Importance of Breathing During Yoga


Our breath isn’t just the life force that keeps us going. It’s much more. If you are starting your yoga journey or have been practicing mainly asana and are considering lifestyle changes to maintain a holistic lifestyle, understanding the impact of your breath is very crucial.

The word prana is a combination of two syllables, pra and na and which denotes a force that is in constant motion. Pranayama is the process or technique through which one can attain control over the pranic process in the body and activate it to a higher frequency. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the eightfold path of yoga is called Ashtanga Yoga and Pranayama is the fourth limb, preceded by  Yama, Niyama and Asana

It is after mastering control over one’s breath (prana) through controlled inhalation (puraka) and exhalation (rechaka) combined with retention (kumbhaka), one can progress towards Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. Pranayama is thus the foundation of any Hatha Yoga practice as it is through controlled breathing one can increase awareness of one’s body and mind connection and also learn to balance it. 

Hatha Yoga says control the prana and the mind is automatically controlled, whereas Raja Yoga says, control the mind and prana becomes controlled. Swami Muktibodhananda. 

Today, Hatha Yoga is primarily practiced by several people around the world. This form of yoga is aimed at body postures or asana practice which improves your overall health by regulating many bodily functions, metabolism and improving blood circulation. And it is the combination of Pranayama with Asana, which is practicing yoga asana with breath awareness, that shifts breath control from the brain stem (medulla oblongata)  to the cerebral cortex (grey matter) which plays an important role in thinking, perceiving and processing information and what we call consciousness. 

It is this sense of awareness of mind, body and breath connection which helps us maintain harmony and balance in our body, mind, and emotions, resulting in improved overall mind/body function, and reduced stress levels. 

“Without full awareness of breathing, there can be no development of meditation stability and understanding.” Nhat Hanh 

Sage Patanjali has defined pranayama as the gap between inhalation and exhalation. He further says that retention of breath after exhalation removes the obstacles to Yoga. Yoga is explained as ‘Yoga Chitta Vritti Nirodha’ by Patanjali, which means cessation of fluctuations of the mind. Pranayama finds a mention in most ancient Hindu scriptures such as the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita, which throws light on the stillness of breath (Kumbhaka).

There are various spiritual systems that have been practiced for centuries to attain control over the monkey mind and most of them emphasize the regulation of breath and concentrating on the breath by which the mind can be brought under control and one can achieve one-pointedness and progress to higher states of meditation. 

Before exploring different breathing techniques, let’s first understand the three main pillars of Pranayama – 

Puraka: The practice of puraka in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Bhagavad Gita, and Hatha Yoga texts, focuses on prolonged inhaling. Sit in any comfortable cross-legged position, (Sukhasana is also fine), and begin to inhale, feeling a slight expansion of the lungs and abdomen area. Putting pressure on body or exaggerated breathing should be avoided. The breathing should be deep but natural, in a relaxed manner. Breathe-in in this manner and stop when you feel the strain, and exhale. 

Count: If inhalation is for 5 counts (1 count is 1 second), exhalation can be just 2 counts. Just by doing 5 rounds of 5 seconds each, puraka practice can increase the body’s stamina and help your lungs function in a better way. Are you ready to build some stamina, 5 seconds at any time and every day?

Kumbhaka: The term ‘kumbhaka’ is derived from ‘Kumbha’ meaning ‘pot’ or ‘vessel’. Our bodies can be considered as a pot of all prana, or ‘life force’ which keeps us alive and active. The practice of Kumbhaka is basically breath retention after inhaling. 

Count: If you practice puraka for 2 counts, the retention of breath is done for 4 counts (double the count). The practice of holding the breath inside the abdomen and lungs helps in a slow yet steady interchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen which then purifies the air inside you. Kumbhaka practice also improves the circulation of oxygen inside your body which then leads to better concentration and less fatigue and stress. 

Rechaka: Rechaka is what comes after Kumbhaka. The art of practicing rhythmic exhalation, without any hurry, can cause great stress relief. This is why so many people are advised to breathe deeply before they take all big decisions in life. This improves the circulation of blood to the brain, which helps you think without fear and anxiety. 

