Pranayama Yoga Breathing Exercises
Everything You Need to Know About Yoga and Breathing

If you’re new to pranayama yoga breathing, this article will help you understand how and why we practice, answer your common questions, and teach you some basic and intermediate yoga breathing techniques so you can practice it yourself.

If you heard that yoga is thousands of years old, that’s true, but I’m not referring to Tree Pose or Sun Salutes—those are much more recent yoga poses. The most ancient yoga practices were breathing and meditation.

Pranayama? What is yoga breathing?

In Sanskrit, the world “prana” means lifeforce or energy, and the world “yama” means control or extension. Therefore, the practice of pranayama means the control or extension of your lifeforce, your breath. This is the poetic definition. On a practical level, yoga breathing exercises allow you to

take manual control over your normally automatic pattern of breathing. We do this for only one reason: to affect your nervous system. Yoga breathing, depending on the practice, either stimulates, soothes, or balances your autonomic nervous system and thus impacts dozens of other systems in the body in a matter of minutes.

Yoga breathing

Many yoga and meditation teachings focus on the esoteric and supernatural. While I respect that approach, I teach science-based yoga, so I’ll focus on the science of breathing and its effects on the body. Here are the science-backed benefits of breathing exercises.

  • Reduces stress
  • Improves sleep
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Lowers your heart rate
  • Reduces cortisol
  • Balances your nervous system
  • Improves digestion
  • Promotes a sympathetic ready state for exercises
  • Promotes a parasympathetic state for deep work, rest, concentration, and connection
  • Balances a destabilized nervous system
NOTE: different breathing exercises have different effects on your nervous system. Therefore, it’s possible to stimulate or calm yourself down with breathing. The specific practices will dictate the results.

What is Ujjyai Breathing (aka Ocean Breath or Whisper Breath)

Imagine a fireman arrives outside a burning building and turns on his hose. The water shoots everywhere, and the poor guy can hardly hold on as the nose snakes left, then right. What does he do next? He uses the attachment on the end of the hose to partially close the opening and focus the water stream. Almost instantly, he has control and can now accurately point and shoot the water where it’s needed.

Let’s do the same with your breath.

You’ll remember that pranayama means breath control, so in most breathing exercises, we’ll add a slight constriction to the back of your throat both on the inhale and the exhale. This is achieved by slightly constricting your glottis and creating a Darth Vader style whisper in the back of your throat.

Here’s how to learn Ujjayi Breathing

  • Hold your hand in front of your face and imagine it’s a mirror
  • Open your mouth and fog up the mirror by exhaling with a “ha ha” sound
  • Now inhale with the same “ha ha” whisper sound
  • Finally, close your mouth, keep that same whisper in the back of your throat both on the inhale and the exhale
  • The exhale is easier than the inhale, but keep practicing and you’ll get the inhale sound too

Along with providing greater control over your breath, Ujjayi breathing oscillates your Vagus Nerve and has a soothing effect on your nervous system.

How Should You Breathe During Yoga Poses?

What makes yoga asana courses unique and powerful compared to other movement practices is the integration of controlled breathing. Without deliberate breath, most hatha yoga classes would be more accurately described as stretching classes or remedial gymnastics.

During Sun Salutes, Tree Pose, or any other flowing or static pose, you should aim for 4-6 breaths per minute using Ujjayi Ocean-Sounding Breath. To accomplish this, count as you inhale 1-2-3-4, pause naturally at the top, and then exhale 4-3-2-1. If your breathing ends up slightly faster or slower than the desired 4-6 breaths per minute, don’t worry. This is the target range and you’ll hit the target soon enough.

When you put your body under physical stress in yoga poses and then breathe in this slow, deep, controlled pattern—using Ujjayi breathing—it trains your nervous system to stay calm. Your brain doesn’t differentiate between physical and mental stress, so in this way, your physical yoga practice trains you to manage stress in all aspects of life.

Common Questions About Yoga Breathing Exercises For Beginners: Should I Always Breathe Through My Nose? All Day Long?

