Pranayama: A Guide to Yogic Breathing & Its Benefits

Practice
December 19, 2021

While breathwork might seem to be a growing modern trend, it has actually been practiced for thousands of years. The origins of breathwork as we know it can be traced back to Pranayama. Many practice it alongside yoga, and many others practice it on its own. Either way, it continues to be practiced around the world by people looking to improve their overall wellness.

What is Pranayama breathing, though? If you’re asking this question, we’ll provide you with all the answers by covering the following:

  • An overview of Pranayama breathing
  • Science of Pranayama
  • 10 popular Pranayama exercises and their benefits
  • Try it now: 7-minute Pranayama breathwork video
  • 22 resources to learn more about Pranayama techniques & practices

Before we start explaining how to start Pranayama for beginners, we have to first define Pranayama yoga.

If you’re not sure if Pranayama is for you and want to explore a more modern breathwork technique instead, check out our ultimate guide to Holotropic Breathwork.

An overview of Pranayama breathing

A woman lying on a yoga mat with her hands on her chest and stomach

What is Pranayama? If you’ve been asking this question, this section will cover Pranayama’s definition. We’ll also answer the question “why is Pranayama important?” by covering the health benefits of Pranayama.

What is Pranayama?

Pranayama is an ancient form of breathwork that is often practiced in yoga. The word "prana" is Sanskrit for "life force", while "yama" means “to gain control”. Pranayama breathing consists of a variety of different techniques, many of which continue to be popular today due to offering many different physical and mental benefits.

Types of Pranayama

So how many types of Pranayama are there in yoga? Some have tried to narrow down these breathwork techniques into the 5 types of Pranayama or the 8 types of Pranayama. The reality is that Pranayama consists of many different exercises that can be categorized in several different ways. We’ll settle on 12 types of Pranayama to cover the most common techniques:

1. Dirga Pranayama 7. Anulom Vilom Pranayama
2. Brahmari Pranayama 8. Simhasana Pranayama
3. Ujjayi Pranayama 9. Sitali Pranayama
4. Bhastrika Pranayama 10. Sitkari Pranayama
5. Kapalabhati Pranayama 11. Surya/Chandra Bhedana Pranayama
6. Nadi Shodhana Pranayama 12. Viloma Pranayama

What is the best time to do Pranayama?

The best time to do Pranayama depends on what techniques you're doing and what benefits you want. Most Pranayama breathing exercises are best practiced in the early morning on an empty stomach. However, there are others that are best practiced during the day or evening for the purposes of relaxation, focus, and so on.

Top 10 health benefits of Pranayama

Over the years, scientists and medical researchers have discovered many different Pranayama breathing benefits. These are some of the top Pranayama benefits that regular practice can help you achieve:

  1. Relieves stress and anxiety: Practicing Pranayama for anxiety can help calm your body’s stress response, allowing your body to return to a relaxed state of functioning.
  1. Improves sleep: Those who have difficulty sleeping can practice Pranayama for sleep disorders, which will help them to feel relaxed and fall into a deep sleep.
  1. Lowers blood pressure: One of the top Pranayama benefits for heart health is its ability to help lower blood pressure. This is especially useful if your blood pressure often spikes when you’re under stress.
  1. Strengthens lungs: Try Pranayama for asthma, or targeting the abdominal muscles, to improve breathing and strengthen your respiratory muscles.
  1. Improves cognitive function: Some techniques are designed to help sharpen the mind’s focus, while others can help calm anxious thoughts and improve awareness in the moment.
  1. Helps manage addiction: Practicing Pranayama regularly can create a sense of calm that helps manage addictions. It can also help you achieve a better sense of awareness of, and control over, your cravings.
  1. Improves digestion: Pranayama helps to increase blood flow throughout the body, which improves the digestive system’s ability to function regularly.
  1. Boosts immunity: Having a regular Pranayama practice will help you improve your breathing, allowing your body to better filter the air you breathe in.
  1. Promotes relaxation: Slow, deep Pranayama breathing exercises promote calm feelings throughout your body and mind, helping you be mindful in the moment.
  2. Helps manage symptoms of PTSD: Using Pranayama helps to relax the body and mind, which in turn helps to relieve PTSD symptoms. It is especially effective when experiencing trauma triggers or highly stressful situations.

