Curious About Pranayama? Here's What It's All About + How To Get Started
In recent years, breathwork has become a staple in yoga studios and wellness centers around the world—but the reality is, the centuries-old practice of pranayama has been a fundamental part of the yogic tradition since as early as the fifth century BCE.
Here's what pranayama is all about, including its benefits, how it's different from breathwork, and sequences to try yourself.
What is pranayama?
Pranayama, or "breath control," is a practice in the yogic tradition of Indian philosophy that involves breathing in a specific sequence to control the breath, and subsequently, the body and mind. Pranayama is also the fourth of eight stages (or eight limbs of yoga) that are thought to lead the practitioner to samadhi, aka enlightenment.
When you practice pranayama, the goal is to control your breath in a way that helps to free up your attention and attain a meditative state. Long term, continued practice is part of a larger yogic lifestyle that involves discipline on the path to spiritual mastery and a purified spirit.
One reason alternate nostril breathing is a popular pranayama sequence, for instance, is because it's believed to purify the nadis (aka energy channels) in the body, by way of balancing the left and right hemispheres of the brain—which are, of course, connected to the nostrils.
One of the best and most immediate effects of pranayama is its ability to decrease stress. Studies show that conscious breathing is not only an effective way to combat stress, but one 2017 study published in Frontiers in Psychology1 even found that participants who completed eight weeks of breathwork training had significantly lower levels of cortisol compared with those who did not receive the training.
Increased focus & concentration
Reduced high blood pressure
Tying back to the idea of less stress, that's good news for your heart too. As one study on high blood pressure in the International Journal of Applied and Basic Medical Research4 notes, participants who practiced pranayama for six weeks alongside taking an antihypertensive drug saw "significant reductions" in blood pressure compared to those who were just taking the antihypertensive drug without pranayama.
As the study authors explain, "The pranayama produces a relaxed state, and in this state, parasympathetic activity overrides sympathetic activity," making it useful for helping to control high blood pressure.
According to Silverton, breathwork can help improve digestion in two ways. For one thing, by calming the stress response and lowering cortisol, the body can better use energy for digesting food. (They don't call the parasympathetic state "rest and digest" for nothing!)
Improved heart & lung health
We've already touched a bit on how pranayama can benefit the heart, but it can benefit the lungs too. Namely, one study published in the International Journal of Yoga6 found that 30 minutes of alternate nostril breathing a day for four weeks had a positive effect on heart and lung health, reducing pulse rate, respiratory rate, and diastolic blood pressure. The study authors also note pranayama improved lung function in the participants, especially so for those who did faster pranayama.
The difference between pranayama and breathwork
If you've heard of breathwork but not pranayama, you might be wondering what the difference is. As a yoga instructor myself, it's my understanding that all pranayama sequences can be considered breathwork, but not all breathwork is considered pranayama.
As aforementioned, pranayama translates to "breath control," while breathwork could include conscious breathing that doesn't involve any control. Simply noticing your breath without trying to change it could be considered breathwork but wouldn't be considered a pranayama sequence. The following pranayama sequences below, though, would all be considered breathwork. Semantics, right?
It's not all semantics, however—especially as nontraditional breathwork becomes more and more common in wellness communities. If you are keen to study pranayama as it relates to the yogic tradition, keep in mind that not all the breathwork sequences you come across will have historical roots.
That doesn't mean they don't have their own benefits, of course, but context matters when we're talking about an ancient tradition.
7 pranayama sequences to try yourself
Dirgha pranayama (diaphragmatic breath) for finding stillness and calm
- Find a comfortable sitting position and place one hand on the heart and one hand on the belly.
- Begin by inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth.
- As you continue, try to make your exhales just a bit longer than your inhales. Start with inhaling for a 3-count and exhaling for a 4-count.
- Continue for at least 10 rounds of breath.
Kapalabhati (breath of fire) for energy and alertness
- Sit up tall.
- Breathe in and out through the nose, pressing the belly out during the inhale and pulling the belly in during the exhale. The breathing will be loud and quick as you increase the pace of breathing.
- To start, set a timer for 30 seconds and build up to 4 minutes over a period of time.
Nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) for mental balance
- Sitting up with relaxed shoulders, place your index and middle finger to your third-eye region.
- Gently close your right nostril with your right thumb. Inhale slowly through your left nostril for four counts, then pause and gently close your left nostril with your right ring finger. Hold at the top of your inhale for four counts.
- Release your thumb and exhale through the right nostril for four counts, and at the bottom of your exhale, close your thumb over your right nostril again and hold for four counts.
- Repeat, going back the opposite way, inhaling through the right nostril and exhaling through the left.
- Complete at least a few rounds on both sides, working up to longer periods of time.
Sama vritti (even breath) for a sense of calm
- Find a comfortable seat.
- Inhale for four counts and hold for two counts.
- Exhale for four counts and hold for two counts.
- Repeat for 10 rounds.
Ujjayi (victorious breath) for building heat
- With your mouth closed, inhale through the back of your throat, almost like you could snore (or sound like Darth Vader) but without quite audibly snoring. Form your throat in the shape of an "oh" sound.
- Keep the mouth closed as you exhale through the back of your throat, forming your throat into a "ha" sound, like you would fog up a window.
- Once you've got the feel for the breath, inhale for four counts with ujjayi sound and exhale for four counts with ujjayi sound.
- Repeat for 10 rounds.
Simha pranayama (lion's breath) for energy and circulation
- Get into your seated position of choice and lean the upper body forward slightly.
- Place your hands on your knees or on the floor. If on the floor, point the fingertips in toward yourself. Spread the fingertips wide, like a lion's claws.
- Inhale through your nose with your mouth closed.
- Open your mouth wide and stick out your tongue as much as you can, curling it down toward your chin.
- Exhale forcefully with a "ha" sound, feeling the breath come from deep within and passing across your entire tongue. Keep the tongue out for the entire exhale and don't be afraid to get loud.
- Relax your face and take a few normal breaths before doing another lion's breath.
- Repeat until you've completed four to six lion's breaths. If you're sitting in lion's pose, switch the crossing of your feet halfway through.
- Once your repetitions are complete, breathe deeply in and out through the nose for at least three minutes before moving on.
Sitali pranayama (cooling breath) for cooling down
- Sit up tall in a comfortable seat and roll your tongue like a taco, forming a tube. If you can't do that, form your lips into an open circle and keep your tongue down.
- Inhale through your mouth, feeling the coolness of the breath on the way in.
- Close your mouth and exhale through your nose.
- Repeat five to 10 times or as needed.
How do you practice pranayama?
One practices pranayama, or breath control, by doing specific breathing sequences to control the rate of breathing.
What are 4 benefits of pranayama?
Four benefits of pranayama include decreased stress and decreased blood pressure, along with increased concentration and improved digestion.
How do you start pranayama for beginners?
All you need to start pranayama is your own breath and a sequence to try. It can be helpful to attend a breathwork workshop or work with a facilitator if you want more guidance.
Our breath can be a powerful force when we know how to use it, and that's exactly the purpose of pranayama. This centuries-old practice has been a part of the yogic tradition for generations, and thanks to all the benefits people experience when they try it themselves, it's a practice that's managed to stand the test of time.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.