Remember this axiom: “The nose is for breathing, the mouth is for eating.” This includes breathing through your nose while sleeping, working, walking, cooking, reading, and more. The only time you should breathe through your mouth is during high exertion aerobic or anaerobic exercise. Excessive mouth breathing is a huge health risk and should be treated as such.

Possible negative impacts of mouth breathing:

  • Digestive problems
  • Sinus problems
  • Deformed palette (in childhood)
  • Mood disorders
  • Sleep disorders
  • Hormonal imbalance
  • Periodontal disease
  • Dry mouth
  • Snoring
  • Bad breath
  • Brain fog / concentration problems

Alternate Nostril Breathing (aka Anuloma Viloma or Nadi Shodhanna Breath)

Alternate nostril breathing, also known as Aunloma Vilom or Nadi Shodhanna, is a commonly taught practice that is much more challenging than you might expect. Since your right nostril is correlated with your sympathetic nervous system and your left with your parasympathetic, this practice works toward balance by alternating between right and left. This practice can be taught at the rate of 4-6 breaths per minute, in which case it’s a balancing practice. More commonly, nostril breathing is taught at a rate of 1-3 breaths per minute. In this case, it becomes a very relaxing, parasympathetic stimulating practice.

How to practice Alternate Nostril Pranayama

  • Use Ujjayi Ocean Breathing throughout
  • Close your right nostril > inhale left nostril 1-2-3-4
  • Close your left nostril > exhale right 4-3-2-1
  • Inhale on the right nostril, 1-2-3-4
  • Close your right nostril > exhale left nostril 4-3-2-1
  • Each inhale + exhale = 1 round
  • Practice for 10 rounds total

What is 3-Part Yoga Breathing?

A healthy, full breath, sometimes called a 3-part yogic breath follows a very specific pattern.

  • Part I: Your diaphragm contracts down and creates negative pressure so your lungs fill up with air.
  • Part I: Your intercostal muscles (between your ribs) contract, flare your ribs, and create additional negative pressure.
  • Part III: Your accessory muscles of your chest, upper back, shoulders, and neck create just a slight lift in your collarbones to create just a little more space for a full breath.

The exhale is passive, and the process reverses: collarbones drop, ribs relax down, and the diaphragm relaxes back up to its natural double-dome shape.

What is Belly Breathing?

Yoga and breathing teachers will often use the slang term “belly breathing”. You might have heard singing teachers promote belly breathing too. Obviously, neither your lungs or your diaphragm are located in your belly, but by allowing your belly to balloon out on the inhale and flatten on the exhale, it’s a simple way to emphasize diaphragmatic breathing.

Simple Belly Breathing practice:

  • Lie flat on your bed
  • Place a book on your belly
  • Inhale > balloon your belly so the book rises
  • Exhale > deflate your belly so the book falls
  • Continue breathing, and you’ll find you can lift the book higher and higher
TIP: if I told you to spread your toes apart as far as you can, it’s much easier if you simultaneously spread your fingers. Think of belly breathing in the same way. By exaggerating the movement of our abdomen, it helps you to prioritize diaphragmatic breathing by proxy.

Isn’t All Breathing Diaphragmatic?

Your diaphragm is your primary breathing muscle, but it’s possible to underuse it or even bypass it when you use what is called, high costal breathing. Remember the three-phase yogic breathing discussed earlier? People with poor breathing patterns or high stress will sometimes skip phase one and use their chest, shoulders, and neck to breathe. This breathing pattern can become a habit, and it can create stress, tension, and anxiety if it’s done for a prolonged period.

NOTE: to visualize high costal breathing in action, think about an angry person on the street having a heated conversation on their cell phone. Their shoulders are lifted, their chest is puffed, and their belly region is tight and tense. As they talk, their breath is short, shallow, and high up into their chest. This is a classic example of high costal breathing.

Yoga Breathing Exercises for Anxiety

Anxiety is usually caused by a real or imagined fear of future events. Your body is hard-wired for survival, and when anything threatens your survival, your body defaults to a ready state for fight, flight, or freeze. If you’re home alone and you hear someone break in downstairs, your heightened anxiety is adaptive and helpful. If you’re sitting at your desk worried about events in the future that are out of your control, your anxiety is now an unnecessary burden—and yoga breathing can help.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with feelings of worry, the most effective yoga breathing exercises will either balance or calm your nerves. There are lots of different patterns of practices, but what you need to focus on is the rate of the breath. 4-6 breaths per minute will balance your nerves, and anything 3 breaths or slower will have a heavily relaxing effect.