Count: Rechaka is a deep yet simple way of prolonging exhalation after retaining prana. If breath retention was for 4 counts, rechaka can be practiced for 8 counts. While exhaling, draw your abdomen inwards and take a few normal breaths between two rounds of rechaka. 

It is important to sit comfortably (preferably cross-legged) with a straight spine while practicing all the above pranayama techniques. Like a free-flowing river, without any constrictions, let your breath return to the space around you and feel refreshed.  

As a small exercise for awareness, observe your breath when you are angry, when you are sad and when you are happy or calm. Also, observe your breath when you exercise or run or jog. You will notice that in both levels, i.e., emotional level when your mood changes and also when your physical activity changes, the rhythm of your breath will also change. For example, notice how your breathing speeds up when you are angry or anxious, and how tense your muscles get. 

When the breath is retained or held, the prana does not move in or out and becomes stabilized. This helps stops nervous impulses in different parts of the body and harmonizes the brain wave patterns. It is through the practice of Pranayama, one can increase the duration of breath retention. The longer the breath is held, the stiller the mind becomes and this is a state experienced by Yogis / Sadhus who go into a deep state of meditation. 

As per ancient Yogic texts, there are five main air or Vayu functions in our subtle body, known as Apana, Prana, Samana, Udana, and Vyana.  These are all different functions and manifestations of the same pranic body. In the Chandogya Upanishad, it is asked, 

“On what are you (body) and yourself (soul) supported? On prana. On what is prana supported? On vyana. On what is vyana supported? On samana.”

Samana (middle breath) is considered the most important Vayu (air) from a Yogic perspective whose functions are assimilation, preservation, and continuation in the stomach region. Below this is Apana Vayu (out-breath) which moves outward around the urinary/excretory and reproductive organs, its main function is elimination. Above Samana, flows Prana Vayu (in-breath) in the thoracic region which affects the inward movement of the subtle cosmic force. Udana (up-breath) moves through the throat and facial region with ascension as its main function and circulation and pervasiveness (through the entire body) is the function of Vayu.  

Channel Purification

Through the practice of Hatha Yoga, we can work directly on the pranic movements and work towards the purification of nadis and chakras through Yogic techniques such as shatkarmas, asanas, mudras, bandhas, and pranayama.  These energy channels (nadis) and chakras – conjunction point for many nadis, are usually full of impurities that make the body lethargic, create imbalance, prevent the flow of energy and blockages in subtle body are often linked to diseases in the physical body. 

As per Hatha Yoga Pradipika, factors that affect pranic flow in the nadis are lifestyle, diet, desires, thoughts, and emotions. Hatha Yoga helps regulate the functions of the subtle body; however, one should also consider the external factors that may result in disharmony and imbalance internally, such as one’s diet, lifestyle, etc.  

Out of thousands of nadis (around 350,000 as per Shiva Samhita), there are three principal nadis that run from the base of the spine to the head: Ida (passive female principle) to the left which concerns the right brain hemisphere, Pingala (male principle) to the right which concerns the left brain hemisphere and Sushumna in the center around which the ultimate goal of Yoga lies, that is directing Prana into Sushumna enables the Kundalini Shakti to rise and guides the sadhak towards higher consciousness. 

To activate Sushumna the breath has to flow through both nostrils naturally. For this, it is helpful to bring your attention to your nose structure and observe the division of the nose into two channels, the left, and right nostrils. Notice that you do not always breathe through both nostrils and usually one is more active than the other. As per Yoga, this is because breath alternates from Ida to Pingala every hour.  Even modern science recognizes the activation of the right and left brain hemispheres and the shift in the cerebrum every 60 to 90 minutes. 

Notice that when Ida is more active, your mental creativity and intuitive (right) mind will be at work and when Pingala is more active, you will feel more active physically (left hemisphere); the practice of Yoga, however, is most productive when Sushumna is active. 

