The power of pranayama: A beginner’s guide to yogic breathing

A breathes in deeply while practising pranayama techniques

Imagine you had the power to reduce stress levels, bolster brain ability and lung capacity in just a few minutes?

Well, what if we told you that you do?

Not only that, but you perform this remarkable superpower every day without even thinking about it.

Yup, you guessed it, breathing!

Known in the yogi world as Pranayama, breathing exercises are key to unlocking a healthier, more balanced body and mind.

Whether it’s your first time practising pranayama or you’re a beast at bellows breath, this beginner’s guide will reveal the true power of these ancient breathing techniques and how you can reap the boundless benefits in a few simple steps.

What is pranayama?

Simply put, pranayama is a type of yogic breathwork used as a foundation for many, if not all, of the various types of yoga we see today.

Pranayama exercises help regulate, channel and control your breath.

While there are different styles of yogic breathwork, all are designed to remove energetic blockages from the body to reach a calmer, more controlled state of consciousness. 

Ancient yogis believed that these techniques would allow your “prana” (life force) to flow more freely through the body. This would heal and regenerate the body and mind.

In more clinical physiological terms, targeted breathwork helps oxygenate and energise the body, and calm and settle the mind.

There are two slightly different interpretations of yogic breathwork:

1. A combination of the Sanskrit words “prana” and “yama.”Prana” translates to “life force” or “life energy,” and “yama” translates as “discipline,” “control” or “to gain control of.”

2. A combination of the Sanskrit words “prana,” and “ayama” which means “expansion” or “extension.”

Both interpretations explain the end goal of pranayama; to gain control of and extend your breath.

By doing so, your breath is channelled through your body to spread restorative and rejuvenating energy. 

Woman places two finger on her forehead practising the alternate breathing technique.

What are the eight types of pranayama?

It might come as a surprise, but there is more than one way to breathe.

In fact, there are dozens!

Pranayama consists of several breathing exercises, each with its own unique techniques and benefits.

The 8 most common pranayama techniques that you’ll find in most yoga classes and retreats include:

1. Dirga Pranayama

Otherwise known as “complete” or “three-part breath,” Dirga Pranayama is a foundational technique that focuses on diaphragmatic breathing.

The complete yogic breath involves three central parts of the lungs for fuller and deeper breathwork.

In Dirga, it’s key to expand the stomach, chest and rib cage fully, allowing oxygen to flow through the body, releasing tension and improving digestion.

2. Ujjayi Pranayama

Also referred to as “ocean breath” or “victorious breath,” Ujjayi is a foundational breathing technique in yoga, and one of the most common.

Ujjayi breathing mimics the sound of waves crashing, helping calm, energise and focus the mind.

You’ll most likely come across this key technique in a beginner’s class, or in Ashtanga and Hatha yoga.

3. Bhramari Pranayama

Bhramari pranayama, also called “humming bee breath,” is one of the best techniques for beginner yogis.

This technique involves deep inhales followed by slow exhales with a humming sound to calm the buzzing mind and relax the nervous system.

4. Shitali Pranayama

Shitali pranayama, or “cooling breath,” is intended to cool down the body and remove any excess heat after a few gruelling asanas (poses).

To perform this technique, yogis curl their tongue and inhale deeply through the tunnel, followed by a breath-hold of 4-5 seconds, soothing the body and mind.

5. Surya Bhedana Pranayama

If you need to warm up before yoga practice, then Surya Bhedana is the ideal breathing exercise.

This warming pranayama channels deep breathing through the right nostril by blocking the left with the pinkie and ring fingers.

6. Kapalbhati Pranayama

Kapalbhati is not advised for novices or those with health issues.

Also called “breath of fire” or “skull shining breath,” Kapalbhati involves slow inhalations followed by forceful exhalations that give your abdominal muscles quite the workout.

This breathing exercise packs a punch and is a great way to move vital energy throughout the body.

7. Bhastrika Pranayama

Bhastrika breath is similar to breath of fire, but with a bit more heat.

This yogic breathing technique is primarily reserved for professionals and requires expert breath control and retention with deep inhalations and exhalations.

This type of technique has both a calming and invigorating effect on the mind, ideal if you need a burst of energy to beat those morning or mid-afternoon slumps.

8. Nadi Shodhana Pranayama

Nadi shodhana or “alternate nostril breathing” is an intermediate technique where yogis, you guessed it, breathe through one nostril at a time.

It might sound fairly straightforward but switching from right nostril breathing to the left takes quite a bit of concentration, patience and focus.

