What is Pranayama: A Yoga Beginner's Guide
By VINEET KAUL | Inputs from GEERT MEIJER and HANNAH SCHMIDT
Last Update: November 11, 2023
A comprehensive overview of pranayama and yoga breathing.
We’ll cover its meaning, types, components, and health benefits.
Learn about its role in spiritual growth and holistic well-being.
Also, check out our step-by-step guides to pranayama techniques.
Pranayama refers to ancient yoga breathing exercises designed to regulate the breath consciously, and by extension, the flow of energy (prana) within the body. It is a central component of yoga practice in both classical and contemporary traditions. However, pranayama has gained global recognition in recent decades thanks to a growing body of research supporting its benefits. Today, its applications extend beyond yoga into a wide range of stress-reduction, holistic wellness, and therapeutic realms.
Yes, we can simplify pranayama as “controlled and conscious breathing” for a broader audience, but this description barely scratches the surface of its depth. In this guide, we aim to offer an accessible yet authentic understanding, starting with its meaning and origins, delving into its components, and concluding with its many types and the benefits of establishing pranayama practice.
What is Pranayama in Yoga?
In simple words, pranayama refers to a collection of yogic breathing techniques designed to refine and regulate our natural breathing patterns. Practicing pranayama involves sitting in cross-legged or kneeling yoga poses, turning attention inward, and performing controlled breathing sequences.
Etymologically, the term “pranayama” combines the Sanskrit words ‘prana’ (life-force) with ‘yama’ (control), implying that it’s designed to “control the life-force” within us. However, some yoga scholars propose it stems from ‘prana’ and ‘ayama’ (expansion), indicating it “expands the life-force” within us. While both these interpretations hold merit, the first one is more widely accepted.
As a spiritual tradition, pranayama originated in the ancient Indian sub-continent and has roots in the oldest known scriptures of Hinduism, including the Vedas and Upanishads. While the ancient texts describe relatively simpler pranayama practices, these techniques have evolved significantly over thousands of years. Moreover, various yoga schools have developed newer breathwork techniques and variations, resulting in a diverse and dynamic pranayama tradition.
Pranayama is also mentioned in the millennia-old Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the foundational texts of yoga practice and philosophy. According to this text, there are eight limbs of yoga (Ashtanga), which can be viewed as the eight steps to self-realization. Pranayama is the fourth limb or step in this eightfold path, and to put it simply, this implies you should learn it after yoga poses and before meditation.
Each pranayama comprises a distinct set of steps and offers different benefits. For instance, one technique might extend the exhale to induce calm or prepare for meditation, while another may focus on deepening the inhale to improve oxygenation and prepare you for practicing yoga poses.
Traditional yoga texts recommend progressing from asana to pranayama and then meditation. As a result, yoga schools introduce pranayama after students have a solid physical foundation through mastering yoga poses. This sequential approach ensures that practitioners have the necessary physical stability, lung capacity, and inner awareness levels essential for yoga breathing techniques.
So, what is the purpose of pranayama breathing?
While each type of breathwork technique offers numerous benefits, it’s important to note that the core intent of pranayama is to control the flow of prana, the life-energy force, within the body. From a traditional yoga perspective, pranayama serves these fundamental purposes:
Purifying the subtle body by removing energetic blockages.
Harmonizing prana-flow within subtle energy channels (nadis) and chakras.
Facilitate movement of life-energy to higher centers of consciousness.
Increase self-awareness, control over the senses, and mindfulness.
Create an optimal state for inner exploration and self-realization.
Moreover, mastery of the breath is essential to prepare the mind for more profound aspects of yoga practice, such as turning inward (Pratyahara), concentration (Dharana), and meditation (Dhyana).
Recap: In yoga philosophy, “prana” is the root energy or underlying energy that governs every subtle and gross form of energy in the universe, including heat, light, and electromagnetism. More simply, you can think of it’s as a primordial “life-energy” force that animates all living things.
Essential Components of Pranayama Practice
1. Parts of the Breath Cycle
Before practicing pranayama, every yoga aspirant should learn about the different parts of the breath cycle, their Sanskrit names, and their significance in yoga philosophy. To put it briefly in a table, one complete breath cycle can be divided into the following four components:
The in-breath draws in and energizes our body with cosmic energy (prana).
Holding our breath after an inhale facilitates the penetration of prana deep within the body.
The out-breath helps rid the body of impurities to support purification and renewal.
Holding your breath after an exhale promotes quiescence, concentration, and mindfulness.
