms.
We will then dive into the experiential part and learn how to breathe with Pranayama as we explore yogic breathing, the foundation of Pranayama breathing. We will also show you how to practice a few basic Pranayama techniques to get yourself started.
What Is Pranayama?
Pranayama is an ancient group of techniques for controlling or harnessing Prana. Yes, that’s the literal translation, and not the common modern-era misconception of Pranayama being yoga exercises for breathing, breathing with the diaphragm, or breathwork, in general.
The art of Pranayama is about harnessing the Prana contained in the air using the breath but, ultimately, mastering Pranayama doesn’t require the use of the breath.
What Is Prana?
By now you must have asked yourself what Prana is. Often translated as ‘life energy’ or ‘life force’. More in detail, Prana is contained in the air, in food, in water, and Swami Sivananda did not hesitate to state: “Prana is the sum total of all the energies that is manifest in the universe”.
Prana is a concept that’s more or less equivalent to the Chinese Qi, for those who are familiar with it. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, meridians are circulations of Qi that regulate the physical body functions.
Similarly, the ancient Indian model of the body made of Prana, the pranic body, speaks of Nadis. Just as meridians are circulations of Qi, so Nadis are circulations of Prana. Therefore, Pranayama isn’t just about calming the mind through breathing. It is a systematic cultivation of Prana and Nadis, life force, and its circulations.
In those models, it is clear that if the physical body is alive, it is because the pranic body supports it. So, the state of health of the physical body is, to a great extent, the reverberation of the dynamism of the pranic body.
For the ancient yogis, there was no yoga practice without being aware of Prana, directing Prana at will, and storing Prana. In the timeless yogic classification of the 8 limbs of Patanjali, Pranayama is the interface between external and internal practice. You can read more about Patanjali’s path of Ashtanga Yoga in our post ‘The 8 Limbs of Yoga’.
Benefits of Pranayama Practice
All the mind and body benefits of Pranayama are to be looked at from the standpoint of yoga as the result of a transformed pranic body. Through the practice of Pranayama, yogis naturally fall inward and reach the first levels of concentration that lead them to deeper states of absorption on their way to self-realization.
The practice of Pranayama benefits all levels of existence: transforms, purifies, and heals the pranic body. In return, this positively affects the physical body and the mind, improves the mood, and alters personality in positive ways. Pranayama also increases focus and alertness and traditionally prepares the yogis for higher states of consciousness.
Here are some more specific benefits of practicing Pranayama:
- Detoxifies and cleanses the body
- Enhances lung capacity and improves respiratory function
- Reduces stress and anxiety
- Improves concentration and mental clarity
- Elevates energy levels
- Balances emotions
- Helps in better sleep
- Enhances digestion
- Elevates spiritual growth and awareness
Full Yogic Breathing
Let’s continue this exploration with Full Yogic Breathing, the most basic but not least important breathing exercise. This technique lays the foundation for practicing Pranayama efficiently.
We can break down the yogic breath into three parts of breathing:
- Breathing with the diaphragm (also known as diaphragmatic breathing, belly breathing, or abdominal breathing)
- Thoracic (or intercostal) breathing
- Clavicular (or high, top of the lungs) breathing
The complete yogic breathing cycle harmoniously combines all three parts. It’s the ideal form of breathing for beginners in Pranayama but never ceases to deepen even after years of practice. It is the way of breathing in most types of Pranayama. We could also call it the Pranayama breath.
From the life-force energy standpoint, the full yogic breath teaches the pranic body to absorb, hold and control greater and greater amounts of prana, as well as purify the energy channels (Nadis).
How to Practice Full Yogic Breathing as a Beginner?
It is essential to spend some time differentiating the three parts of yogic breathing to get familiar with your breath. When we look at a baby breathing, we can see the belly rising and falling so easily with each breath. Unfortunately, as we become adults, most of us lose this capacity.
- Diaphragmatic breathing. As you are sitting, lying, or standing, put your hand on your abdomen and try to feel your breathing. When the diaphragm descends, it causes your abdomen to rise as you inhale and when the diaphragm ascends, it causes your abdomen to fall as you exhale.
This is the abdominal breathing in action. Diaphragmatic breathing is the most efficient way of breathing out of the three parts.
- Thoracic breathing. Now, move your hand to your chest. To perform thoracic breathing you have to carefully expand the rib cage. It’s the middle breath. Here, less air fills the lungs than when breathing with the diaphragm and the breath feels tighter. The intercostal muscles expand and contract the rib cage letting the lungs fill and empty.
