Pranayama Guide: Learn How to Breathe Like a Yogi
One of yoga’s most transformational practices, pranayama serves as the bridge between the external and the internal. It’s a conscious regulation of the breath that increases your energy and life force while helping to focus the mind. Pranayama creates harmony at all levels: physically in steady, healthy breathing patterns; mentally in calm and focused thoughts; and spiritually in connection to the universe.
Spiritual awareness is pranayama’s most important effect. The breath, which is the physical body’s main prana, belongs to the cosmic breath or universal spirit. Pranayama is the practice of harmonizing the two and bridging any gaps in their connection.
The first three of Patanjali’s eight limbs—yamas, niyamas, and asana—are considered external practices that help the yogi master their body and energy. After these comes the fourth limb of pranayama, and the steps that follow are internal practices that help the yogi master their senses and mind.
Pranayama is the step that helps yogis graduate from the external to the internal. Strangely enough, pranayama is skipped in many modern yoga classes. However, it’s important to keep in mind that yogis who want to advance on the yogic path shouldn’t skip this crucial practice.
What is Prana?
Prana is the energy that’s found in all living things—from humans to plants. It controls all forces, from our thoughts to our cells. It is not the body, or the spirit, but the life force that makes up both. Prana is sometimes deduced to the breath, but it’s actually something much more subtle. It’s an energy that regulates all bodily functions.
Five main types of prana:
1. Prana - Controls breathing.
2. Udana - Governs the senses, enthusiasm, and speech.
3. Samana - Responsible for assimilation and distribution of nutrients.
4. Apana - Governs the downward expulsion of wastes.
5. Vyana - Pervades throughout the whole body and distributes energy.
Together, these five pranas make up the pranayama kosha, or vital energy body. They flow in all possible directions and in essence, make things happen within the body. Their route is through the nadis: the body’s subtle channels.
The human body depends on prana to function. Healthy thoughts and all mental functions depend on the proper flow of prana, which is why developing prana is so important for an abundant meditation practice.
To see for yourself, try closing your eyes and holding your breath for 20-30 seconds. Notice how your thoughts come to a pause. When prana is dormant, there are no thoughts. If prana is lost completely, all cognitive functions come to a halt.
On the one hand, this is a good thing: by controlling the breath, you can harness your thoughts. But on the other hand, imagine how distorted your thoughts would be if your breath was in some way impaired, as it is in most of us who’ve lost our ability to belly breathe. Pranayama has a profound effect on stagnant thoughts and stored negative emotions that have developed through improper breathing.
Where Does Prana Come From?
The main source of prana is the breath, which is a manifestation of prana; without it, life ceases. This is why proper breathing is so important. Prana also comes from food. Freshly picked fruits and vegetables are filled with life-giving prana, while anything canned, overcooked or old has very little prana.
Think back to a time when you ate a processed food such as chips or cookies. How did you feel afterward? Probably a little sluggish. As a contrast, think about the feeling you get an eating a bowl of steamy vegetable soup or a summer salad. The latter likely gave you a feeling of freshness due to its heavy dose of prana. Hence, both pranayama and a healthy diet are incredibly important for your prana.
What is Pranayama?
As BKS Iyengar explains, “Pranayama is the science of breath”. In this two-part word, prana means vital energy, life force, breath, wind or vitality, and ayama means “expansion”, “length” or “extension”. Pranayama is a conscious regulation of the breath: an altering of its natural flow. It’s a method of increasing prana, vitality, energy, and spirit by regulating or expanding the breath.
Four parts to pranayama:
1. Rechaka - Exhalation
2. Puraka - Inhalation
3. Bahya-kumbhaka - Suspension of the breath after exhalation
4. Antar-kumbhaka - Retention of the breath after inhalation
Beginner’s pranayama focuses on the exhalations and inhalations. While advanced pranayama incorporates inner retention, outer suspension, bandhas, and mudras. And although there are many types of pranayama, the following are some of the most practiced:
Anuloma viloma or alternate nostril breath is one of the most calming pranayama. In this exercise, the breath is exhaled and inhaled through one nostril, then exhaled and inhaled through the other. More advanced stages include breath retention.