Most pranayama techniques are an interplay between these four parts, meaning you use different ratios and intensities of inhalation, retention, and exhalation to create distinct breathing patterns.
2. Sitting Postures (Yoga asanas)
Traditional pranayama practice is performed in specific yoga postures or asanas, as they provide a stable foundation and optimal body alignment for effective breath control.
The most commonly used pranayama postures are:
Cross-legged Poses: Asanas like Easy Pose (Sukhasana), Lotus Pose (Padmasana), or Adept Pose (Siddhasana) are commonly used by learners at all levels.
Kneeling Poses: Poses such as Hero Pose (Virasana) and Thunderbolt Pose (Vajrasana) are preferred if sitting cross-legged is not accessible.
Lying-down Poses: Some, not all, yoga breathwork techniques can be performed in prone or supine asanas such as Corpse Pose (Savasana) and Crocodile Pose (Makarasana).
The choice of posture largely depends on your comfort and physical ability. Beginners start in simpler postures and progress to more advanced options as their practice deepens.
For those who cannot sit on the floor due to physical limitations, pranayama practice can be adapted to a chair or meditation bench, and you can also use props like cushions or bolsters. However, keeping your body relaxed and spine straight is crucial, as it facilitates the smooth flow of the breath.
3. Methods and mechanisms
Pranayama techniques can be categorized based on the way your breath is directed, such as:
Breathing through both nostrils: Most pranayama techniques involve even and balanced inhalation and exhalation through both nostrils.
Single nostril breathing: Practices like Chandra Bhedana focus on repeatedly inhaling through one nostril to cleanse or balance its corresponding energy channel.
Alternate nostril breathing: Breath control techniques like Sukha Purvaka or Nadi Shodhana involve sequentially inhaling and exhaling through alternate nostrils.
Breathing through the mouth: Some types of pranayama, like Sheetali and Sitkari, entail inhaling through the mouth and exhaling through the nostrils.
4. Breathing sequences
Each pranayama follows a structured breathing sequence to achieve different benefits, such as cooling the body, boosting energy levels, or inducing the ideal mental state for meditation. These sequences vary in terms of steps, durations, and order, so learning a new technique involves the following:
Understand the purpose, breathing pattern, and intention.
Memorize the sequence of steps to ensure proper technique.
Build proficiency until you can perform it effortlessly.
Combine it with other yoga practices for additional benefits.
While yoga pranayama is adaptable and experiential, it should be approached cautiously, focusing on quality rather than quantity. Practitioners shouldn’t rush into advanced variations, energy locks, or adding mantra chanting until they have mastered the basic sequence of a technique.
5. Mudras (Yoga Hand Gestures)
“Mudras” refers to yoga hand gestures – specific formation of the fingers believed to induce various energetic, meditative, and therapeutic effects. These gestures are a complementary (not mandatory) component of breath control, meditation, and other spiritual practices.
Here are the most common mudras used while practicing pranayama:
Vishnu Mudra – This yoga hand gesture is used in single or alternate nostril breathing to close one or both nostrils and manipulate airflow during your practice.
Shanmukhi Mudra: This mudra, as depicted in the image above, is used during Bhramari (Bee Breath) to close the sensory openings of the face and promote inner focus.
Chin Mudra: This is the most commonly used hand gesture for yoga breathwork and meditation, as it is believed to connect us to higher levels of consciousness.
Of course, there are many other hand gestures like Adi Mudra, Brahma Mudra, and Prithvi Mudra, each offering unique benefits and enhancements to yoga breathing. However, their use is often optional and their selection should align with the specific goals of your pranayama practice.
6. Bandhas (Energy Locks)
Once a yoga aspirant masters the major breathing techniques, they can incorporate bandhas or “energy locks” during the breath retention phase while practicing pranayama. Briefly put, bandhas involve the deliberate contraction of specific muscles to redirect the flow of prana in the body.
Here are the four main bandhas used in yoga practice:
Jalandhara Bandha (Throat Lock): Lower the chin to the chest during internal retention.
Uddiyana Bandha (Core Lock): Tuck-and-lift abdominal muscles during external retention.
Mula Bandha (Root Lock): Contracting and lifting the perineum muscles (pelvic floor).
Maha Bandha (Great Lock): Combining the other three bandhas.
It's crucial to note that energy locks are advanced practices that demand skilled instruction. They should be attempted under the guidance of a yoga instructor to ensure a safe and effective technique.
