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What is Pranayama, and How Can You Use It In Your Daily Practice?

Pranayama: you might have heard this word before – one of many Sanskrit words that sounds cool, but maybe also kind of sounds like all the other Sanskrit words your teacher says in class. If you haven’t studied Sanskrit in-depth (okay but whom among us has?!) and you’re still trying to figure out what pranayama is, you’ve come to the right place. Read on to discover what pranayama is and how it can help you deepen your daily yoga practice. 

What is pranayama?

Like most Sanskrit words, pranayama is a compound word composed of a few smaller units of meaning. Prana translates to “life-force.” Prana is that which moves us; sometimes we call it energy, life-force, or very simply, breath. Ayama means expansion, often linked to movement. Thus, at its most basic, pranayama can be translated into “the expansion of life-force.”


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How do you practice pranayama?

So we know the literal translation now, but what does it actually mean in practice? Traditionally, pranayama is expressed as controlled breathwork practices. Breathing in and out to a distinct rhythm, breathing through specific nostrils, or changing the shape and placement of the tongue are some examples of how pranayama practices differ from normal breath. The gentle breath that we start classes with, our fierce and victorious ujjayi breath, the cooling open-mouth exhales: all of these are forms of pranayama.

How does pranayama help?

Your breath is directly connected to your nervous system. Think about the times when you’re tense or excited. Your heart rate picks up, and your breathing gets shallower and faster. When you’re fully relaxed or asleep, your breathing is much slower. These sensations typically originate from the nervous system and affect your breathing, but we can also reverse the relationship and use the breath to affect the nervous system.


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Pranayama techniques also work with the subtle energies in our bodies. For instance, the left side of the body has long been considered the cooling side. Breathing in through the left nostril and out through the right harnesses the cool and calm on the left and pacifies the more fiery right side.

Breathing for Your Emotions

Calm and Relax

It’s pretty common knowledge by now that deep breathing can calm you down when you’re anxious or angry. And that’s true! When emotions like fear and anger flare up, we can self-soothe by telling our nervous system to relax through our breathing. A longer exhale tells the body we’re not in danger and regulates your central nervous system.

Our favorite calming and relaxing breath is sitali breath. Not only can you use it to cool your emotions, but this breathing technique is also super refreshing to the body on a hot day, too!

Energize and Uplift

Just as we can calm ourselves, we can also energize ourselves. Quick, controlled breaths where the inhale is longer than the exhale stimulates our energy and gets us fired up. If you’re feeling particularly sluggish and really need to get some work done, give your body a boost with a breath like kapalabhati (skull-shining breath). During class, you might find that engaging your ujjayi breath helps you sink deeper into poses and improves your focus.

Balance and Center

Sometimes you just need to tune back in and balance out your body. One of our favorite techniques for this is nadi shodhana — this breath is one of the most commonly known breathing techniques for a reason! Nadi shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing, follows a simple pattern to move air through both sides of the body, evening out your energy.

Using pranayama in your daily routine

If you have a regular yoga practice, integrating pranayama is as simple as knowing what breaths you like best and adding them in like you would a new yoga pose. Use an energizing breath before an intense practice to prep your mind, muscles, and nervous system. Add a balancing or cooling breath in before or after a slower flow or restorative class.

Pranayama also doesn’t have to be incorporated into a yoga or meditation practice. If you’re getting really angry while stopped at a red light, take 30 seconds to breathe. Getting ready for a big test or life event? Balancing breaths can bring you great clarity and focus. Anytime you have a spare minute, you can use pranayama to center yourself and align with your intentions. It’s an extremely versatile tool to connect with yourself and tune in, whatever your present need.

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Ready to dive into some pranayama practices? We have a whole collection of videos from short tutorials to half-hour sessions to help you explore pranayama over on Sign up today for your free 15-day trial!

breathing practices, daily routine, prana, pranayama, tutorials, ujjayi breathing