Word of Caution:  Pranayama or any Yoga practice for that matter, if not done as per the given technique, can lead to complications and prove harmful. Thus, take care to practice Pranayama only on an empty stomach. Early morning is considered an ideal time to Pranayama, or if you practice Yoga asana, relax in Savasana for sometime before practicing Pranayama.  

Sit comfortably in a meditative posture and ensure the spine is straight/lengthened. You can use props like meditation pillow, blanket, cushion or even chair (if sitting down is not possible) to align and sit comfortably. You can refer to articles and books for tips; however, if you have never practiced any particular before, it is best to first learn under the guidance of an experienced teacher.  

Hatha Yoga is a science of body, mind and soul and should be approached as such and not with carelessness. Below we have shared few widely practiced basic Yogic breathing techniques. These further branch out to advanced techniques with combinations of mudras, bandhas, kriyas, mantras, and prolonged breath retention and should be practiced only as per Yoga Guru’s instructions. 

Breath Awareness

This is perhaps the easiest form of breathing exercises one can observe in their early practice of Yoga. Mostly, in all Hatha yoga practices, quiet breathing is followed before starting asanas. Bringing the attention to rise and fall of the chest and abdomen as you inhale and exhale. While sitting in a comfortable lotus pose, you can relax your body and begin to gently inhale and trace the oxygen traveling through your body. This can help us observe our breath and move our attention through our body in a better way while practicing asanas and with practice, we can maintain the same awareness in our everyday life and act more mindfully. 

Ujjayi Pranayama

Ujjayi means ‘victorious’ and is also known as the ‘psychic breath’ because of its effect on the mind. This pranayama is widely used by practitioners of Ashtanga Yoga. This form of pranayama is used by yogis to align their ocean breath with every movement as it induces a sense of rhythm and meditativeness. Apart from improving concentration it also increases blood circulation through the body and removes disorders of the Nadis. This helps boost one’s energy while performing asanas. 

Ujjayi promotes a sense of pratyahara or internalization and also occurs naturally when you enter a state of deep meditation. It is often combined with mantra repetition such as Soham and is also used in Kriya Yoga and Yoga Nidra. What is unique about this pranayama is that it can be done while moving, standing, sitting or walking and thus it pairs well with any Vinyasa style.  

To breathe in Ujjayi, first become aware of your natural breathing, flowing in and out of the nostrils and passing down through the windpipe. Now engage your glottis partially (gently contracting it) while breathing in through the nose. This creates a sound similar to the ocean which naturally comes from the throat, but not too loud. Only you can hear and feel it. Similarly, exhale using the same technique and work towards deeper and longer inhalations and exhalations.  

Kapalbhati Pranayama

This form of pranayama is one of the cleansing techniques or shatkarmas. Kapal means forehead and bhati means light or knowledge. As the name suggests, this dynamic technique stimulates the brain, improves your intellect and also results in a shiny forehead. It expels more carbon dioxide and other waste gases from the cells and lungs, thus improving the overall functioning of the organs, blood circulation, and mental health. It also helps tone abdominal muscles which are put to work with every exhalation. 

The practice involves and rapid forceful exhalations through the nose while allowing the inhalation to occur just as a reaction to forced exhalation. Your focus is mainly on exhalation which is also longer than your inhalation. Normally, you focus more on inhalation, whereas in kapalbhati you reverse the process by making exhalation active.

As a beginner, you can begin with less than 50 and gradually increase to 70 and then 100 exhalations in one round. If you experience any dizziness or breathlessness during the practice, you should stop immediately. While practicing, ensure you don’t feel any strain or jerks around neck, shoulders, facial muscles and also ensure your spine is straight through the practice. 

Bhastrika Pranayama

Bhastrika is another dynamic form of Pranayama, similar to Kapalbhati in a way as you use force to breathe. However, in Bhastrika you use force to exhale and inhale. The practice is a combination of forceful inhalation and exhalation. Usually, such dynamic breathing techniques are best practiced before calming Pranayama techniques as it helps increase the effectiveness and awareness, similar to warm-up before exercise.  