For this reason, it’s particularly good at reducing acute stress and bringing calm to major nadis (energy channels) in the body.

A woman sits in a meditative seated position practising yogic breathwork exercises

What are the benefits of yogic breathing?

For centuries, pranayama practices have been used to improve our mental, emotional and physical health.

While activating your prana helps manage stress and calm the mind, it’s also key to improving lung function, high blood pressure, mental focus and much more.

Lowers stress and anxiety levels

Pranayama increases the body’s uptake of oxygen because you are breathing in deeper and for longer.

This uptake of oxygen ensures the parasympathetic nervous system functions cohesively with the sympathetic system, which helps reduce the production of stress hormones like cortisol.

Yogic breathing exercises are also great for dispelling negative emotions. Practising the more active forms of pranayama produces endorphins, the body’s feel-good chemicals, which lowers anxiety and stress levels.

Life just tends to feel calmer and more manageable after a good breathwork session.

Improves sleep quality

Yogic breathing helps to lower your breath rate, which in turn lowers your heart rate and allows for a good night’s rest.

Through fast and slow pranayama, you will also learn to focus on the present moment and reach a meditative state, creating a calming and soothing effect over the entire body.

Helps with mindfulness

In yoga, mindfulness refers to being fully immersed in the present.

When you are being mindful, you acknowledge your thoughts, bodily sensations, and emotions but you don’t judge them in any way.

With slow pranayama practice, you can zone into the present moment and harness the many benefits of mindfulness.

Increases lung function and capacity

Numerous medical studies have confirmed that regular yogic breathwork can improve your overall lung function.

As you inhale and exhale deeply, the muscles in your diaphragm and abdomen work harder, helping to increase lung capacity and strengthen your chest walls.

Your chest walls, lungs and even your lower abdomen inflate and deflate to maximum capacity. This helps the entire bodily system get a great workout just from breathwork and your oxygen uptake is higher.

Pranayama can also be useful to alleviate symptoms of chronic respiratory conditions caused by allergies, asthma, or bronchitis if practised with care and caution.

Enhances cognitive ability

Better-oxygenated blood leads to better concentration, kind of a no-brainer!

Pranayama techniques increase how much oxygen you absorb, so naturally, your brain receives more of it.

What’s more, studies suggest that your cognitive abilities can improve through yogic breathwork.  

How do I start pranayama?

Although a bit tricky at first, pranayama breathing techniques become second nature after some practice.

Different styles of yogic breathwork all involve a sequence of inhalations and exhalations.

If you’re a newcomer to yogic breathing, it’s always best to familiarise yourself with the different types of pranayama in a yoga class or on a pranayama retreat under the guidance of a qualified yoga instructor.

Before you get started, it’s important to understand the basic processes of yogic breathwork:

  1. Puraka: inhalation of breath
  2. Kumbhaka: retention of breath
  3. Rechaka: exhalation of breath

In some styles of pranayama, you hold your breath after inhalation for a longer period before exhaling.

In others, you just inhale and exhale with little retention of breath.

You may also inhale and exhale through different parts of the body (one nostril, both, your mouth, your abdomen, etc.) depending on the style of breathwork.

Which pranayama is best for beginners?

Although you might be tempted to dive straight into Nadi shodhana or Bhastrika breath, if it’s your first time practising pranayama, you’ll first need to master the basics.

A good place to start is with the foundational breathing exercises that typically form the basis of most asana practices. These include:

  1. Natural breath
  2. Dirga pranayama
  3. Ujjayi pranayama

When practising these basic pranayamas, keep these tips in mind.

  • Practice on an empty stomach (early mornings are good).
  • Choose a well-ventilated room with lots of fresh air or outside.
  • Consult a medical practitioner before trying pranayama if you have chronic asthma, emphysema, diabetes, hypertension, or any heart conditions.
  • Yogic breathwork that involves a lot of fast expansion and contraction of your abdominal area should be avoided if you have an upset stomach, irritated bowel, are pregnant or menstruating.
  • If you feel dizzy or experience any other unsettling sensations, it’s best to take a break.
  • Do the best you can but don’t push yourself too hard. You have to be patient and listen to your body. Your abilities will develop over time.

Learning these fundamental breathing practices is the first step to a calmer, healthier and more balanced body and mind.

Once you’ve mastered the basics of breathwork, you might want to try out a few advanced techniques, and a yoga retreat is the best place to do it!

Basubu’s handpicked selection of pranayama retreats makes planning any getaway a breath of fresh air.

Browse dozens of transformational retreats from around the world and begin your journey today.