If you’ve been to a yoga class or read about yoga, you’ve likely heard the word pranayama before. At the very least, you’ve been told to focus on your breath, or to move with your breath. Well, that is what pranayama is all about: the breath.
Pranayama is commonly known as the practice of controlling the breath. However, if we delve a little deeper, we see that it’s really the practice of controlling energy through use of the breath.
Ok, we’re about to get a little “woo woo” so bear with me. In Sanskrit, prana means ‘vital energy’ or ‘life force’; it is the energy that rides on the breath, and it is responsible for all life experiences, physical and spiritual. It is sometimes referred to as the breath itself, but this is not exactly the case. The two are closely tied, but they are not one and the same.
The latter end of the word can be broken down and translated a couple of different ways: as yama or ayama. Yama means ‘control’ or ‘restraint’, which would make pranayama ‘control of vital energy or life force.’ Ayama, on the other hand, translates as ‘to extend or expand’, which makes pranayama ‘expansion of vital energy or life force.’ It’s a subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless. Either way, we’re talking about manipulating prana, our life force.
The breath is a physical aspect or external manifestation of prana; therefore, pranayama begins with the regulation of the breath. By controlling the breath, we can control the prana. It’s what we do with our breath that either increases or decreases prana.
Pranayama is one of the eight limbs of yoga, as outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. It is one of the steps on the yoga journey, and it is just as, if not more important than asana (the practice of postures). Pranayama can be practiced on its own or together with asanas.
Related: What Are the 8 Limbs of Yoga?
Anatomy of the breath
Without getting too into the weeds on the anatomy and physiology of respiration, I do want to touch on what exactly happens in the body when we breathe. When was the last time you paused to think about it?
When we breathe in, air flows into our windpipe (the trachea) and divides into tree-like right and left bronchi (airway passages that conduct air into the lungs). From the bronchi, air makes its way into the lungs, and into smaller branching bronchioles. These airways end in alveoli, which are the main site of oxygen and carbon dioxide gas exchange.
The lungs are dense, sponge-like organs that extend from just above the collarbone to the lower ribs. Take a moment to appreciate how large that is, and to ask yourself if you’ve been using your full lung capacity while breathing. Fun fact: our right lung is larger than our left due to the heart’s close proximity to the left lung.
The driving force behind the breath is the diaphragm, and this is one of the most important muscles in the body (it’s super important for core stability too, but that’s a topic for another day). The diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle that kind of looks like the top of a jellyfish. It attaches to the sternum (chest bone) at the front, and spine at the back, wrapping around the inside of the lower ribs. The base of the lungs rests on the convex surface of the diaphragm.
When we breathe in, the diaphragm contracts and moves down into the abdominal cavity. This movement, in conjunction with other breathing muscles, lowers the pressure in the thoracic cavity (the chest cavity), allowing air to enter the lungs (the lungs are not capable of inflating on their own).
When breathing out, the diaphragm relaxes and moves back up into the thoracic cavity, allowing air to leave (other breathing muscles are involved, but this is the bigger picture).
What does the diaphragm have to do with prana?
When we learn to use the diaphragm properly, we increase the efficiency of the lungs; meaning, we use the lungs to their full capacity. The lungs are large organs, so using them to their full capacity means a slower, more regulated and expansive breath.
As we discussed earlier, the breath is a physical aspect or external manifestation of prana, so the more expansive the breath, the more expansive the prana.
Further, a slower breath engages the parasympathetic nervous system, or the rest and digest response; as opposed to the fight or flight response, which is the engagement of the sympathetic nervous system. Engagement of the parasympathetic nervous system creates relaxation and allows for quieting of the mind.
I’ve always said that where the breath goes, the mind will follow. If you begin to practice focused pranayama, you’ll see that this is true. The mental chatter that’s present when you first sit down greatly diminishes as you regulate your breath.
Convinced? Let’s do this thing
So how do you practice pranayama? There are a number of techniques you can try. I’ll outline a few simple ones here to get you started.
Pranayama has three components: the inhale, the exhale, and retention. We’ll start with simple inhale and exhale; as you get more comfortable, you can add breath retention, pausing for a moment between the inhales and the exhales.
Observe the breath
Begin by simply observing the breath. Either in a comfortable seat with a tall, long spine, or lying on your back, close the eyes and just notice your breath.
You might notice that your breath is uneven; that either your inhale or your exhale is much longer than the other; that sometimes it’s quick and sometimes it’s slow; sometimes smooth, sometimes ragged. You might notice that it’s shallow, that only your abdomen or chest are expanding, or maybe both are expanding.
Notice where in the body you feel the breath. It might be in the nostrils as cool air enters and warm air leaves. It might be along the back of the throat, or in the expansion and contraction of the chest and abdomen.
As much as you can, notice these qualities of your breath without trying to manipulate it, and without judgments. There is no right or wrong here. You’re simply noticing.
I suggest starting any pranayama practice with this simple observation of the breath. Know where it’s at before you start working with it.
Sama Vritti Pranayama: Even, regulated breath
Sama means ‘same, equal, balanced’; Vritti means ‘fluctuation’; Sama vritti translates as ‘even, regulated breathing.’