After some time, join the thoracic breathing with the diaphragmatic breathing and feel the full engagement of the lungs at each inhale and exhale.
- Clavicular breathing. Now we can include the last part. Move your hand to the bottom of your throat. Inhale from the nose until your lungs are full, then stop and inhale again briefly on top of your lungs. It can be 2 to 3 inhales in a row. In modern-day medicine, the clavicular breathing corresponds to physiological sighs. It’s common and totally fine to let your shoulders move up and down briefly during the extra inhales. The yogic breath is then completed by harmoniously linking the 3 parts together in one big inhale and exhale.
Full Yogic Breathing: 10 Tips for Beginners
“Just as a lion, elephant, or tiger is tamed step by step, so the breath is controlled. Otherwise it kills the practitioner. Correct Pranayama will weaken all diseases. Improper practice of yoga will strengthen all diseases. Irritation of the breath causes hiccups, asthma, coughing, headaches, earaches, pain in the eyes, and various diseases.”
Hatha Yoga Pradipika 2.15-17 (trans. Akers, 2002)
The full yogic breath is a gem and its mastery paved the way for the correct practice of all Pranayama techniques. Start gently, become aware of the 3 parts while sitting, standing, lying down, and also while practicing asanas and other everyday activities.
Find below 10 useful tips that help you practice yogic breathing properly.
- It’s crucial to be fully focused and present with this process by connecting your breath with your utmost attention.
- As you inhale, the attention is first on the abdomen, then moves upward to the thoracic cage, and finally reaches the clavicular area to add one or two short inhales.
- As you exhale, the attention is first on the chest, being aware of the slow emptying of the lungs, then moves downward to feel the abdomen falling toward the spine to completely empty the lungs using the diaphragm.
- At the beginning, do one inhale/exhale cycle, then stop and breathe normally keeping your full awareness of the effects. Over time, make your way to perform 6 breathing cycles in a row. Once you feel at ease doing this, you can start using a timer to practice for 3 minutes, then gradually increase.
- Never exceed your limits by chasing the longest possible inhale or exhale. Yogic breathing is meant to be easy and relaxed yet focused and precise. In classical Hatha yoga, Pranayama has a prominent place and yogis practice it for long hours. Here, it is clear that this practice builds gradually and gently over time.
- Inhale as slowly as possible through the nose and exhale through the mouth, again, as slowly as possible.
- Inhale and exhale the maximum amount of air you comfortably can.
- As you gain more experience, you can perform the full yogic breath more rapidly, depending on the techniques.
- If your nasal airways are blocked, you can use your mouth. If they are partially blocked, then do use them, you might find some improvement over time.
- During your asana practice, you will find that some postures will mainly activate one of the three parts. Use those postures if you find yourself in need to reconnect more with one type of breathing. For example, when lying down facing the floor, raise your chest off the floor to practice the thoracic breath. Or, on all fours, let your abdomen hang down as you inhale and bring it back up toward the spine as you exhale to practice the abdominal breath.
With enough practice, the full yogic breathing will eventually become the natural way of breathing during Pranayama. Without thinking about it, it will become like second nature.
Jamie Wrate developed a great introductory video course about Pranayama, called Pranayama for Well-Being where he will guide you through ancient techniques as well as some modern innovations. Watch it on One Yoga Online Studio with a 7-day Free Trial!
3 Easy Pranayama Exercises for Beginners
While there are numerous Pranayama techniques available for all levels of experience, we are going to focus on 3 breathing exercises that beginners can easily practice. Before diving into the practical part, we need to understand the basic structure that underlies all pranayama breathing practices.
The 4 Stages of Pranayama Breathing
“[Pranayama] manifests as external, internal, and restrained movements [of breath]. These are drawn out and subtle in accordance to place, time, and number”
Yoga Sutra 2-50 (trans. Edwin F. Bryant)
All techniques of Pranayama break down one breathing cycle into 4 parts, which make the 4 pillars of the breath:
- Inhalation, or Puraka
- Retention after inhalation (internal or full retention), or Antara Kumbhaka
- Exhalation, or Rechaka
- Retention after exhalation (external or void retention), or Bahya Kumbhaka
It’s worth spending a few words about Kumbhaka, the key point of these 4 stages. In ancient yoga, texts the word Kumbhaka (breath retention) is sometimes used as a synonym with the word Pranayama, as if they were interchangeable.
