What Is Pranayama? A Run-Down Of 4 Yogic Breathing Techniques

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Everyone would agree that the most important thing for any of us to do at any given moment is breathing.

Without breath, there is no life, and that is why pranayama is one of the main pillars of the yoga practice. But, what is pranayama?

Whether you’re an avid yogi or you’ve recently started practicing for the first time, chances are you have heard the word in a yoga or meditation class before.

If you’ve ever wondered what is pranayama and why it is important to incorporate it into your practice, read on.

In this article we will discuss:

  • What is Pranayama?
  • The 4 Components of the Breath
  • Benefits of Pranayama
  • 4 Pranayama Techniques
a woman looks up to the sky and breathes

what is pranayama?

Pranayama is, first of all, a Sanskrit word: प्राणायाम (prāṇāyāma): composed of two parts: from प्राण (prāṇá, “life force, vital energy, the breath”) + आयाम (āyāma, “lengthening, extending, stretching”).

It is mentioned in early yogic texts like the Baghavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, as well as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

In the Sutras in particular, Patanjali cites Pranayama as the fourth of the 8 limbs of the eight-fold path to enlightenment, following the Yamas (external codes of conduct, the Niyamas (internal code of conduct), and Asana (the physical postures), and preparing us for the rest of the eight limbs with the aim to remove obstacles and tap into the deeper layers of being.

But what is pranayama in itself? Pranayama are breathing exercises and techniques practiced to regulate the flow of life-force through us, more specifically through the Nadis, the subtle channels through which prana flows.

These breathing exercises can be practiced individually, but they can also be practiced together with the asana practice, as well as within Kriya techniques.

These pranayama exercises are designed to assist you in clearing physical, mental, and emotional obstacles in order to allow the breath and prana to flow freely through you.

a man does a pranayama technique

The 4 Components of the Breath

When learning about what is pranayama it can bring some clarity to first understand the breath as components. According to yogic philosophy, we can identify the breath in four parts:

1.Puraka, the Inhalation

B. K. S. Iyengar calls Puraka the “pure cosmic energy” that stimulates and nourishes you. When you inhale, you bring prana into the body to sustain you physically and mentally.

2. Antara Khumbaka, internal retention

Antara means within in Sanskrit, and Khumbaka is the retention itself.

Antara kumbhaka refers to the holding of the inbreath within the body. After the inhalation, without force, it is the retention of breath inside your lungs, inviting prana to reside within you for a moment.

3. Rechaka, the exhale

When exhaling, you perform Rechaka, letting go of the air within that is depleted of prana, carrying out impurities of the body and cleansing you.

4. Bahya Khumbaka, external retention

When holding the empty breath after you exhale, you perform Bhaya Kumbaka. The organs become still when the breath is held outside the body.

a woman does a pranayama technique

Benefits of Pranayama

Now that you may have a better understanding of what is pranayama, it is time to explore its benefits.

The main purpose of pranayama practices is to remove stuck energy from the physical and emotional body in order to allow more space for the vital force to flow through you.

Pranayama and breathing techniques have many science-proven health benefits for body and mind that you can start to enjoy from the first practice:

  • It can aid in reducing anxiety, stress, depression
  • It can help increase stamina and energy levels
  • Supports your immune system
  • Has shown to reduce PTSD symptoms
  • Stabilizes blood pressure

Now that you have a better idea of what is pranayama and how it can benefit and improve your quality of life, let’s explore a few of the most common and accessible practices to get you to experience the benefits of the breath for yourself.

a group of yoga students sit in a circle and wonder what is pranayama

1. Sama Vritti | Square Box Breath

Square breath is one of the most accessible techniques that you can explore so you can start to practice and embody what is pranayama.

Sama means equalizing, and vritti are the mental fluctuations, so this pranayama technique intends to equalize, harmonize and balance the prana flowing through the nadis.

To practice it, find a comfortable place to sit, and soften your gaze or close your eyes.

Begin by taking a few natural breaths just to arrive and settle in. Once you are ready, begin:

1. Inhale for a count of four, (puraka), infusing your cells with vitality and increasing awareness.

2. Hold for a count of four, (antar kumbhaka), awakening kundalini within you and allowing prana to distribute evenly within the body.

3. Exhale for a count of four, (rechaka), releasing toxins from the body and allowing your nervous system to relax.

4. Hold for a count of four, (bahya kumbhaka), finding space for silence and inner stillness.


If you are pregnant or suffer blood pressure issues, please refrain from breath retention exercises. If that’s the case, consider practicing it without the retentions, simply equalizing puraka and rechaka.

a woman sits cross legged and has her hands on her lap

2. Dhrga Pranayama | Three-Part Breath

The three-Part Breath,  Dhrga Swasam Pranayama (DEER-gah swha-SAHM prah-nah-YAH-mah) is one of the first breathing techniques taught to new practitioners because it is simple to explain, yet it has powerful and palpable effects.