Ujjayi or victorious breath is popular amongst the vinyasa yogis. The back of the throat is slightly constricted to make an audible, ocean-like sound with each breath. This mimics deep sleep and sends the mind into a meditative state.
A warming practice of vigorous exhalations and passive inhalations, kapalabhati or shining skull breath is also considered one of yoga’s cleansing exercises. It expels respiratory wastes and ignites digestion.
In bhastrika pranayama also known as bellow's breath, each inhalation and exhalation is big and exaggerated. It’s similar to how bellows are used to stoke a fire; only here, it’s the digestive fire that’s fueled.
Sheetali and Sheetkari
In sheetali or cooling breath, is inhaled through a rolled tongue, and in sheetkari also known as hissing breath, the breath is inhaled through lightly closed teeth and open lips. However, the effect is the same: a cooling, calming influence on body and mind.
Surya bhedana or right nostril breath, the breath is inhaled through the right nostril and exhaled through the left nostril. This heats the body and dispels any mental lethargy.
In Bhramari or honeybee breath, the eyes and ears are closed and the practitioner makes a long humming sound while exhaling. The gentle reverberation throughout the body calms the mind and the nervous system.
Benefits of Pranayama Breathing Techniques
The breath is closely linked to your overall health. It’s one of the body’s most important rhythms and influences each and every cell in the body; providing nourishment, energy, and mental function. Without proper breath, your health can suffer. Without any breath, you can only survive for a few minutes.
Tragically, most people do not breathe correctly. Most of the time, they only use part of their lungs, gripping their bellies, and then breathing shallowly into their chest and throat. Pranayama is the act of taking conscious control of the breathing process. It’s not forcing the breath in any way, but becoming aware of the breathing process itself, by creating healthy breathing patterns, and using the breath to bring stillness to the mind.
It’s believed that proper breathing increases a human’s life span. Yogis believe that each of us is granted a certain number of breaths in this lifetime. The slower you breathe, the longer your life will be. Whether or not you believe in this philosophy, slow, deep breathing makes sense.
The animals that live the longest, such as elephants and tortoises, breathe slowly. The opposite is true of animals with short, quick breaths such as birds and rabbits. Slow breathing increases vitality and keeps the heart strong, elongating the life span.
Benefits of pranayama include:
- Elimination of respiratory toxins
- Reduced blood pressure
- Reduced heart rate
- Balance of doshas (vital energies)
- Improved tidal volume
- Pain reduction
- Reduced anxiety
- Improved sleep
This last point, deeper meditation, is an important one. A disturbed mind is incapable of meditation. Pranayama can clear the mind of ignorance, desires, and delusion.
“As the breeze disperses the clouds that cover the sun, pranayama wafts away the clouds that hide the light of intelligence.” - BKS Iyengar
Getting Started With Pranayama
There are different types of pranayama to practice. Start with simple abdominal breathing and then work with a teacher to learn more complicated techniques. Classical yogic texts caution that pranayama must be learned by a teacher or a guru, as advanced pranayama can be detrimental to health if practiced incorrectly.
“As lions, elephants and tigers are tamed very slowly and cautiously, so should prana be brought under control very slowly in gradation measured according to one’s capacity and physical imitations. Otherwise it will kill the practitioner.” - Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Chapter II, verse 16
That might seem dramatic, but the overall takeaway is that pranayama should not be taken lightly. Consult a teacher, incorporate the tips listed below, and try to make pranayama just as important as your asana practice to keep advancing on the yogic path.
Practice in an airy, open space. - Don’t practice under a fan or under the hot sun; all of which can upset body temperature.
Practice on an empty stomach. - Ideally, asanas and pranayama are done before breakfast so there’s no extra pressure on the diaphragm or lungs.
Find a position you can sit in comfortably for an extended period of time. - You don’t want your posture to obstruct or strain your breathing. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika recommends sitting in Lotus pose, Easy pose, Little Thunderbolt pose, Accomplished pose, or Auspicious pose.
Sit with your spine tall to make full use of your lungs. - You might find it helpful to sit on a folded blanket or a firm pillow, or even on a chair.
Unless otherwise indicated, always breathe through your nose. - If you breathe through your mouth, the air you inhale won’t be filtered or warmed, and you’ll dry out your respiratory passageways.