After observing your breath for several minutes, begin to smooth it out and make it more regular.
- Without rushing, gradually guide the breath into a smooth and even rhythm, making each part of the inhale the same as every other part of the inhale (so the beginning of the breath isn’t faster or stronger than the latter part of the breath); do the same with the exhale – even it out.
- When you’ve found an evenness within each inhale and each exhale, begin to match the length of the inhales and exhales. So if you inhale for four counts, exhale for four counts. Any count is fine, as long as there is no strain on the breath and you are able to match inhales and exhales.
- Continue like this for as long as you can maintain it.
Ujjayi Pranayama: Victorious Breath
Ujjayi means ‘one who is victorious’, so ujjayi breath is the ‘victorious breath.’ Prepare to feel victorious 😉
You may have heard the word ujjayi before, particularly if you’ve been to a vinyasa yoga class. It’s unique in that it is really the only pranayama that is practiced with postures, not just on its own.
Ujjayi is practiced by creating a slight constriction at the back of your throat, giving your breath a voice – a Darth Vader-esque, ocean-sounding voice.
- Pretend you’re fogging up a mirror – take a hand and place it in front of your mouth; pretend it’s a mirror. Take an inhale and exhale a “ha” through the mouth like you’re going to fog up that mirror in front of you.
– Notice the sensation at the back of your throat when you do this. That’s the constriction you’re looking for.
- Now close the lips and exhale in the same fashion, keeping that constriction at the back of your throat.
- Keep the lips sealed and the constriction active on the inhale as well.
You should feel the breath passing along the back of your throat, on both the inhale and the exhale. You should also be able to hear the breath. Listen to the tone of your breath as you breathe, and make that tone as even and smooth as possible, without any raggedness or changes in intensity.
In the Ashtanga, Vinyasa, and Jivamukti styles, ujjayi pranayama is practiced with asanas. You should feel comfortable practicing ujjayi in a seated position before combining it with movement.
Sama Vritti Ujjayi Pranayama: Even, regulated victorious breath
When you have practiced both sama vritti and ujjayi pranayama for some time, you can combine them. You should be able to sustain both individually with steadiness and ease for at least five minutes.
You will start with sama vritti, finding an evenness in your breath, and then add the ujjayi, so that the audible inhales and exhales are even and smooth. Practice this in a comfortable seated position, or lying down, until you can sustain it for at least five minutes with steadiness and ease. Then you can explore adding this to movement!
Anuloma Viloma Pranayama: Alternate Nostril Breathing
Anuloma means ‘in a natural order’ and viloma means ‘produced in reverse order.’ Anuloma viloma is ‘alternate nostril breathing’ and its a great practice for finding balance.
The right side of the brain controls the left side of the body, and vice versa (seems kinda’ backward, I know). We are typically dominant on one side or the other; the right brain (creative, artistic) or left brain (intellectual, mathematical). Anuloma Viloma attempts to stimulate the right and left sides so they are balanced.
Its purpose is to stimulate the energy channels (nadis) that run throughout the body like electrical wires – balancing the prana, if you will. It is best practiced before seated meditation or asana practice.
Anuloma Viloma is practiced by alternating the nostrils we inhale and exhale through. You will need to use a mudra (hand gesture) with your right hand to cover and release your nostrils. You have a couple of options:
- Vishnu mudra: Curl the index and middle finger into the palm, and leaving the thumb, ring, and pinkie fingers free (it will feel a little awkward, just go with it). You’ll use your thumb to cover your right nostril and your ring finger to cover your left nostril.
- Nasarga mudra: Place your index and middle fingers between the eyebrows and use your thumb to cover your right nostril and your ring finger to cover your left nostril.
Anuloma Viloma is classically performed with breath retention in a breathing sequence of 1:4:2 (inhale 2 counts, hold 8 counts, exhale 4 counts). If you are just starting with this practice, I recommend starting with just the inhale and the exhale, and adding retention later when you are more comfortable.
- Come into any comfortable seated position, with your spine tall and long, and shoulders relaxed.
- Bring your right hand into the mudra of your choice.
- Take three deep, even breaths in and out to get ready.
- On your 3rd exhale, bring your hand up to your face and cover the right nostril with your thumb. Breathe in through the left nostril only.
- When you reach the top of your inhale, cover your left nostril with your ring finger, and release your right nostril. Exhale through the right nostril.
- Keeping your hand in the same position, inhale through the right nostril. At the top of the inhale, switch sides and cover your right nostril to exhale through the left. This is one round.
Aim to do 8 rounds, counting with your left fingers, or by using mala beads in the left hand.
There are many pranayama exercises and techniques that can be added to your practice. The ones outlined above will give you a solid start to connecting with your breath, and through doing so, to controlling and expanding the life force within you.
Pranayama is also an excellent stress relief tool; you can read more about yoga for stress relief here.
Do you have a favorite pranayama exercise? Please share them in the comments
And as always, if you have any questions, comments, concerns, please drop them in the comments below or shoot me an email 🙂