Types of Pranayama Exercises
Here’s a comprehensive list of the different types of pranayama practices used in yoga:
Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
Surya Bhedana (Right Nostril Breathing)
Agnisara (Abdominal Cleansing)
Chandra Bhedana (Left Nostril Breathing)
Anuloma (Prolonged Exhalation)
Viloma (Interrupted Breathing)
Pratiloma (Prolonged Inhalation)
Ujjayi (Ocean Breath)
Dirgha Pranayama (Three-part Breath)
Sitkari Pranayama (Hissing Breath)
Sheetali Pranayama (Cooling Breath)
Sukha Purvaka (Comfortable Breath)
Anulom-Vilom (Alternate Nostril)
Bhramari (Bee Breathing)
Pranava Pranayama (Om Chanting)
Bhastrika (Bellows Breath)
Kapalbhati (Skull Shining Breath)
Simha Pranayama (Lion’s Breath)
Beej Pranayama (Seed Pranayama)
Plavini (Floating Breath)
Muruccha (Swooning Breath)
Sama Vritti (Box Breathing)
Hatha Yoga, one of the most popular styles of yoga worldwide, uses eight pranayama techniques known as eight types of kumbhaka or “classical pranayama.” This list of eight types is derived from ancient texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Gheranda Samhita, and Shiva Samhita.
Editor’s Note: Theoretically, Kapalbhati (Skull Shining Breath) is a purification technique (shatkarma), but we have included it because many modern schools refer to it as a yoga pranayama.
Three Categories of Pranayama Techniques
Furthermore, yoga pranayama techniques can divided into three categories:
Energizing: Techniques like Bhastrika or Surya Bhedana activate the sympathetic functions (fight or flight mode), increasing energy and alertness.
Soothing: Practices such as Chandra Bhedana and Bhramari activate the parasympathetic functions (rest and digest mode), inducing relaxation and calmness.
Balancing: Techniques like Nadi Shodhana harmonize both aspects of the autonomic nervous system, promoting equilibrium and a state of “relaxed alertness.”
Benefits of Pranayama
While yogis practice pranayama for their spiritual and energetic benefits, scientific research has shown that it has many benefits for the mind and body. Here is a concise summary of the potential advantages of practicing yoga breathing techniques:
Respiratory benefits: Practicing pranayama can help improve lung capacity, strengthen the muscles involved in breathing, tone and cleanse the respiratory tract, making your breathing more efficient, and assist in managing certain respiratory conditions.
Cardiovascular benefits: Certain pranayama techniques can reduce inflammation, optimize blood flow, and enhance oxygenation. Studies show that pranayama practice can help lower blood pressure, regulate heart rate variability (HRV), and improve resilience to stress, all of which are associated with better cardiovascular health.
Nervous system benefits: Pranayama influences the autonomic nervous system, helping the body transition between sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) states. Its benefits include toning the nervous system, managing symptoms of certain neurological disorders, and enhancing overall nervous system health.
Digestive health: Certain yoga pranayama practices are believed to increase appetite, enhance nutrient absorption, detoxify the digestive tract, promote regular bowel movement, and alleviate the symptoms of various digestive issues.
Cognitive benefits: Research indicates that pranayama techniques can improve cognitive functions, including memory retention, problem-solving, and spatial memory. Moreover, long-term pranayama practice can potentially reduce the risk of cognitive decline.
Emotional regulation: The benefits of pranayama include uplifting mood, increasing feelings of positivity, reducing the intensity of emotional reactions, and releasing emotional blockages, all of which contribute to better emotional balance.
Mindfulness: As yoga pranayama involves directing attention to the breath, it encourages a mind-body connection and cultivates mindfulness.
Stress and Anxiety: Studies have observed that practicing pranayama can counteract the body’s stress response, lower anxiety levels, and encourage self-reflection. Regular practice can help break away from negative thought patterns that characterize mental health struggles.
Related: Mapping Pranayama's Spiritual Benefits and Significance in Yoga
Before You Go
Feel free to explore our pranayama archives, which contain step-by-step instructions for nearly all breathing techniques taught in modern yoga. If you're looking for additional learning resources, check out our pick of the best books on pranayama and books on non-yoga-based breathing techniques.
Related Pranayama Guides
Start with our beginner's guide to Prana, the Life-Energy Force in Yoga.
Learn about the different types of pranayama and their benefits.
Here's why early morning is the best time to practice pranayama.
Start practicing pranayama with our guide to Viloma breathing.