Dhrga in Sanskrit means “deep, long, complete”, and that is why this pranayama is also known as Complete Breath.

The “three parts” of the breath are the abdomen, diaphragm, and chest.

to practice it, sit or lay down, soften your gaze or close your eyes.

Begin by taking a few natural breaths just to arrive and settle in. Once you are ready, begin:

1. Inhale through your nose; let your belly, then your ribcage, then your chest fill with air.

2. Exhale through your nose or your mouth; reversing the flow as you empty chest, ribcage, and belly completely.

3. Repeat.

If you’re having a hard time feeling the breath, perhaps practice a few rounds with your hands on your belly, then on your ribcage, then on your chest, to feel the flow of breath with your hands.

Drgha pranayama is a great way to improve the way in which you breathe, learning to use your lungs more efficiently, which in return will increase oxygen supply, decreasing your anxiety and stress levels.

a woman practicing a pranayama technique sitting cross legged on a yoga mat with her hand on her belly

3. Anulom Vilom | Alternate Nostril Breathing

When we continue to explore what is pranayama, it is important to explore its intersection with another yogic practice that can enhance your well being; the introduction of mudras.

In Sanskrit, anu means with; vi means against and loma means hair, implying with the grain, or natural. Anuloma means with the hair or with the grain and viloma means against the natural course, becoming the opposite of Anuloma.

To practice Anulom Vilom, find a comfortable seated shape and close your eyes.

1. Rest your left hand anywhere comfortable and let it relax.

2. With your right hand, create vishnu mudra with your right hand, or if you rather, place your right index and middle finger on your third eye.

3. Gently close your right nostril with your right thumb. Only restricting the flow if air slightly.

4. Inhale through your left nostril.

5. With your right ring finger softly close your left nostril

6. Release your thumb from the right nostil

7. Exhale through your right nostril

8. Inhale through that same right nostril

9. Close the right nostril with your thumb again

10. Open your left nostril

11. Exhale through your left nostril

That is one cycle of Anulom Vilom. You can practice it with or without kumbhaka.

It may take a while to get it, so be patient with yourself and have a bit of fun. With practice, this can be a wonderful resource to rectify energetic imbalances as well as help you release stress and anxiety, and increase focus.

wondering what is pranayama? here are two men practicing a pranayama technique

4. Ujjayi Pranayama | Victorious Breath

If you’ve ever practiced Power, Ashtanga Yoga or Vinyasa yoga, you may have heard your yoga teacher suggest that you harness Ujjayi breath to support your practice, especially when you find yourself in a shape that may create intensity or discomfort for you.

In Sanksrit, Ujjayi means “victory over”, hence making this a pranayama the go-to if what you need is improve your concentration, build resilience, and release tension while helping you regulate your inner fire; tapas, making it a great companion for vigorous asana practices.

If you’d like to give it a try, sit down, close your eyes.

1. With your lips sealed, inhale through your nose, keep the emphasis on the throat muscles.

2. Creating a constriction on the back of your throat and creating a gentle sound, similar to the sound of the ocean.

3. Exhale through your nose, keeping that constriction in the back of the throat, sound of the ocean still steady.

If this seems odd at first, practice with your mouth open first:

1. Inhale through your mouth as if you were a bit surprised

2. Exhale through your mouth as if you were fogging up a mirror.

Once you steadily feel that sensation in your throat, start to practice closing your lips.

woman meditating with an image of the sun in her chest

To Conclude

In conclusion, pranayama is an important part of the yogic path truly worth exploring. Just like everything that has cumulative benefits, being consistent will enhance your yoga practice as a whole, as well as your life.

If you’d like to explore some other pranayama techniques to integrate into your asana practice, check out How To Breathe While Doing Yoga + 3 Yoga Breathing Exercises.

Photo of author
Laia is an Afro-Catalan accessible and inclusive yoga & meditation teacher. She has trained in hatha, vinyasa, trauma-informed yoga, yin yoga, and restorative yoga and holds E-RYT 500 and YACEP accreditations with the Yoga Alliance. Additionally, she is a freelance writer and translator, publishing in Catalan, English, and Spanish. As a former professional athlete who lives with a chronic illness, Laia has gained valuable insights into the benefits of self-care and the importance of pausing and slowing down. She is dedicated to sharing accessible and sustainable practices of yoga and meditation to help people create a more harmonious life. Being a black and chronically ill individual, her mission is to empower non-normative yoga teachers to find their unique voices and develop tools to make wellness practices accessible to the communities they serve, thereby taking up space and creating a more inclusive and diverse yoga industry. Furthermore, as a writer and creative, she is passionate about supporting other creatives and innovators. She fosters a genuine community dedicated to finding balance while staying productive and inspired. Laia has developed unique techniques that intertwine yoga and meditation with writing, journaling, and other accessible methods to help each other stay creative and mindful.

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