The 3 Most Common Yoga Breathing Techniques, Explained

Written by Jivana Heyma
Jivana Heyman, C-IAYT, E-RYT500, is the founder and director of Accessible Yoga, an international non-profit organization dedicated to increasing access to yoga teachings, co-owner of the Santa Barbara Yoga Center, and an Integral Yoga Minister.

Image by Jacob Lund

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Usually, pranayama is translated into English as "breathing practices," but that translation doesn't quite do it justice. Pranayama is better understood as expansion of prana, which is the Sanskrit word for "energy" or "life force." In a sense, pranayama is similar to acupuncture, which is also concerned with the movement of energy (chi). You could even compare the use of needles in acupuncture with the use of the breath in pranayama. The breath is the tool that we use to work with the life force within us. With this in mind, you can approach pranayama with a subtler awareness—not only are you working with the breath but with life force itself. 

Ironically, pranayama is often left out of public yoga classes. It may be because these practices are subtle and call for a level of patience that can make them seem advanced. But the opposite is true; these practices are accessible to all of us if we understand them. Ideally, after practicing some asana to get the energy moving in your body, you can practice savasana (or guided relaxation) and then come to a seated position on the floor or in a chair for pranayama and meditation. Or you can practice them in bed. 

What to know before trying these breathing techniques.

Sometimes stored emotions and memories are released during pranayama because of the relationship between breath and mind. So be sure to practice gently and slowly. Also, notice if you want to avoid practicing or feel like it's boring. Sometimes, feeling bored is the mind's way of avoiding something it doesn't want to look at. And that's OK. Don't force anything in pranayama, and if painful emotions or memories surface, stop practicing and reach out for support.

Also, if you feel lightheaded, dizzy, or anxious from pranayama, you should stop and return your breath to normal. If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), other lung diseases, or anxiety, you need to approach these practices with care, making sure that you're not straining at any time. In these situations, working with a yoga teacher in person may be a safer approach. 

A steady, comfortable posture is important during both pranayama and meditation so that you can turn your awareness within and experience subtle shifts happening. Unless you're using your hands as part of the breathing practice, they can be resting on your knees or in your lap. Or if you prefer, you can touch your index fingers to your thumbs to create chin mudra. Mudras can help keep the mind focused by bringing awareness to the subtle ways that energy moves in the body.

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Diaphragmatic Breathing (Deergha Swasam)

To build a foundation in pranayama, it is helpful to begin by learning to breathe more deeply and efficiently. This is referred to as diaphragmatic breathing, or yogic breathing. It's important to use the diaphragm to its full potential since it's the main breathing muscle in the body. Otherwise, you're mostly using the auxiliary breathing muscles of your chest and neck, which is referred to as chest breathing, or reverse breathing. 

The diaphragm is a large muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. Its movement is essential for breathing, and the rhythmic flow of the diaphragm benefits many other systems of the body. As the diaphragm moves, it encourages venous blood flow, massages the abdominal organs, and helps to pump lymph (the fluid of the immune system). It creates a flowing rhythm within the body, like waves breaking on a beach and receding back into the ocean.

Diaphragmatic breathing can be practiced with one hand on your belly to feel the movement there as you breathe in and out. On the inhalation, the diaphragm contracts and presses down on the top of the abdominal organs. In response, the abdominal organs move forward, which is why you feel your belly moving forward. On the exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes, which allows your belly to move back in toward your spine. It's helpful to remember that the breath moves with the diaphragm in this way: inhale, diaphragm contracts; exhale, diaphragm relaxes. 

Pay special attention to lengthening the exhalation because this will allow for the complete relaxation of your diaphragm. It also allows for maximum air exchange by creating space for fresh air to come in during the next inhalation. This extended exhalation can create a sense of release and relaxation in your entire body and has a variety of other health benefits. This is because deep, rhythmic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system and tells the whole body to relax. The following practices focus on increasing breath awareness and deepening the breath. Start slowly and with care, remembering that the goal is to expand energy. This happens through subtle shifts rather than big changes, and it requires practice and gentleness. 

Weighted Breathing

From a bed or mat:

You can practice deep breathing while lying in corpse pose with a folded blanket or bolster on your abdomen. Use the weight of the prop on your abdomen to connect with the movement of your diaphragm. Feel the prop move up on each inhalation and down on each exhalation as the movement of your diaphragm is transferred to your abdominal organs. 