Focus your mind during pranayama. - You could concentrate on the breath, a mantra, or a specific part of the body. If you don’t focus, the effect of pranayama is lost.
Practice pranayama after asanas and before meditation. - Asanas prepare your body to sit for an extended amount of time. Pranayama prepares and focuses your mind for meditation.
Take your time when advancing. - Slow and steady progress is essential in pranayama—there’s no need to rush.
Pranayama Foundations: Deep Abdominal Breathing
Before exploring more complex pranayama such as anuloma viloma or bhastrika, it’s important to learn how to breathe from the belly first. Everyone should begin learning pranayama through deep abdominal breathing; otherwise all other pranayama is useless.
If you’ve ever watched a baby sleep, you’ve witnessed deep abdominal breathing. With each inhalation their belly rises and with each exhalation their belly falls. This is the way that you are meant to breathe—but because of ego, stress, and improper posture, many of us form the bad habit of holding the breath or only breathing into the chest.
Many of us restrict the free flow of breath that causes the diaphragm to descend and the belly to expand with each inhalation. Thus, relearning proper breathing is a must. Students who skip this step may find themselves dizzy or short of breath when advancing, simply because they aren't breathing into their belly.
Learn basic abdominal breathing:
1. Lie on your back in Savasana; feet wide, arms relaxed by your sides and palms facing the sky.
2. Place a light object such as a paperback book on your navel and close your eyes.
3. Take a long, slow inhalation through your nose and fill the belly. Try to lift the book toward the sky. Imagine breathing through your navel.
4. Slowly exhale through your nose. Become aware of the book and belly falling toward the floor.
5. Now add counting to even out the breath: slowly inhale to the count of four, feeling the book rise, and slowly exhale to the count of four, feeling the book fall. Continue breathing like this for several minutes.
6. Then try practicing deep abdominal breathing while sitting tall. Keep your right hand on your belly and the left hand on your chest. Feel your belly expand outward with each inhalation and draw inward with each exhalation. Once you’ve mastered proper belly breathing, you can explore other pranayama practices.
Pranayama is a great yogic practice that transforms at all levels. It develops healthy breathing patterns that improve health in every sense. It tames thoughts and removes emotional blockages, making the mind more peaceful and balanced.
It enables meditation and helps the practitioner develop their connection to the universal breath. Pranayama is the gateway to going inward, and every yogi should make it part of their daily practice.
Learn Pranayama for Spring
Spring is the season when upper respiratory imbalances such as allergies, asthma, and sinus congestion arrive on the scene and interfere with our free flowing breath. Yoga offers an amazing tool to combat these woes: pranayama!
Pranayama practices are many, each with its own indications and benefits. While practices such as anuloma viloma have their place year round, spring is really a season for more warming, invigorating practices.
This can be understood through Ayurveda’s law of opposites. In nature, opposites bring balance.
Hot sun melts cold snow.
Wet rain puts out dry fires.
Ayurveda explains that the body is a mere reflection of nature. The same law of opposites applies to each of us. A hot tea will warm a cold body. An unctuous oil will hydrate a dry body.
What does this mean for spring? When the body is under the season’s influence of cold, wet and gloomy weather, it needs the qualities of warm, dry, and invigorating to bring balance. In Ayurvedic terms, this is the process of balancing kapha dosha. Pranayama does wonders by warming and energizing the body and mind.
The two best spring pranayama are kapalabhati (shining skull breath) and bhastrika (bellow’s breath). Kapalabhati has a very specific cleansing effect on the nasal passageways, while bhastrika fires up the digestive process. This is important during spring when digestion can be a little sluggish (often the root cause of asthma and upper respiratory disorders).
In spring, the best time to practice pranayama is in the morning when kapha dosha dominates nature. This window is between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. You might feel the kapha in your body as congestion, sluggishness, or heaviness. Warming, energizing pranayama helps to combat kapha so that those symptoms don’t carry through to the rest of the day.
Some teachers argue that kapalabhati isn’t pranayama at all, but actually one of the yogic cleansing practices (shatkarma). And it does just that: cleanses the respiratory passageways. It’s so cleansing that you'll want to keep a tissue nearby! It expels old, stale air from the lungs and making room for fresh, life-giving prana.