Science of Pranayama: 3 research-backed studies you should check out 

A woman holding a chime over another who is practicing breathwork

Skeptics of holistic wellness might still be asking “why do Pranayama?” The science of Pranayama shows that regularly practicing these types of exercises has a variety of different benefits, especially for cardiovascular health and the autonomic nervous system. Many studies have been done over the years to prove the effectiveness of these techniques. Check out these research studies to learn more about Pranayama.


1. Health Impacts of Yoga and Pranayama: A State-of-the-Art Review

Author: Pallav Sengupta
Journal:
International Journal of Preventive Medicine
Published Date:
July 2012

This research study explores a variety of course materials to fully document the benefits of Pranayama yoga practice for physical and mental health. It documents the science backing claims that Pranayama helps soothe stress and anxiety. It even explores how Pranayama can help with a variety of other physical conditions. These include diabetes, cancer, and maladies associated with pregnancy.

2. Effects of Yoga Respiratory Practice (Bhastrika Pranayama) on Anxiety, Affect, and Brain Functional Connectivity

Authors: Morgana M. Novaes, Fernanda Palhano-Fontes, Heloisa Onias, Katia C. Andrade, Bruno Lobão-Soares, Tiago Arruda-Sanchez, Elisa H. Kozasa, Danilo F. Santaella, and Draulio Barros de Araujo
Journal: Frontiers in Psychiatry
Published Date:
May 21st, 2020

This clinical trial explored the neurological effects of Pranayama, and provided evidence of its ability to relieve anxiety and negative thoughts. It was also able to document connections between breathwork activities and various areas of the brain.

3. Effects of yogic breath regulation: A narrative review of scientific evidence

Authors: Apar Avinash Saoji, B.R. Raghavendra, and N.K. Manjunath
Journal:
Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine
Published Date:
January-March 2019

This review article explored scientific literature to document the positive physiological effects of regular Pranayama breathwork practice. It determined that Pranayama could produce benefits in respiratory health, brain activity, and psychophysiology.


10 popular Pranayama exercises and their benefits

When it comes to practicing Pranayama, there are several different Pranayama techniques to choose from. And each technique has its own set of benefits. If you’re wondering how to do Pranayama, follow the steps below to start practicing some of the top Pranayama breathing exercises.

1. Bhramari (Humming Bee Breath)

A man breathing while another person uses a sound bowl

Bhramari Pranayama, also called Humming Bee Breath, is a breathwork technique that also makes use of humming. It is used predominantly for relaxation, often to relieve stress throughout the day or help fall asleep at night. It’s also a great way to improve mood and soothe physical ailments.

How to do it:

  1. Sit up straight, or lie down, with your eyes closed.
  2. Place your index fingers inside your ears.
  3. Take a deep breath in through your nose.
  4. As you exhale, press down on your ears and begin to hum. You can choose to hold your fingers inside your ears for the entirety of your exhale, or continuously take them out and put them back in.
  5. Take another deep breath in.
  6. Repeat these steps as many times as desired.

Top benefits:

  • Relieves stress and anxiety
  • Relieves headaches and migraines
  • Improves focus and memory
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Improves sleep

Best time to practice: Any time of day.

2. Ujjayi (Victorious Breath)

Ujjayi Pranayama, also known as Victorious Breath, is usually practiced as a Pranayama meditation for mindfulness. Many use it as a way to calm their thoughts and anxiety. Those interested in the benefits of 3-stage Pranayama will want to practice this exercise regularly.

How to do it:

  1. Sit up in a comfortable position, with your shoulders relaxed.
  2. Close your mouth and attempt to constrict the muscles in your throat.
  3. Inhale, allowing air to pass through your constricted throat. This might cause a friction sound.
  4. Continue your inhale until your chest feels full.
  5. Hold your breath for a count of 6.
  6. Exhale as naturally as possible, keeping your facial muscles and nose relaxed.
  7. Relax and spend a few moments breathing as you naturally would.
  8. Repeat these steps as many times as desired, up to 5 times per day.

