Breathing is a core element of yoga practice. Yogic breathing, or pranayama, refers to conscious and controlled breathing that matches the rhythm of yoga postures. There are also breathing exercises people can practice independently of movement.

Pranayama is one of the eight limbs, or philosophies, of yoga. Many who practice yoga believe that the breath contains the body’s life force, or prana, and that working with it can improve health and well-being.

Some scientific research suggests that yogic breathing does have health benefits, but evidence for specific techniques is limited.

Read on to learn more about yogic breathing, including what it involves, the potential benefits, and different techniques to try.

Two people sat on yoga mats practicing yogic breathing in lotus position.Share on Pinterest

Yogic breathing is intentional, controlled breathing that is an essential part of yoga.

Yoga is an ancient practice from India that involves working with the mind, body, and breath to calm the fluctuations of the mind. Its basis is the yoga sutras, which are ancient Sanskrit texts that describe yoga and its underlying philosophy.

The breath aspect of yoga is known as pranayama in Sanskrit. “Prana” means “life force”, while “ayama” means “stretching.” Yoga practitioners use the breath to calm the mind, and the physical postures help them to focus on the breath.

Research links a range of health benefits to the practice of yogic breathing.

Physical health

The authors of a 2020 study systematically reviewed 18 controlled trials on pranayama. They found evidence that it has significant benefits for people with respiratory illnesses.

For example, people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) showed improvements in their symptoms and the impact of the disease. The researchers also found evidence of a significant benefit to the circulatory and respiratory systems of people with asthma.

Learn more about yoga for asthma.

Mental health

A 2020 randomized controlled trial examined the effects of a specific yogic breathing training program known as Bhastrika Pranayama. After 4 weeks of pranayama practice, participants showed significantly reduced states of anxiety and negative affect.

At the same time, they showed signs of changes to parts of the brain involved in emotional processing, attention, and awareness.

An older 2016 study highlighted a range of mental health benefits for people participating in a yogic-breathing-based life skills workshop for young adults. The participants reported:

  • less stress
  • fewer symptoms of clinical and subclinical depression and anxiety
  • fewer symptoms of post-traumatic stress
  • reduced impulsivity
  • reduced tobacco use

The researchers also found evidence of increased calm, mental focus, emotion regulation, and general well-being.

The sutras, which are the ancient texts that describe yoga, set out different breathing techniques for different purposes.

Scientific studies backing the claimed benefits for each individual technique are sparse. Different teachers may also have slightly different approaches.

Here are some of the many possible options. While it is possible to try these at home, it is always safest and most effective to seek guidance from a qualified yoga teacher.

Three-part breath (Dirga Pranayama)

The three-part breath, or full yogic breath, involves using the nose, chest, and belly to fully inhale and exhale.

To practice this breathing exercise:

  1. Sit cross-legged on the floor or upright in a chair, with a tall spine. Take a few natural breaths in and out through the nose. Close the eyes if it is comfortable to do so.
  2. Breathing through the nose, take in a third of one’s full lung capacity deep into the diaphragm, expanding the belly. Breathe in the next third into the rib cage. Breathe in the final third into the upper chest.
  3. Release the breath through the nose, in reverse order; emptying first the chest, then ribcage, then belly. Continue for up to 10 rounds before returning to the breath’s natural rhythm.

Alternate nostril breathing (Nadi Shodhana)

Alternate nostril breathing features on the American Council on Exercise (ACE) list of stress-relieving breathing techniques. To practice this calming technique:

  1. Begin breathing in and out through the nose. When ready, curl the index and middle fingers of the right hand into the palm. Alternatively, place them gently on the bridge of the nose.
  2. Gently close the right nostril with the right thumb. Inhale through the left nostril.
  3. Release the thumb from the right nostril and gently close the left nostril with the ring finger. Exhale through the right nostril.
  4. Inhale through the right nostril. Release the ring finger from the left nostril and close the right nostril with the thumb. Exhale through the left nostril.
  5. Begin the sequence again, breathing in through the left nostril. Practice 10 rounds.

Lion’s breath (Simhasana)

The ACE’s six recommended breathing techniques also feature a modified version of Lion’s breath. To practice this tension-relieving technique:

  1. Kneel on the floor, if this is comfortable. If not, sit in a chair or sit cross-legged on the floor with a tall spine. Place both hands on the knees.
  2. Inhale deeply through the nose, then release the breath strongly through the mouth while sticking out the tongue. Point it down toward the chin and make a “haaa” sound.
  3. At the same time, focus on the space between the eyebrows. This is said to be the location of the third eye, where insight comes from, in yoga. Alternatively, take the gaze to the tip of the nose.
  4. Repeat this sequence two or three times.

Ocean breath (Ujjayi)

Ujjayi breathing takes practice to master. Practitioners believe it helps to ground a person as well as provide heat energy for physical yoga practice.

To begin, inhale deeply through the nose, then constrict the back of the throat while breathing out. This should make a sound similar to the waves rolling on the ocean.

Another way to develop this technique involves breathing out with the mouth open as if fogging up a mirror with the breath to clean it.

Once a person has mastered the Ujjayi exhale, they can aim to keep that same constriction of the throat during the inhale. The full breath cycle then becomes like the continuous flow of ocean wave sounds.

The simpler forms of yogic breathing, such as the three-part breath, are common in yoga and usually safe. However, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health advises that a person talk with their doctor and yoga instructor about their individual needs, particularly if they:

  • are pregnant
  • are older in age
  • have health conditions, such as severe high blood pressure or glaucoma
  • have preexisting injuries, such as to the lower back

Yogic breathing is generally safe when a person practices with the guidance of a trained teacher, according to a 2020 review.

However, the authors urge caution when practicing breathing only through the right nostril, as it has the potential to raise blood pressure.

Yoga instructors teach in various locations, including community spaces, gyms, and bespoke yoga studios. Some also teach virtually through online calls or classes.

Beginners should ideally attend classes in person to learn how to practice safely. Yoga accreditation bodies hold directories of certified teachers.

To find a teacher, try:

People have been practicing yogic breathing, or “pranayama” in Sanskrit, for thousands of years. It involves intentional, mindful breathing that corresponds to yoga postures. People can also practice some pranayama techniques without movement.

Some scientific research supports the benefits of pranayama, although not all claims about the different techniques currently have evidence for them.

Some yogic breathing techniques are simple and safe enough to try at home, while other techniques ideally require the guidance of a trained teacher.