- Cleanses the respiratory passageways
- Expels stale air
- Strengthens the nervous system
- Tones the digestive organs
- Purifies the nadis
- Increases oxygen to the brain
- Energizes the mind
- Strengthens the lungs
- Tones the abdominal muscles
- Enlivens prana
Like all pranayama, kapalabhati should be practiced on an empty stomach. And it absolutely should not be practiced near bedtime. Its stimulating effect on the nervous system wakes up the body and can prevent sleep.
Skip this practice if there is a lot of congestion in one or both of your nostrils.
Kapalabhati is similar to bhastrika pranayama, or bellows breathing, but with one major difference. In bhastrika, both inhalations and exhalations are forced. In kapalabhati, only the exhalations are forced. Inhalations are passive and happen naturally.
1. Sit comfortably with the spine straight. This opens the chest for full use of the lungs.
2. Rest the palms on the knees in jnana mudra with the thumb and index fingers touching, other fingers extended.
3. Close the eyes. Take three natural breaths.
4. Inhale naturally, then forcefully and quickly exhale through the nose by contracting the abdominal muscles. This movement draws the belly toward the spine.
5. Relax the abdominal muscles, allowing for a natural inhalation. No force is needed here. As the abdominal muscles relax and the diaphragm descends, the lungs automatically inflate with air.
6. Practice 20 of these pumping movements—forceful exhalations followed by passive inhalations.
7. End on an exhalation. Take three natural breaths. Practice up to three cycles.
It takes a few rounds of kapalabhati before most yoga students fully grasp its unusual breathing pattern. When teaching your students this exercise, look out for these common mistakes:
- Contracting the belly while inhaling instead of exhaling
- Not allowing enough time between exhalations
- Forcing the inhalations
- Slouching the shoulders
- Hunching over
- Dropping the chin
- Jerking the body
- Tensing the face
- Keeping the eyes open
Don’t leave it up to your students to count their own exhalations. Instead, guide them by rhythmically clapping to indicate exactly when they should exhale.
Bhastrika may at first seem similar to kapalabhati—but it’s actually a very different technique. It’s a bit like dramatized breathing: big inhalations, big inhalations. This pumps the belly like a bellows (the contraption used to blow air into a fire), stimulating digestion and encouraging the elimination of toxins. Hence, it’s name is bhastrika pranayama—meaning “bellows breath”.
In this version, the arms and lion’s breath are used for a doubly invigorating effect.
- Stimulates metabolism
- Massages the abdominal organs
- Tones the digestive system
- Generates internal heat
- Reduces phlegm in the throat
- Increases exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the bloodstream
- Balances the doshas
- Focuses the mind
- Tones the abdominal muscles
- Awakens mind and body
- Balances the nervous system
Bhastrika makes a good morning or mid-afternoon pranayama for its awakening effect. Since it’s so belly-focused, it’s not a good practice to do after eating, although before may help to stoke the digestive fire.
Unlike kapalabhati, which is forced exhalations only, bhastrika is both forced inhalations and exhalations. It’s an exaggerated breath. The movement in the belly is more pronounced.
1. Sit comfortably with the spine straight. This opens the chest for full use of the lungs.
2. Close the eyes. Take three natural breaths.
3. Make fists and bring them in front of the shoulders. Take a deep breath in while reaching the fists toward the sky.
4. In one move: open the palms and spread the fingers wide. Open the eyes and gaze upward, but keep the chin parallel to the earth. Stick out the tongue. Exhale audibly through the mouth and at the same time, quickly draw the hands back down and in front of the shoulders. Drawing the belly in will force the air outward. This is one round.
5. Practice 5-10 rounds.
A lot can go wrong in bhastrika, so look out for these common mistakes:
- Breathing into the chest rather than the belly
- Tensing the face
- Breathing too quickly
- Hunching over
- Dropping or lifting the chin
- Jerking the body
This pranayama takes quite a bit of energy so have students lie down in Savasana for a minute or two after finishing the practice.
Warn students that pranayama shouldn’t make them feel dizzy. If they do feel dizzy or nauseous, they should stop the practice. They’re most likely breathing into their chest rather than their belly and should first learn proper belly breathing.A few minutes a day of either one of these practices will keep that prana flowing and digestive fire stoked! They’re wonderful antidotes to all the phlegm and lethargy that spring can bring.