Updated: Jul 7, 2021
When beginning a yoga practice, you’ll most likely notice that the topic of yoga breathing is just as prevalent as the individual yoga poses you learn. In fact, many expert yogis consider breathing to be even more important than the physical postures. This practice of breathing, called pranayama (prah-nah-YAH-mah), is at the core of the yoga tradition. It guides our movements through our asana (posture) practice, and centers our mind within our meditation practice. And with it comes many physical, mental, and emotional benefits. If you’re new to pranayama, this introduction will give you the basics you need to know before you get started.
Pranayama: What’s in a Name?
Pranayama is often translated from Sanskrit as “extension or expansion of the life force.” This translation comes from two words: prana, meaning "life force," and ayama, meaning “lengthen” or “extend.” Naturally, our breath is a conveyor of our life force and vital energy, so the many pranayama techniques available to us in yoga teach us various ways to work directly with our life force through our breath.
How Does Pranayama Work?
Perhaps you’ve noticed during times of stress and overwhelm that your breath becomes more shallow and rapid. And perhaps you’ve even been aware of it and taken some deep, long, and slow breaths to calm yourself. Turns out that there is a powerful connection between our breath and our emotional states.
Different emotions can produce corresponding breathing patterns, and in turn, changing our breathing pattern can produce a corresponding emotion.
This principle is at the very heart of pranayama. Although breathing is an automatic function in the body, it is the one function we can consciously regulate. So, as we learn to skillfully work with our breath, we can influence the flow of prana within our bodies and transform our state of being. The anxiety and tension we feel due to low prana can be shifted to the calm, clear, and centered state that results from high, actively flowing prana — all from changing our breathing patterns. The ability to make this shift is not only beneficial for a meditation practice, but for our daily lives as well.
What Benefits Can I Experience With Pranayama?
There are many styles of pranayama breathing, and each comes with its own benefits for our minds, emotional state, and bodies. Several benefits, however, seem to be shared among a wide variety of techniques including:
Increased self-awareness. The more we work with our breath, the more we start to notice it throughout the day. We are then able to recognize when we might be breathing too rapidly or shallowly, for example. By building this awareness, we are in a better position to change course through a shift in our breathing.
Improved focus. By concentrating inward on our breath, we are able to reduce the noise of the world around us. As a result, the mind becomes calmer, allowing for improved focus and attention whether we’re at home, work, or in meditation.
A rejuvenated mind and body. An immediate benefit of pranayama breathing is the fresh, oxygenated blood that flows through the entire body. Not only does this provide a boost of energy to the mind and body, but can help ensure optimal function of the organs and systems of the body. As yoga teacher and author Mark Stephens adds, across the sacred texts of yoga “the breath is seen as a gateway to the world of vital energetic currents generated in the human body and controlling all the biological processes.”
Increased breathing efficiency. In an interview with New York yoga studio Yoga Shanti, yoga teacher and author of two books on pranayama Richard Rosen explains, “The average person’s breathing is labored in various ways because of tension or misalignment, so they use a lot of the energy they generate from breathing just on breathing, and they don’t have a lot of energy left over for much else. So with a breathing practice (which, of course, involves asana), you become more efficient as a breather, and therefore you generate more energy with less effort, and have more energy left over for other pursuits.”
Where Do I Start With Pranayama Breathing Techniques?
It is always best and recommended to learn pranayama techniques under the supervision of a trained teacher as methods can range from beginner to advanced level. This will allow you to ask questions and receive expert guidance as you improve your skill.
When you progress to practicing pranayama techniques on your own, it is typically recommended to practice on an empty stomach and in a comfortable seated position after you have taken a few relaxed breaths to prepare. Always proceed slowly and cautiously to avoid dizziness or lightheadedness. The following techniques are good ones to explore with your teacher as you begin your pranayama practice:
Three-Part Breath, or Dirga (DEER-gah): This foundational breath is a good starting point for any new yogi in order to understand what deep, full breathing feels like. The three parts of this breath occur in the abdomen, diaphragm, and chest. It involves breathing fully into the belly, ribcage, and upper chest in a smooth, even flow. On the exhale, the flow is reversed.