Top benefits:

  • Relieves anxiety
  • Improves focus
  • Relieves tension
  • Regulates body temperature

Best time to practice: Any time of day.

3. Bhastrika (Bellows Breath)

Bhastrika Pranayama, also known as Bellows Breath, is a technique used to increase energy and cleanse the mind. It’s great for those who are prone to feeling sluggish, or who want to use Pranayama breathing for weight loss. 

Though it is sometimes confused with Kapalabhati, Bhastrika puts more emphasis on the lungs. It also makes equal use of forceful inhales and exhales.

How to do it:

  1. Sit up tall in a comfortable position.
  2. Rest your left hand on your knee and your right hand on your belly.
  3. Inhale and exhale through your nose until you’re ready to begin.
  4. Forcibly and fully inhale through your nose.
  5. Now forcibly exhale through your nose, using the diaphragm to help complete the exhale.
  6. Continue to rapidly inhale and exhale for a total of 10 rounds.
  7. Follow these rounds with a deep inhale.
  8. Hold your breath for as long as comfortable.
  9. Slowly and deeply exhale.
  10. Take a few moments to breathe as you normally would.
  11. Repeat these final steps for a total of 3 rounds.

Top benefits:

  • Improves breathing
  • Oxygenates blood
  • Promotes relaxation
  • Increases energy
  • Improves digestion

Best time to practice: First thing in the morning on an empty stomach.

4. Kapalabhati (Skull Shining Breath or Breath of Fire)

Two people practicing breathwork outdoors

Kapalabhati Pranayama, sometimes referred to as Skull Shining Breath or Breath of Fire Pranayama, is another forceful breathing technique. This exercise is typically used to cleanse the body and promote relaxation. 

While similar to Bhastrika, Kapalabhati puts more emphasis on the abdominal muscles. It also only uses forceful exhales; the inhales are done normally.

How to do it:

  1. Sit up in a cross-legged position.
  2. Breathe in through your nose.
  3. Immediately following your inhale, exhale using the abdominal muscles to force the air out in a short burst.
  4. Inhale while relaxing your stomach.
  5. Do this up to 20 times.
  6. Once you’ve completed the round, close your eyes and reflect on the sensations you’re feeling.
  7. Repeat these steps up to 2 times or as many times as desired.

Top benefits:

  • Improves lung function
  • Improves digestion
  • Warms the body
  • Improves focus and memory
  • Strengthens the abdominal muscles

Best time to practice: Early in the morning on an empty stomach.

5. Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing v.1)

Nadi Shodhana Pranayama, also known as alternate nostril breathing, is a breathwork technique that makes use of cyclical nasal breathing. It’s typically used to help cleanse the body of any spiritual blockages, especially those related to stress and toxins. 

Nadi Shodhana is extremely similar to another technique, Anulom Vilom. The main difference is that this exercise asks you to hold your breath for a few seconds after every inhale.

How to do it:

  1. Sit up straight in a comfortable position.
  2. Place your right thumb on your right nostril.
  3. Keeping your right nostril closed, slowly inhale through your left nostril.
  4. Hold your breath for a few seconds.
  5. Place your right ring finger on your left nostril while lifting your thumb off of your right nostril.
  6. Slowly exhale through your right nostril.
  7. Now slowly inhale through your right nostril.
  8. Hold your breath for a few seconds.
  9. Place your thumb back onto your right nostril while lifting your ring finger off your left nostril.
  10. Slowly exhale through your left nostril.
  11. Repeat this cycle as many times as desired.

Top benefits:

  • Relieves stress and anxiety
  • Improves lung function
  • Lowers heart rate
  • Calms the mind and body

Best time to practice: Early in the morning on an empty stomach.

6. Anulom Vilom (alternate nostril breathing v.2)

Anulom Vilom Pranayama is a variation of alternate nostril breathing. This exercise is typically done to improve the respiratory system, but carries many other benefits as well. It’s performed nearly identically to Nadi Shodhana, but does not require holding the breath after every inhale.

