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what is pranayama?

Updated: Sep 12

Another vital yoga practice is called pranayama. The word pranayama is derived from two Sanskrit words: prana (life force, life energy) and ayama (expansion) and means - expanding the life force using the breath.

We all know that breath is essential to life. From the first breath at birth to the last breath upon passing, we take approximately half a billion breaths, usually without thinking about it. It’s astonishing how little attention we pay to the way we breathe. What you may not realise is that the body, mind and breath are intimately connected and can influence each other.


By learning how to skilfully control and retain the breath, we can influence and stimulate or relax the nervous system which is a valuable tool in helping restore balance in our physical and mental body. We do this to revitalise our energy level and live more fully.


There are many different types of breathing techniques and each having a specific effect on the mind-body physiology. The following are 5 simple yogic breathing techniques to help you get started. Make sure you are sitting in a comfortable position with your spine erect. If at any point you begin to feel dizzy or uncomfortable, be sure to pause before resuming, or simply stop and try again at a later time.


1. The Belly Breath. This is a basic breathing technique that is often used in yoga classes. It helps bring awareness to the body and calms the mind.

  • Take a deep breath in through the nose, drawing air toward the lower belly.

  • Feel the belly expand and rise with the inhale.

  • Exhale through the nose and feel the belly contract and lower. The breaths should be deep and elongated.

  • Continue for 3-5 minutes. Your breathing should be effortless, with your mind gently observing the inflow and outflow of breath.

2. Three-Part Breath - Dirga Pranayama. Another good breathing exercise for beginners. It includes the expansion of the abdomen, chest, and neck region. This breath also helps calm the mind and develop deeper awareness, but is more complex.

  • Place one hand on the belly, second hand on the chest.

  • Inhale slowly and deeply through the nose, drawing the air into the lower abdomen and pelvic area, feeling your hand rise with the belly.

  • Continuing to inhale, feel the rib cage begin to expand outward as the mid-section of the torso becomes engaged.

  • Finally, draw the air into the upper chest and allow the collar bones to rise. Feel the hand rise with the chest.

  • At the peak of inhalation, pause for a moment, then exhale gently in reverse order, releasing the upper chest first, then the diaphragm and ribs, and finally the lower abdomen. Slightly contract the abdominal muscles to push residual air out of the bottom of your lungs.

  • After some practise, it should start to feel like a gentle wave motion.

  • Perform a few rounds and then notice how you feel.


3. Alternate Nostril Breathing - Nadi Sodhana Pranayama. In this technique, we block 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.

  • Hold your right thumb over your right nostril and inhale deeply through your left nostril.

  • At the peak of your inhalation, close your left nostril with your fourth finger, lift your right thumb, and then exhale smoothly through your right nostril.

  • After a full exhalation, inhale through the right nostril, closing it with your right thumb at the peak of your inhalation, lift your fourth finger and exhale smoothly through your left nostril.

  • Continue with this practice for 3 to 5 minutes, alternating your breathing through each nostril. Your breathing should be effortless, with your mind gently observing the inflow and outflow of breath.

4. The Ocean’s Breath - Ujjayi Pranayama is good to practise when you feel angry, irritated, or frustrated. This will almost immediately soothe and settle your mind.

  • Take an inhalation that is slightly deeper than normal. With your mouth closed, exhale through your nose while constricting your throat muscles. If you are doing this correctly, you should sound like waves on the ocean.

  • Another way to get the hang of this practice is to try exhaling the sound “haaaaah” with your mouth open. Now make a similar sound with your mouth closed, feeling the outflow of air through your nasal passages.

  • Once you have mastered this on the outflow, use the same method for the inflow breath, gently constricting your throat as you inhale.

  • Continue for 3 to 5 minutes or however long it feels comfortable.

5. The Breath of Fire - Bhastrika Pranayama to be practised when you are feeling blue or sluggish. This will give you an immediate surge of energy and invigorate your mind.

  • Begin by relaxing your shoulders and take a few deep, full breaths from your abdomen.

  • Now start exhaling forcefully through your nose, followed by forceful, deep inhalations at the rate of one second per cycle. Your breathing is entirely from your diaphragm, keeping your head, neck, shoulders, and chest relatively still while your belly moves in and out.

  • Start by doing a round of 10 breaths, then breathe naturally and notice the sensations in your body. After 15 to 30 seconds, begin the next round with 20 breaths. Finally, after pausing for another 30 seconds, complete a third round of 30 breaths. Beginners are advised to take a break between rounds.

  • Although Bhastrika is a safe practice, stay tuned in to your body during the process. If you feel light-headed or very uncomfortable, stop for a few moments before resuming in a less intense manner. Don't practise during pregnancy.

By training your body with a regular practice of deep breathing, you will begin to breathe more effectively even without concentrating on it. 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.

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