Pranayama Techniques for Beginners

As a beginner, it’s best to start with simple and more accessible breathing exercises such as 4:4 Balanced Breath and Triangle Breathing. If you push too hard too quickly, your breathing can create the opposite effect that you’re looking for. Instead of balancing your nerves, it can leave you stressed and anxious.

How to Practice 4:4 Balanced Breathing:

    Sit comfortably with your hands on your knees Inhale with an Ujjayi sound 1-2-3-4 Exhale with an Ujjayi sound 4-3-2-1 Repeat for 10 rounds total Continue breathing, and you’ll find you can lift the book higher and higher

How to Practice Triangle Breathing:

  • Sit comfortably with your hands on your knees
  • Sit comfortably with your hands on your knees
  • Hold at the top, 1-2-3-4
  • Exhale with an Ujjayi sound 4-3-2-1
  • Repeat for 10 rounds total

Box Breathing for Anxiety

Box breathing is an intermediate, parasympathetic-stimulating practice. Many people mistakenly believe it was developed by Navy Seals, and while some military training might include box breathing, the practice predates any such organization by thousands of years.

Practice Box Breathing:

  • Inhale with an Ujjayi sound > 1-2-3-4
  • Hold your breath (at the top) > 1-2-3-5
  • Exhale with an Ujjayi sound > 4-3-2-1
  • Exhale with an Ujjayi sound 4-3-2-1
  • Hold your breath (at the bottom) > 4-3-2-1
  • Repeat 10 rounds

Prone Breathing (aka “Proning”) for COVID-19

Let’s try prone breathing. Lie on your belly with pillows under your chest for support. Inhale through your nose 1-2-3-4, exhale through your nose, 4-3-2-1. Repeat for 10 rounds, rest for two minutes, and then repeat this routine 2 more times. While on your belly, it encourages your alveoli to more fully articulate and has been shown to improve blood oxygen in the blood.

Just as important as oxygen is CO2. CO2 is vital for bronchodilation, vasodilation, and the absorption of oxygen as it allows O2 bound to hemoglobin to be absorbed. In the context of lower-than-normal blood oxygen saturation, people often assume you should breathe more and breathe quickly, but the opposite is true. Comfortably deep, slow breathing will help to optimize both oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body.

The Bohr Effect: Oxygen & Carbon Dioxide

If you eat a meal packed with wonderful nutrients but are not able to digest and absorb it, it wouldn’t do you much good, right? The same is true with oxygen. If your blood oxygen saturation is at 99 or even 100 percent but it’s all bound up to the hemoglobin and cannot be absorbed, it’s not helpful. In this way, O2 and CO2 work together like yang and yin to create a gas exchange balance.

Danish researcher, Christian Bohr, first discovered this O2 / CO2 relationship and coined the phenomenon the Bohr Effect in 1904

Is Yoga Breathing Safe?

Yoga breathing is extremely safe. It’s safer than just about any yoga pose you can imagine. When you hear of the dangers or risks associated with breathwork practices, it’s almost always in reference to extreme hyperventilation or extreme retention practices. These higher risk exercises involve over-breathing for an extended period or holding your breath for extended periods. Both practices can pose very real risks that include headache, anxiety, dizziness, blackout, panic attacks, and tetany. When practiced sensibly and moderately, yoga breathing is one of the safest ways to manage your nervous system and there is no need for concern.

Yoga Breathing Exercises to Increase Lung Capacity

Your average person has a lung capacity of four to six liters usually in direct proportion to their body size. Through physical exercise and breathing exercises, it’s possible to increase your capacity by 5 to 15 percent; however, the goal of most breathing exercises is to strengthen and train the muscles of respiration rather than strive for maximum volume. Your breathing muscles are skeletal muscles, so just like your biceps, they can become larger, stronger, and more coordinated through exercise.

Are you interested in becoming a Certified Breath Coach?