How to do it:

  1. Sit up straight in a comfortable position.
  2. Place your right thumb on your right nostril.
  3. Keeping your right nostril closed, slowly inhale through your left nostril.
  4. Place your right ring finger on your left nostril while lifting your thumb off of your right nostril.
  5. Slowly exhale through your right nostril.
  6. Now slowly inhale through your right nostril.
  7. Place your thumb back onto your right nostril while lifting your ring finger off your left nostril.
  8. Slowly exhale through your left nostril.
  9. Repeat this cycle as many times as desired.

Top benefits:

  • Improves lung function
  • Relieves anxiety
  • Improves cognition
  • Lowers blood pressure and heart rate

Best time to practice: Early in the morning on an empty stomach.

7. Simhasana (Lion’s Breath)

A woman lying on a yoga mat with her tongue stuck out

Simhasana Pranayama, also known as Lion’s Breath, is a breathwork technique that can be performed on its own or as part of the Lion’s Pose yoga exercise. It’s one of the best techniques for improving breathing, and can also assist in relieving stress and improving mental health. Those wanting to improve their exercise capacity will also benefit from this exercise.

How to do it:

  1. Sit down in a comfortable position.
  2. Lean forward slightly, with your hands placed on your knees or the floor. 
  3. Spread your fingers as wide as possible.
  4. Inhale through your nose.
  5. Open your mouth wide and stick out your tongue downward towards your chin.
  6. Exhale forcefully through your mouth, making a “ha” sound as the breath travels across your tongue.
  7. Breathe as you normally would for a few minutes.
  8. Repeat these steps up to 7 times.
  9. Follow with a few minutes of slow, deep breathing.

Top benefits:

  • Promotes relaxation
  • Improves the respiratory system
  • Improves mood
  • Increases energy
  • Relaxes the face and throat

Best time to practice: Morning, or any time throughout the day.

8. Sitali (Cooling Breath)

Sitali Pranayama, also called Cooling Breath, is a breathwork technique used for cooling the body. It’s also great at promoting relaxation and improving respiratory health. This is one of the easier exercises to practice, and can be practiced for longer periods of time as you become more comfortable with it.

How to do it:

  1. Sit up in a comfortable position.
  2. Breathe as you normally would for a few minutes.
  3. Stick out your tongue and curl it to create a tunnel.
  4. Inhale through the tunnel, paying attention to the sensation of cool air entering your mouth, throat, and torso.
  5. Relax your tongue and exhale through your nose.
  6. Repeat these steps as many times as desired.

Top benefits:

  • Relieves stress and anxiety
  • Improves focus
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Cools the body
  • Promotes relaxation

Best time to practice: Whenever you wish to cool down.

9. Sitkari (Hissing Breath)

Sitkari Pranayama, also known as Hissing Breath, is another breathwork technique that can be used to cool down the body and help make the summer months more tolerable. It’s a great exercise for beginners, especially those who struggle to curl their tongue in order to practice Sitali. 

How to do it:

  1. Sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed.
  2. Press your lower and upper teeth together while separating your lips to expose your teeth.
  3. Slowly inhale through your teeth, creating a hissing sound.
  4. Close your mouth and slowly exhale through your nose.
  5. Repeat these steps up to 20 times.

Top benefits:

  • Improves focus
  • Helps regulate body temperature
  • Improves mood
  • Relieves anxiety
  • Promotes relaxation

Best time to practice: Whenever you wish to cool down.

10. Surya Bhedana (Sun-Piercing Breath or right nostril breathing)

A woman practicing right nostril breathing outdoors

Surya Bhedana Pranayama, which translates to Sun-Piercing Breath, is a cyclical nasal breathing exercise that focuses on the right nostril. This exercise is used to help warm the body, while the inverted version (Chandra Bhedana, or Moon-Piercing Breath) can be practiced to help cool the body. This is also a great exercise for improving mood and releasing negativity.

How to do it:

  1. Sit up in a comfortable position.
  2. Use your right ring finger to close your left nostril.
  3. Inhale through your right nostril.
  4. Use your right thumb to close your right nostril while lifting your ring finger off your left nostril.
  5. Exhale through your left nostril.
  6. Repeat this cycle as many times as desired.