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Inclined Corpse Pose

From a bed or mat: To expand your chest, you can practice diaphragmatic breathing in an inclined corpse pose. Place a bolster under the back of your rib cage, in line with your spine, and a blanket under your head. A block under the top of the bolster will create a gentle incline to support your back. Allow the bolster to expand the front of your chest and create space for deeper breathing. 

Crocodile Pose (Makarasana)

From a mat:

Lie on your abdomen in crocodile pose. Cross your hands under your head with your cheek to the side. You can point your toes outward or however is most comfortable for you. Connect with the feeling of your abdomen against the floor. Notice how your abdomen presses into the floor during the inhalation, as it moves forward. On the exhalation, feel your abdomen moving away from the floor.

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Holding Chest and Belly

From a chair, bed, or mat:

To deepen the breath, you can expand it in three sections: abdomen, chest, and collarbones. Place one hand on your belly and the other hand on your chest just under your collarbones. Exhale first. Then inhale and feel the breath moving your abdomen forward. Then feel the breath rising into your chest and all the way to the top of your lungs. On the exhalation, feel the breath leaving your chest and slowly emptying from your abdomen. Repeat a few times and feel the breath filling your lungs from the bottom up and releasing from the top down. 

Or simply notice whatever movement your lungs naturally make. But try to deepen the breath so that you feel all three areas of your lungs filling and emptying. Eventually, these three parts blend into one long, deep breath. 

Hands on Rib Cage

From a chair, bed, or mat:

To experience the fullness of the breath, try placing your hands on your rib cage. Either move your elbows out to the sides and bring your hands to your side ribs, or give yourself a hug under your chest and hold on to your ribs. Exhale, then inhale and feel your rib cage expanding in all directions. Focus on the expanding sideways and backward. This opening in the rib cage allows the diaphragm muscle to expand outward as it flattens. 

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Hands on Head

From a chair, bed, or mat:

You can also try placing your hands on your head with your shoulders relaxed. Hold your head gently but firmly, connecting to the bones of the skull. Exhale, and then as you inhale, see if you notice a slight expansion of your skull. On the exhalation, try to feel your skull gently contract. Take a few breaths, connecting to the expansion and contraction in your skull and in your whole body as you breathe.

Ocean Breathing (Ujjayi)

To lengthen the breath, it's helpful to learn how to control the breath in your throat. This practice is called ocean breathing and is essential for progressing in pranayama. To better understand this technique, you can pretend to fog up a mirror in front of you by making a long "hhaa" sound with your mouth open. Then close your mouth and try to make that same sound. This light wheezing sound is the result of air passing through the reduced opening in your throat. 

By reducing the size of the opening, the air takes longer to enter and exit your lungs. The result is that the breath is longer and slower. The sound produced can be compared to the sound of the wind or the ocean, and those images can be used to help inspire you to practice.

It can be helpful to begin using ocean breathing on the exhalation since that's the part of the breath we're focusing on lengthening in pranayama. Feel the breath moving into your lungs on the inhalation from the bottom up, like a wave rising up on the beach; on the exhalation, use ocean breathing as the breath recedes from the top down, like a wave returning to the ocean.

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Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Suddhi)

Alternate nostril breathing is known by a few different Sanskrit names, including nadi suddhi, anuloma viloma and sukha purvaka. According to yogic subtle anatomy, this practice balances energy in the body, particularly in the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Each nostril is correlated with the opposite hemisphere of the brain, and this energetic balance is experienced as peacefulness in the mind. Scientists are studying the impact of alternate nostril breathing on the brain, and although it's unclear how it works, the practice definitely has a calming effect on the nervous system. 

From a chair, bed, or mat:

Check your posture, and try to make your neck and spine long before beginning this practice. To begin alternate nostril breathing, make a gentle fist with your right hand and extend the last two fingers and thumb. Or you can use your left hand or a different finger combination, such as the index finger and thumb. Bring your hand to your nose, close your right nostril, and exhale from the left nostril. Inhale from the left, switch nostrils, and exhale from the right. Continue with this pattern of exhale-inhale-switch, breathing gently and slowly.

Excerpted from Accessible Yoga: Poses and Practices for Every Body by Jivana Heyman © 2019 by J. Heyman. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.

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