Many people naively reduce the practice of yoga to physical movement. To them, yoga is just an exercise, like running or swimming, performed purely to improve the state and appearance of the body. But yoga is not just a physical practice. In fact, the external aspect of yoga serves merely as a method of achieving an internal state of alignment, which is the true purpose of yoga. The concept of yoga has held sociocultural significance in the East for thousands of years due to its innately spiritual nature. The key to accessing the spiritual element of yoga? Pranayama breathing exercises.

Perhaps exceeding the significance of asanas, or yoga poses, pranayama is a form of breath work with spiritual significance. Incorporating pranayama breathing exercises into yoga is what transforms the practice from a physical exercise to a means of achieving spiritual enlightenment.

What is Pranayama?

Pranayama is, simply stated, the practice of even, controlled, conscientious breathing. Pranayama is designed to facilitate the effortless flow of energy through the body. Prana is our life force, an energy that flows through our bodies and fuels the mind and spirit. The word ayama translates to “to draw out.” Thus, pranayama is the practice of drawing our energy through the body to energize mind, body, and spirit. When we perform pranayama, prana flows through the nadis, or the body’s energy channels, cleansing and fortifying them to restore their proper functioning.

Pranayama breathing exercises are the key to transforming asanas from physical exercise to a spiritually elevating practice. Yoga is not as simple as completing a series of poses. You must instead control the flow of breath while completing the asanas to create an enlightening experience of the whole person—mind, body, and soul. One practitioner describes asanas as a meditation of the body and pranayama as a meditation of the mind. When performed together, the whole person enters a meditative state of transcendence, ascending to an elevated spiritual plane. In other words, pranayama unites our outward activity with the inner workings of our consciousness to invoke a meditative state in which prana flows to energize, calm, and sustain us.

Why Do Pranayama Breathing Exercises?

Why practice pranayama breathing exercises? Pranayama is a method of consciously deepening and extending the breath to effectively calm and cleanse the body. Often, when we are not minding our breath, we begin to breathe quickly and shallowly. Poor breathing in turn inhibits the flow of prana through the body, leading to fatigue, anxiety, depression, and spiritual desolation. Whether poor breathing patterns are the result of a stressful lifestyle, negative emotions, or a physical ailment, they tend to only perpetuate the problem. Restoring a healthy breathing pattern can restore the vitality that has been lost to poor breathing habits.

In Western terms, breathing too quickly indicates over-activity in the sympathetic nervous system. Whether rapid breathing is the cause or effect of this activity, the overall result is an elevated heart rate and stress hormones, upset stomach, nervousness, dizziness, confusion, and irritability. If the breath continues to quicken, rapid breathing can even devolve into a panic attack—a harmless but nonetheless terrifying experience in which the body enters “fight or flight” in absence of a threat, leading to feelings of intense fear and impending doom. These unpleasant effects are the result of oxygen buildup in the blood, which disturbs our body’s pH balance.

But just as stress can affect our breathing patterns, our breathing patterns can impact our stress levels and, in turn, alter our psychological states. Practicing pranayama activates the parasympathetic nervous system, restoring the blood to healthy pH levels and calming the mind in times of panic.

The Purpose of a Pranayama Practice

Pranayama breathing exercises originated thousands of years ago as a method of achieving elevated consciousness. But its purposes are not limited to the spiritual realm. A regular pranayama practice will cultivate general awareness of the breath throughout your day. You may find yourself breathing slower and deeper, and thus better energized and able to cope with stress.

Certain types of pranayama can be used to alleviate specific ailments. In general, breathing in energizes the body and breathing out soothes the body. If you’re feeling fatigued, work to slow and deepen your inhale. Feeling anxious? You should instead work to slow your exhale. If you’re feeling blue, you want to ensure that your inhalation and exhalation are of equal length. Continue breathing deeply in and out at the same rate, slowing the inhalation and exhalation with each breath. Rapid breathing has a more detoxifying effect, but may be unsafe for those with asthma, heart disease, hypertension, pregnancy, or anxiety.

How to Practice Pranayama

I recommend 20 minutes of pranayama per day. But even just a minute here and there throughout the day will yield health benefits. It is best to practice pranayama before eating or consuming caffeine. Pranayama engages the abdominal muscles and may be uncomfortable when your stomach is full. Caffeine elevates your heart rate, making it more difficult to slow your breathing.

There are several different types of pranayama unique to specific yoga practices. Kripalu yoga, for example, is a gentle practice that employs pranayama both before and after asanas as a means of becoming attuned to the body. Ashtanga yoga, on the other hand, incorporates a form of pranayama called ujayyi throughout the asanas to fuel your inner fire.

Ujayyi is just one of many types of pranayama. Also known as “victorious breath,” ujayyi is both invigorating and soothing. To perform ujayyi, constrict the throat muscles so your breathing becomes slightly raspy (but not rough or restricted). You should not have to use a lot of force during ujayyi, and your breath should flow naturally. The slight constriction of the throat will extend and even out the breath without conscious effort. Deergha swasam is another popular pranayama. This method entails first filling your belly with air, then your rib cage, and finally your upper chest, exhaling in reverse. Kapalabhati is a form of rapid, sharp breathing that requires contraction of the lower abdominal muscles.

There are far too many pranayama techniques to list here. A helpful tool for relaxing during any type of pranayama is to use visualization techniques. Envision filling your body with light, or positive energy, as you inhale. When you exhale, picture negative energy, toxic emotions, and poisonous waste leaving your body. Doing so will not only calm your body, but also brighten your disposition.