pranayama: what is it, why do it?

Shedding light on a Sanskrit word not only helps to make something less mysterious, but also possible as a daily practice. During all Yoga classes at Soul Spark Yoga, some technique of pranayama is practiced. Keep reading and learn a little more about this 4th limb of Yoga….it may encourage you to have a daily practice and feel energized.

Pranayama: The Definition

Pranayama, by definition, is a combination of the words prana and yama.  Prana means “life force/breath” and yama means “control/restraint.”  “Pranayama is therefore in one sense ‘breath control.’”[1]  When pranayama is done properly through diaphragmatic/thoracic restraint, the diaphragm movement massages surrounding organs and facilitates movement of fluids, oxygen, and blood. This purposeful breath control has many health benefits and can change the way our lungs and other organs function holistically. As Swami Saraswati states: “Rhythmic, deep and slow respiration stimulates and is stimulated by calm, content, states of mind.  Irregular breathing disrupts the rhythms of the brain and leads to physical, emotional and mental blocks.  These, in turn, lead to inner conflict, an unbalanced personality, a disordered lifestyle and disease.” [2]

There are various ways to practice pranayama, but in all cases, the idea of controlled breathing is key: be it through nostrils, mouth, or curved tongue. The inhale (pooraka), the exhale (rechaka), can be regulated, as well as the internal breath retention (antar kumbhaka) and external breath retention (bahir kumbhaka). The different pranayama practices merely play off of different combinations/techniques of these four aspects of breathing.  The most important aspect of pranayama is breath retention, or kumbhaka. This takes time for the practitioner to work up to and perform comfortably.  The ability of the lungs to thoroughly expel waste air is a primary goal with pranayama.  In performing pranayama with proper breath retention, we are allowing other organs to rest (such as the heart) and increasing our lifespan as deemed by Swami Saraswati: “A slow breathing rate keeps the heart stronger and better nourished and contributes to a longer life.”[3]

Primary Respiratory Muscles

While breathing happens without much thought as it is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, the Yogic practice of pranayama intelligently and deliberately seeks to maximize our breath through controlled breathing and technique. The diaphragm, a large dome-shaped muscle, is essential when it comes to breathing and respiration.  It is responsible for a great deal of the air that enters the lungs during quiet breathing. Fahri states: “The principle muscle that is responsible for 75 percent of all respiratory effort is the diaphragm.  It is assisted by the other primary muscles—the intercostals between the ribs and the abdominal muscles that girdle the front of the belly.”[4]  The intercostals and abdominal muscles, “They variously compress the abdomen, expand the thoracic cavity, and elevate or depress the ribs.” [5] There are also extra diaphragmatic muscles that are given little attention: these are the pelvic and vocal diaphragm muscles.  The pelvic diaphragm resides at the pelvic floor, while the vocal diaphragm resides at the top of the trachea.  They aid in helping the breathing within the body in a holistic way.  When we inhale, Farhi says that: “Both the pelvic and vocal diaphragm respond to this movement by opening outwards (vocal cords and glottis open out, and pelvic muscles release and spread).” [6]  These primary muscles are the dominant forces when it comes to our daily breathing.

Secondary Respiratory Muscles

The secondary muscles which aid us in respiration are the scalene, sternocleidomastoid, trapezius, and pectoralis minor muscles.  These muscles tend to support breathing twenty percent of the time.  When breathing is done incorrectly, these muscles are exerted disproportionately which results in upper body tensions/aches and a lack of clarity.  By utilizing diaphragmatic breathing, these muscles are used as they should be: in an auxiliary and supportive way.  As Farhi cautions us: “The secondary breathing muscles should never be asked to take on the role of prime movers.”[7]

Respiratory Organs

The respiratory organs include all of those organs involved with breathing. The nose (nasal cavities, nostrils) is the primary organ which helps in the intake and filtration of air. Each nostril is linked to a different part of the brain. Devi elucidates the intricate function of the nostrils: “The right nostril corresponds with the left side of the brain and the attributes of heat, thinking, mind, intellect, and reason…The left nostril corresponds with the right side of the brain and the attributes of coolness, intuition, feelings, and knowing…” [8] The sinuses help in humidifying the air we intake as the air then passes along through the pharynx, and down the trachea (windpipe). The larynx, which is also known as our vocal cords, lies just before the trachea.   As air goes through the larynx, it vibrates and creates sound. The air can then split off into both the right and left lungs through the right and left bronchus.  The lungs expand as air enters, and the oxygen is processed and sent through the body.  In the case of mouth breathing (not utilizing the nostrils), the air enters and meets at the pharynx.  The pharynx breaks off into two sections to allow food to go down the esophagus and air to go into the trachea.  The epiglottis, a flap, allows for air only into the trachea and food to pass down the esophagus. So much goes on in each breath: it’s no wonder if we aren’t breathing well that we feel droopy, have a scattered mind, or feel restless.

The Takeaway

It’s no secret that pranayama functions as a key component in giving us the highest level of prana and a fullness of life through breath. The key to understanding our breath and how it affects us physically as well as mentally is where we come to the crossroads in our practice: is it just the 4th limb of Yoga and a word, or does it have a profound impact on our life when incorporated in our daily living?  I always encourage students to bring it into their day in the morning with a meditation practice, as it awakens the mind and simultaneously brings a calmness. With so many techniques of pranayama, there is bound to be one that brings the most benefit to you.

Wanting to learn more about pranayama? Soul Spark Yoga offers a series class that includes pranayama techniques and a take-home workbook, as well as meditation, relaxation, and chants. Check out series classes and look for the Pranayama, Mantra, Dhyana, and Relaxation series.

So what are you waiting for?  Breathe…


[1] The Complete Yoga Book: The Yoga of Breathing, Meditation and Posture by James Hewitt,

  1. 57

[2] Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, pg. 373

[3] Ibid, pg. 374

[4] The Breathing Book: Good Health and Vitality Through Essential Breath Work by Donna Farhi, pg. 51

[5]  Yoga for Wellness: Healing with the Timeless Teachings of Viniyoga

[6]  Ibid, pg. 57

[7] The Breathing Book: Good Health and Vitality Through Essential Breath Work by Donna Farhi, pg. 51


[8] The Healing Path of Yoga: Alleviate Stress, Open Your Heart, and Enrich Your Life by Nischala

Joy Devi, pg. 99