Top benefits:

  • Relieves anxiety
  • Improves digestion
  • Increases energy
  • Relieves symptoms of depression
  • Warms the body

Best time to practice: Whenever you wish to feel warmer.

Try it now: 7-minute Pranayama breathwork video 

There are many great Pranayama techniques for beginners, but learning anything new can be overwhelming. If you want to quickly follow along with an easy Pranayama techniques video, watch our 7-minute guided video on the alternate nostril breathing technique:

For more guided breathwork sessions like this, check out the Othership app and sign up for a 7-day free trial.

22 resources to learn more about Pranayama techniques & practices

If you’d like to learn more about Pranayama, there are plenty of great resources available. Check out the lists below for some of the best books on Pranayama, Pranayama breathing videos, and Pranayama courses.

Best books on Pranayama (8)

  1. Light on Pranayama: The Definitive Guide to the Art of Breathing - B.K.S. Iyengar’s guide to Pranayama techniques for all experience levels.
  2. The Yoga of Breath: A Step-by-Step Guide to Pranayama - A guide to the fundamentals of Pranayama by Richard Rosen, including exercise instructions.
  3. Prana and Pranayama - A philosophical text on prana and Pranayama by Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati.
  4. The Science of Pranayama - A scientific look at the benefits of Pranayama by Sri Swami Sivananda.
  5. Pranayama Rahasya (With Scientific Factual Evidence) - Swami Ramdev’s philosophical look at the practice of Pranayama and its scientific benefits.
  6. Mind Your Breathing: The Yogi’s Handbook with 37 Pranayama Exercises - A handbook on the use of Pranayama for healing by Sundar Balasubramanian, Ph.D.
  7. The Hindu-Yogi Science of Breath - A scientific overview of yogic breathing by William Walker Atkinson.
  8. Pranayama: The Breath of Yoga - Gregor Maehle’s exploration of the ancient use of Pranayama and why this style of breathwork is still important to practice today.

Best Pranayama videos (4)

  1. What is Pranayama? Different Types of Pranayama & Its Health Benefits - A 14-minute introduction to Pranayama from Vinyasa Yoga Ashram.
  2. 15 Minutes Pranayama | Do It Yourself | SRMD Yoga - A 15-minute guided Pranayama session with Shrimad Rajchandra Mission Dharampur.
  3. Complete Breathwork/Pranayama Session with Michaël Bijker - A 38-minute guided Pranayama session with Yogalap’s Michaël Bijker.
  4. Pranayama: Extend Your Life by Extending Your Breath | Jim Kambeitz | TEDxBismarck - An 18-minute TED Talk from Jim Kambeitz about how Pranayama breathwork helped greatly improve his life.

Pranayama courses: online & in-person (10)

  1. Breathwork / Pranayama - from Beginner to Practitioner - An online course through Udemy that introduces some of the top Pranayama breathwork exercises.
  2. Conscious Breathing: Yogic Pranayama Breathing - Another course on the Udemy platform that teaches Pranayama for boosting immunity and improving overall health.
  3. Pranayama Breathwork and Dynamic Meditations - A Udemy course that teaches Pranayama for increasing lung capacity and improving overall wellness.
  4. Loka Yoga Breathwork Teacher Training - Online certification that uses video training to help you teach Pranayama breathwork professionally.
  5. Online Breath Coach Training - A 25-hour online certification to become a professional breathwork course instructor.
  6. Teaching Pranayama: The Basics - A 9-hour online course from Yoga International on how to teach Pranayama.
  7. Inspired Me Breathwork Facilitator Training - Inspired Me’s self-paced online breathwork facilitator certification.
  8. The Awakened Healer - A 100-hour online course for becoming a breathwork facilitator.
  9. Yogalap’s Certified Breathwork Instructor Program - An online breathwork teacher certification program, as offered by Yogalap.
  10. David Elliott’s Healer Training - Level 1-4 - Online and in-person healer training taught by David Elliott.

If you feel ready to start a Pranayama practice, or any other kind of breathwork routine, explore our class styles offered on the Othership app.