Introduction to Pranayama Yoga Breathing Exercises

Group of young sporty people making Alternate Nostril Breathing
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Yoga breathing exercises, also known as pranayama, are an important part of a developing yoga practice. Pranayama is one of the Eight Limbs of Yoga referenced by The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which means that it was considered an integral step on the path to enlightenment.

In addition to supporting and deepening your yoga asana practice, learning ways to calm or invigorate the body through breathing will greatly benefit all aspects of your life. Paying attention to the breath is also a meditation technique that can be used on or off the mat, as it has the effect of keeping us constantly in the present moment. The past and the future melt away when the mind becomes fully focused on breathing.

What Is Prana?

Prana means energy, breath, or life force. Learning to direct and control prana in the body has long been considered a crucial aspect of yoga. As an essential bodily function, breathing is an involuntary act.

Although we cannot control whether or not we breathe, we can, to some extent, control the way that we breathe. Exercises in breath control, such as breath retention and deliberate methods inhalation and exhalation for specific mental and physical benefits are at the core of pranayama practice.

Your Autonomic Nervous System

Breathing is part of the autonomic nervous system, which is comprised of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. In general, the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for governing our responses to stimuli, deciding whether they are threatening, and tripping the signals that tell the body how to react. This is sometimes described as fight or flight responses.

The parasympathetic nervous system helps the body calm back down after the danger or stressor has passed. One of the things that the sympathetic nervous system effects is breath.

In the presence of real danger, the breath becomes fast and short as your body tries to load itself with oxygen to facilitate its escape. This kind of breathing is also a response to non-life-threatening stressors. It happens in response to panic and then perpetuates the panic.

When you're aware of the effect of stressors on your sympathetic nervous system, you can deliberately slow and deepen the breath by signaling the body that it's ok to calm down. Your breath is a powerful force you can use to control your body's responses to stress.

Pranayama Exercises

  • Three-Part Breath - Dirga Pranayama: A good breathing exercise for beginners. Doing three-part breath teaches you how to fill and empty the lungs completely, which is important because you're probably not used to using your full lung capacity. It's also a nice way to transition into your yoga session.
  • Equal Breathing - Sama Vritti Pranayama: Taking long, deep, slow breaths has a relaxing effect on the body. Bringing your full attention to keeping your inhalations and exhalations the same length occupies your mind, giving it a much need break from its usual hum of activity.
  • Alternate Nostril Breathing - Nadi Sodhana: In nadi sodhana, you block off one nostril, exhaling and inhaling through the open passageway before switching sides. This helps bring you into balance by clearing the energy channels on both sides of the body.
  • Cooling Breath - Shitali Pranyama: A simple breath, perfect for a hot day or when the body is warm after practicing yoga postures.
  • Ocean Breath - Ujjayi Pranayama: Ujjayi breath is really interesting because it acts to calm the sympathetic nervous system at the same time as it boosts your oxygen consumption. It is the primary breath used in vinyasa yoga because it is powerful enough to support a vigorous flow.
  • Lion's Breath - Simhasana: Lion's breath releases the tension in your face and helps you blow off some steam. You can do it anytime during a yoga practice.
  • Skull Shining Breath - Kapalabhati Pranayama: This is advanced breathing exercise should ideally be learned from an experienced teacher, as it is possible to become lightheaded if it is done incorrectly. Once mastered, this breath generates heat and clears the nasal passages.
2 Sources
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  1. Gard T, Noggle JJ, Park CL, Vago DR, Wilson A. Potential self-regulatory mechanisms of yoga for psychological health. Front Hum Neurosci. 2014;8:770.  doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00770

  2. American Council on Exercise. 6 breathing exercises to reduce stress.

By Ann Pizer, RYT
Ann Pizer is a writer and registered yoga instructor who teaches vinyasa/flow and prenatal yoga classes.