Alternate Nostril Breathing, or Nadi Shodhana (nah-dee show-DAH-nah): Legendary yoga teacher Sri Dharma Mittra is known to describe alternate nostril breathing as “the main breathing.” Widely considered one of the most effective exercises, alternate nostril breathing is a popular beginner practice that helps to influence the parasympathetic nervous system, or the “rest and digest” system. As a result, you can achieve a sense of calm and relaxation by practicing this pranayama technique. Additionally, Nadi Shodhana is thought to balance the right and left hemispheres of the brain and purify the body’s energy channels. This technique involves gently closing off one nostril, inhaling through the opposite nostril, then switching the closed nostril before exhaling.
Victorious Breath, or Ujjayi (ooh-JAH-yee): This prominent style of breathing in yoga generates heat in the body, so it often appears during an asana (posture) practice, but can also be a soothing and calming practice of its own. The sound of the breath when practicing Ujjayi should mimic ocean waves. This breath is performed only through the nose, and includes a smooth breath in followed by the exhale in which the muscles in the back of the throat are constricted to mimic the feeling of trying to fog up a mirror.
Lion’s Breath, or Simhasana (sim-HAHS-anna): This playful breath not only helps release stress and tension, but also stretches the chest, neck, and face. It is practiced by first inhaling through the nose, and then on the exhale, tilting the head back slightly, opening the mouth wide, sticking the tongue out, and making an audible and breathy “ha” sound from the throat. The gaze should rest on the third eye (between the eyebrows).
Bee Breath, or Bhramari (brah mah REE): The soothing humming vibrations of this breath are well-known for their ability to calm the body and mind as well as relieve anxiety and stress. Meant to mimic the buzzing of a bee, this breath is performed first by placing the thumbs gently on the cartilage between the cheek and ear and placing the remaining fingers gently over the eyes. After a deep inhale through the nose, a loud humming sound like a bee is made on the exhale while keeping gentle pressure on the cartilage.
The beauty of a pranayama practice is that not only will it enhance your yoga and meditation experience, but also your daily life.
As the sacred text Hatha Yoga Pradipika reminds us, “Prana and mind are intricately linked. Fluctuation of one means fluctuation of the other. When either the mind or prana becomes balanced the other is steadied.” By working with your breath to balance your prana, you can bring a sense of steadiness and serenity to even the busiest of days.
We suggest these articles;
 Pierre Philippot, Gaëtane Chapelle, and Sylvie Blairy, "Respiratory Feedback in the Generation of Emotion," Cognition & Emotion 16, no. 5 (2002), doi:10.1080/02699930143000392.
 Trinity College Dublin, "The Yogi masters were right -- meditation and breathing exercises can sharpen your mind: New research explains link between breath-focused meditation and attention and brain health," ScienceDaily.
 Mark Stephens, Teaching Yoga: Essential Foundations and Techniques (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2010), 51, https://books.google.com/books.
 Anant Narayan Sinha, Desh Deepak, and Vimal Singh Gusain, "Assessment of the Effects of Pranayama/alternate Nostril Breathing on the Parasympathetic Nervous System in Young Adults," Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research 7, no. 5 (2013), doi: 10.7860/JCDR/2013/4750.2948.
 Maheshkumar Kuppusamy et al., "Effects of Bhramari Pranayama on Health – A Systematic Review," Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine 8, no.1 (2017), doi: 10.1016/j.jtcme.2017.02.003.
 Swami Muktibodhananda and Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Hatha Yoga Pradipika = Light on Hatha Yoga: Including the Original Sanskrit Text of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika with Translation in English (Munger, Bihar, India: Yoga Publications Trust, 2012), 165, Document collection, Scribd. (154514685).
Freelance Writer, Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, PiYo Certified
Cindy is a health and wellness writer based in the SF Bay Area. She holds an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach certification from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and a PiYo certification through Beachbody LIVE. She is passionate about expanding her practice and knowledge of yoga, and is committed to sharing the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of yoga with others and walking with them on the path to health. When she’s not reading, writing, cooking, or watching the San Francisco Giants play, you can find her rolling out her mat to practice her favorite style of yoga: Yin.