Indeed, the mastery of Kumbhaka is, ultimately, the mastery of Pranayama as depicted in the yoga sutras of Patanjali:
“The fourth [type of Pranayama] surpasses the limits of the external and the internal.”
Yoga Sutra 2-51 (trans. Edwin F. Bryant)
‘The fourth type of Pranayama’ that Patanjali refers to in this sutra is the total suppression of breath, the cessation of inhalation and exhalation that occurs within a deep state of absorption attained through Pranayama. It is called Kevala-Kumbhaka, pure Kumbhaka.
In simple terms, in this state, the yogi doesn’t need to breathe to stay alive. While this extreme achievement sounds totally unrealistic in the 21st century, the idea is that the yogi can live by absorbing Prana without breathing. It denotes the importance of breath retention and the states of transcendence that occur through them.
For the purposes of this post, we’ll guide you to goals within everyone’s reach. The 4 stages are used in different ways according to the specific exercise being performed. In particular, different pranayama techniques use varying times for these stages or exclude one of them.
Pranayama Breathing Rhythms
When breath retention is incorporated into full yogic breathing, it lays the foundation of the techniques of Pranayama based on rhythms or breath cycles. The typical rhythms of breathing follow a simple numeric formula.
For example, the basic ratio 1:1:1:1 means that inhalation, full retention, exhalation, and void retention are all equal in duration. This equal rhythm is what defines Sama-Vritti Pranayama commonly practiced in the West under the name ‘box breathing’.
The other rhythms of Pranayama are called Visama-Vrtti or ‘unequal’ rhythms. There exists an extensive range of combinations corresponding to the purpose of the Pranayama techniques involved. A popular type is Anulom Vilom, which we’ll explore below.
Breathing Exercise #1: Sama-Vritti Pranayama
Among the various Pranayama techniques, Sama-Vritti, also known as Box Breathing or Equal Breathing holds a special place in its ability to create balance and calm in the mind and body. This simple yet powerful practice can be a great addition to your daily yoga routine.
Here’s how to practice Sama-Vritti Pranayama step by step:
- Find a comfortable seated position, either cross-legged on the floor or on a chair with your feet flat on the ground. Keep your back straight and your hands resting on your lap or knees.
- Close your eyes and take a few 3-part breaths to center yourself, as seen above.
- Begin by inhaling slowly through your nose to the count of three.
- Hold your breath for another count of three.
- Exhale slowly through your nose, again to the count of three.
- Hold your breath at the end of the exhale for a count of three.
This completes one cycle of Sama-Vritti Pranayama. Continue for several rounds, or use a timer to practice for at least 3 minutes. As a beginner, you can start with a 3:3:3:3 ratio and gradually increase it as you feel confident with the technique. A 14:14:14:14 rhythm can be considered an advanced practice. Also, try to integrate the 3-part yogic breath seen above.
Breathing Exercise #2: Nadi Shodhana Pranayama
“The yogi, having assumed padmasana, should inhale prana with the moon [Ida]. After holding as long as possible, he should exhale with the sun [Pingala].”
Hatha Yoga Pradipika 2.7 (Akers, 2002)
Alternate nostril breathing is another fundamental technique (or, better, a group of techniques) of Pranayama. According to the pranic body model, the main Nadis associated with our inner polarities are Ida and Pingala. These energetic channels are said to represent the feminine (or, lunar) and the masculine (or, solar) aspects of our being.
The practice of alternate nostril breathing is thus used to balance and harmonize the flow of life-force energy through these channels. When such a balanced state is achieved, it allows the neutralized prana to enter Sushumna (the central channel) producing deep states of absorption.
Nadi Shodhana is one of the most popular and widely-practiced techniques that use alternate breathing. Although there exists a variety of hand gestures used to close the nostrils, you can use the thumb and the index finger to keep it simple. You can always change hands during the practice if your arm is getting tired.
Here are some simple steps to practice this technique:
- In a comfortable seated position, close the right nostril with the thumb and begin to inhale through the left nostril.
- Breathe deeply, without strain, to the count of three.
- Close the left nostril with the index finger.
- Release the pressure of the thumb on the right nostril and exhale for another count of three,
- Now, inhale through the right nostril, again to the count of three.
- At the end of the inhalation, close the right nostril and open the left nostril.
- Exhale through the left nostril, for a count of three.
