Pranayama: the breath of yoga

Starting a praṇayama practice: the breath of yoga. By Jac Godfrey

Pranayama is the fourth of the Eight Limbs of Yoga and  is the ancient practice of using special yogic breathing  methods to enhance and unlock energy flow within the  body and mind.

The ancient yogis used these techniques to purify the  body and mind to facilitate meditation and to reach uplifted states of  consciousness.

Pranayama is also a tremendous tool in our modern lives, to  enhance mental and physical wellbeing, as it confers a myriad  of health benefits. The breathing techniques range from the very  simplest, which can be used by anyone, to far more complex  methods which require detailed training and practice.

The word pranayama itself is a Sanskrit word derived from two  separate words:

Prana: means vital force, or life energy.

Yama: this actually has several meanings but, in this context, means  to ‘restrain’ or, as I prefer to think of it, ‘to skillfully harness’.

So the purpose of pranayama is to skillfully harness your vital energy.

We can all benefit from increasing our energy at times, whilst at  other times we feel a need to create a calmer frame of mind. Here’s  where pranayama comes in, as a versatile way to change the feel of  your energy.

There are several main types of classical pranayama, each of which  have very different effects on our energy. Some of these breathing  practices are deliberately calming, soothing and balancing, whilst other  types are vigorous, invigorating and uplifting. You might call them lunar  in nature (quietening and calming), or solar (energising and warming).

The safest and most accessible way to begin learning pranayama,  especially some of the more complex techniques, is with a suitably  qualified and experienced yoga teacher.

The Haṭha Yoga Pradipika, one of the leading texts on traditional  Hatha Yoga states that although the proper practice of pranayama  can bestow amazing benefits to health (the text actually says that it  ‘weakens all diseases’), it highlights that incorrect practice can lead  to more harm than good.

Starting a simple pranayama practice need not be daunting,  however. As an introduction, follow this simple guide to alternate  nostril breathing, or Nadi Shodhana.

How to practice Nadi Shodhana pranayama - simple ‘alternate  nostril’ breathing:

Benefits: clears, cleanses and balances the lunar and solar  energy pathways (nadis); with regular practice reduces the  incidence of ‘stress’ hormones cortisol and adrenaline; calms the  mind and balances the nervous systems (the sympathetic and  parasympathetic nervous systems, connected with left and right  brain hemispheres respectively).

Category: balancing, calming and simple, it can be done from  beginner level.

Contraindications: none, so long as you are not retaining (holding)  your breath at any point. NB: breath retentions should never be  done if you are pregnant.


  1. This is practiced seated with a tall spine to enhance breath flow and lung space. Choose an upright seated pose, which could be on the floor, perhaps using a cushion or yoga block  for support, or even in a chair.
  2. Relax the shoulders and lift the chest. Take a few moments  to centre.
  3. Using the right hand, form Vishnu Mudra (shown) – your index  and middle fingers gently curled into the base of the thumb,  leaving your ring finger and thumb free to touch at their tips.
  4. Rest the left hand on the left knee, tips of thumb and index  finger touching, remaining fingers lightly extended, back of  hand rests on knee. This is called Chin Mudra.
  5. Using the right hand, take thumb to right side of nose and  lightly press the right nostril closed.
  6. Close your eyes. Exhale slowly out of the left nostril to prepare.
  7. Inhale gently through the left nostril to a slow count of 1, 2, 3.
  8. At the top of your inhalation, gently squeeze both nostrils  closed with your thumb and ring finger.
  9. Then lift the thumb and exhale right nostril to a slow count  of 3, 2, 1.
  10. Inhale right - 1, 2, 3. 
  11. Lightly squeeze both nostrils closed. 
  12. Lift finger and exhale left 3, 2, 1. 
  13. Inhale left 1, 2, 3 - squeeze nose. 
  14. Exhale right 3, 2, 1. 
  15. Inhale right 1, 2, 3 squeeze nose 
  16. Exhale left 

And so on. At the top and bottom of each breath there is a natural  pause. We are not deliberately holding the breath at any point at  beginner level, although there are more advanced progressions of  this pranayama where breath retentions, known as kumbhaka, are  added in.

One ‘round’ of alternate nostril breath is when you have  completed all steps from inhale left through to exhale left. We always  end on a left side exhalation.

Initially try up five rounds to get a feel for it.  As you progress, change it up by increasing the count to 1, 2, 3, 4  and 4, 3, 2, 1 or perhaps up to 5 or 6 when you have more experience.

If the breath feels forced at any point, stop, or reduce the count  down again to a more comfortable level.

The breath should always be careful and gentle, rather than  forcing breath through your nostrils.

It is vital that you do not overdo a pranayama practice –  moderation and a regular practice is key to reaping the benefits. Start  with several minutes’ practice at most and build up over time.

Nadi shodhana can be practiced any time. It is a good breath for  either a morning or an evening practice, perhaps prior to meditation,  as it has the soothing qualities of creating balance and calm.


Jac Godfrey is a senior yoga teacher, yoga teacher trainer and is the founder of Mokshala Yoga & Meditation Centre. She runs courses, including traditional pranayama online and in-studio, including pranayama.


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