Bhastrika is rapid inhalation and exhalation through the nose, repeatedly (10 to 20 times in one round).  One should take care to keep the body steady, allowing movement of only the lungs, diaphragm and abdomen. The breathing creates a sound (from the nose) and this should not be too heavy. Inhalation and exhalation should rhythmic and equal. This activates the diaphragm and results in deep cleansing of the Nadis. Daily practice can lead to great results in increased blood flow and reduced stress levels. 

Nadi Shodhan Pranayama

Also called the Alternate Nostril Breathing, Nadi Shodhana Pranayama helps release toxins, calm the mind, increase the flow of oxygen, increases concentration, reduces stress level, balances hormones and concerns the purification of Nadis, thus it helps balance right and left brain hemispheres and the male and female energies in the subtle body. 

This form of mindful and deep breathing is done by inhaling and exhaling through alternate nostrils. Remember that you should always use the right hand to close one nostril while breathing through the other nostril. The right thumb is used to close the right nostril and the right ring finger is used to close the left nostril. The first and middle fingers can be placed in two ways. You can either fold them or place them on the Ajna chakra (between the two eyebrows). 

Before moving to alternate nostril breathing, you can practice some basic inhalation and exhalation to increase breath awareness. You can begin by:

Technique 1 – Close the right nostril with the thumb. Inhale through the left nostril and exhale from the left nostril. Repeat this 10 times. Then close the left nostril with the third right finger and inhale and exhale through the right nostril. 

Technique 2 – Inhale through the left nostril and exhale through the right nostril. Repeat this 10 times. Next, inhale through the right nostril and exhale through the left nostril 10 times. This is also called Anulom Vilom Pranayama which helps balance and calms the nervous system, builds up lung capacity and helps reduce stress and anxiety. You can practice this for more than 10 rounds on each side.

Once the breath is deep and rhythmic (which is usually achieved with regular practice and discipline) you can include breath retention (kumbhaka)  for a few counts. After inhalation, close the nostrils with thumb, index and little finger for a few counts and then exhale. 

The above techniques help you increase breath awareness, movement of the diaphragm and abdominal muscles and also improve your breath control as with practice you can prolong the duration of inhalation and exhalation. For Nadi Shodhana Pranayama, inhale through the left nostril and exhale through the right nostril, and they immediately inhale from the right nostril and exhale through the left nostril. This is 1 cycle of alternate nostril breathing.  You can practice up to 10 rounds. When comfortable, you can also include kumbhaka or breath retention after inhalation. 

Seetkari Pranayama 

This is one of the cooling breathing techniques that is usually practiced after dynamic breathing techniques, to counterbalance the excessive heat produced in the body. This practice helps establish harmony in the endocrine system and regulates reproductive organs. 

To practice Seetkari pranayama, sit with your eyes closed and place hands on the knee or in jnana or chin mudra. Gently press the upper and lower teeth together without closing your mouth. Breathe in from the mouth, through the gaps in the teeth. Become aware of the hissing sound which is created when you inhale. Upon completion, close your mouth and slowly exhale through the nose. You can repeat this 5 to 10 times.  

Another technique with a similar cooling breath effect is Seethali Pranayama in which you roll and protrude the tongue out as much as possible and breathe in through the tube-like tongue and on completion, close the mouth and exhale through the nose. 

Brahmari Pranayama or the humming bee breath is another effective technique to end your asana and pranayama practice. It is also useful if done before meditation, early morning or late at night. We have discussed in detail on our blog on Yoga for anti-aging, better sleep and stress relief. 

When you practice any of the above breathing exercises, ensure you breathe in the fresh air and not toxic air within closed or air-conditioned rooms. If you practice yoga asana and are not able to take time to practice pranayama then you must make an effort to learn and practice this regularly as it is an integral part of a Yogic lifestyle. Attending Yoga retreats whenever possible are a great way to reconnect with nature and learn Yogic techniques and experience a Yogic lifestyle in an ideal environment.    

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