This is one round. Notice that one round starts by inhaling through the left nostril and finishes by exhaling through the left nostril again. It’s important not to interrupt the practice before completing the full round.
To maximize the benefits of Nadi Shodhana, include the full yogic breathing. As a beginner, you can start with 10 rounds and increase as you progress with ease, never forcefully. As above, feel free to increase the rhythm (number of seconds) always proportionally.
This is a basic version of Nadi Shodhana, without breath retention. Read below for variations of this technique with breath retention that you can utilize in specific moments of your day to achieve a balancing effect.
Breathing Exercise #3: Bhramari Pranayama
Bhramari Pranayama, also known as Humming Bee Breath, is a soothing breathing technique that mimics the humming sound of a bee. This Pranayama exercise is effective in instantly calming down the mind and is therefore highly beneficial in relieving stress and anxiety.
Here’s how you can practice Bhramari step by step:
- Sit in a comfortable position with your spine straight. Close your eyes and take a few breaths to center yourself.
- Place your index fingers on your ears. There is a cartilage between your cheek and ear. Place your index fingers on that cartilage.
- Take a deep breath in.
- As you exhale, gently press the cartilage. You can keep the cartilage pressed or press it in and out with your fingers while making a loud humming sound like a bee with your mouth closed.
- Focus on the humming sound and feel the vibration in your head. Try to prolong the duration of the exhale while making the humming sound.
This is one cycle. Start by practicing 3-4 cycles and gradually increase the number as you become comfortable. After completing the rounds, sit quietly for a few minutes and observe the sensations in your body.
Bhramari Pranayama can be practiced by anyone and at any time of the day. It is especially beneficial when you’re feeling agitated or anxious, as it helps to bring the mind back into a calm and focused state.
How to Integrate Pranayama in Your Daily Life
While Pranayama works best as a daily habit and its constant practice will deliver long-lasting benefits, you can also use specific Pranayama techniques to achieve a balancing result. Find below two use cases where the practice of Nadi Shodhana can help you in moments of need during your daily life.
Example #1: Energize Your Day With Nadi Shodana and Yogic Breathing
If you have a long day ahead, feel sleepy or lazy, and need a boost of energy, your purpose for this morning practice is to energize and balance your pranic body as well as accumulate and store Prana to support the rest of your day. Follow these simple steps:
- Start by doing 3 rounds of yogic breath to your full capacity.
- Rest for a few normal breaths.
- Continue with 6 rounds where you make the inhales longer than the exhales and you also hold the full retention comfortably.
- Have a rest and start again.
- Continue for ten to fifteen minutes.
Lengthening the inhales brings more Prana and increases the excitability of the nervous system. Holding the full retention harnesses and stores prana.
Example #2: Wind Down at Evening With Nadi Shodana and Yogic Breathing
When you’ve had a long day, and feel agitated, anxious, and blurry your purpose for this evening’s practice is to relax and calm down the mental processes so you can ease into the rest of the evening. Proceed as follows:
- Start first by doing 3 rounds of yogic breath to your full capacity.
- Rest for a few normal breaths.
- Continue with 6 rounds where you make the exhales longer than the inhales and you also hold the void retention comfortably.
- Have a rest and start again.
- Continue for ten to fifteen minutes.
Lengthening the exhales cleanses and purifies the unwanted energies. Holding the void retention slows down the mind, and calms the nervous system.
When Pranayama practice is approached like a long-term investment, it will bear all its fruits.
The more you practice Pranayama, the more you will become your own guide. As you master the art of regulating your breath, you will use Prana to influence your mind and body in the way you need.
When you’re ready for more advanced Pranayama practice, you can dive into Higher Yoga Liberation Intensive, a 4-day online course of advanced Yoga practices with a specific focus on Pranayama and Meditation brought to you by One Yoga Online Studio experienced teachers.
We conclude this journey through Pranayama with a testimonial from our lead Pranayama teacher Santosh:
“As a beginner, I remember feeling excited and intrigued by the diversity of the experiences I was having with Pranayama. But later on, it felt like I reached a ceiling and nothing was really happening.
That’s when I started to realize the mind association that practice should be exciting and I surrendered to what felt like a monotonous practice. It lasted for some time until it changed again in terms of depth of absorption and focus. I felt refreshed after practice like I was plunged into a bath of deep silence or stillness.
Since then, my practice always changes and I understand now that the most valuable aspect of the practice is not to stop and to open and allow the transformations to occur regardless of their flavor.”