Pranayama versus Breathing Exercises | Arhanta Yoga Blog

What Is the Difference between Pranayama and Breathing Exercises?

By arhanta_y_org | blog

Jun 14

What Is the Difference between Pranayama and Breathing Exercises?

When referring to breathing exercises, the term ‘Pranayama’ is often used. However, not all breathing exercises are Pranayama. In fact, most aren’t. The term Pranayama literally means “expansion of life force (prana) and its purpose is to improve the body’s capacity to retain and increase prana in the body.

In order to increase the body’s ability to retain prana, Pranayama exercises purify our energy channels (Nadis). With regular practice of Pranayama, the channels become pure, the body retains more prana and the the mind becomes for concentration and meditation. Regular practice of Pranayama awakens the inner spiritual force, brings joy and enhances spiritual development.

In order to retain and increase the life force in our body, Pranayama utilizes all five tools:

Three tools of Pranayama

  1. Poorak (Inhalation)
  2. Rechaka (Exhalation)
  3. Antar Kumbhaka (Internal Retention)
  4. Bahayia Kumbhaka (External Retention)
  5. Bandhas (Locks)

Only when an exercise includes retention with locks, can we speak about Pranayama. Most breathing exercises are actually an easier version of a Pranayama. This is generally accomplished by removing the locks and the external retention (holding the breath after exhaling).

Nadi Sodan versus Anulom Vilom

The easiest way to explain the difference between Pranayama and breathing exercises is by explaining the difference between Anulom Vilom (Alternate Nostral Breathing) and Nadi Shodhana.

Anulom Vilom is a very popular breathing exercise which is often called a Pranayama. However Anulom Vilom is not Pranayama, it is a Preparatory Pranayama.

How to practice Anulom Vilom (Breathing Exercise)

Anulom Vilom is a breathing exercise which aims to balance the left and right hemisphere by giving equal amount of oxygen to both parts of the brain. This exercise has a calming and suiting effect on the mind, the breath and the heart beat by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system.

This is how you can practice Anulom Vilom:

  • Sit in a comfortable position, place your left hand in Chin Mudra (tip of the index finger and the thumb touching) and your right hand in Vishnu Mudra (bending the index finger and the middle finger)
  • Place your right thumb on your right nostril and breathe in left for 4 counts
  • Close your both nostrils by closing also your left nostril with your little finger and ring finger, and hold your breath for 8 or 16 counts
  • Remove your thumb from the right nostril and breathe out through your right nostril for 8 counts
  • Breathe in through your right nostril for 8 counts
  • Hold your breath for 8 or 16 counts
  • Breathe out through your left nostril for 8 counts

This is one round of Anulom Vilom. This breathing exercise should be continued for 5 minutes for beginners. Once you feel comfortable, you can increase the duration up to 10 minutes. When inhaling for 4 counts, classically the internal retention should be 16 counts, but with beginners it is advisable to start with holding the breath for 8 counts and to build up gradually to 16 counts.

How to practice Nadi Shodhana Pranayama

In order to be able to practice Nadi Sodan, you must be confident and comfortable practicing Anulom Vilom for 5-10 minutes. The difference between Nadi Sodan and Anulom Vilom – or in general between Pranayama and breathing exercises – is that Nadi Sodan includes retention or holding the breath after exhalation (Bahaya Kumbhak or external retention) and the use of Bandhas or Locks.

The purpose of using locks is to control the flow of energy or prana.

There are 3 types of locks:

  • Mula Bandha (Root Lock): contracting the muscles between the pubic bone and the pelvic bone
  • Uddiyana Bandha (Abdominal Lock): after a complete exhalation, expand the rib cage as if you were to inhale but don’t actually inhale. Suck the abdominal muscles and viscera in and up, hollowing the belly
  • Jalandhara Bandha (Chin Lock): dropping the chin to the neck so the throat is closed

This is just a very brief description of the locks. The practice of locks should be only done under the supervision and guidance of an experienced teacher.

Once you feel comfortable using locks, you can continue with the practice of Nadi Sodan:

  • Sit in a comfortable position, place your left hand in Chin Mudra and your right hand in Nasagra Mudra (placing the tip of the index finger and middle finger in between your eyebrows)
  • Place your right thumb on your right nostril and breathe out left for 4 counts
  • Close your left nostril with your little finger and ring finger and hold your breath for 8 or 16 counts (this is Bayaha Kumbhak or External Retention)
    • During the retention, apply Mula Bandha (Root Lock), Uddiyana Bandha (Abdominal Lock) and Jalandhara Bandha (Chin Lock)
  • Release the locks, breathe in left for 4 counts
  • Close your left nostril and hold the breath for 8 or 16 counts while using Root Lock and Chin Lock
  • Breathe out through the right nostril for 8 counts
  • Hold the breath for 8 or 16 counts
    • During the retention, apply Mula Bandha (Root Lock), Uddiyana Bandha (Abdominal Lock) and Jalandhara Bandha (Chin Lock)
  • Release the locks and inhale through your right nostril for 4 counts
  • Hold the breath for 8 or 16 counts while using Root Lock and Chin Lock

This is half one round of Nadi Shodhana. You can continue this practice for 5-10 minutes.

Start to practice preparatory Pranayama today and learn more: 3 Yogic Breathing Exercises to Calm Down

And please remember: The practice of Pranayama is very intensive for the body and the mind and it should always be practiced with the help of an experienced and knowledgeable teacher. As it is stated in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika:

“Proper practice of Pranayama can remove diseases, improper practice of Pranayama can cause diseases”

About the Author

Ram-Online-Yin-Yoga-Teacher

Ram Jain (E-RYT 500) is a renowned yoga teacher from India and the Director of Arhanta Yoga Ashrams in India and The Netherlands. He has been teaching since 1998 and he is teaching yoga teacher training courses since 2009. In the past 10 years, he has trained over 3500 yoga teachers. Ram is also the creator of several online education courses, such as the 50 hours Online Yin Yoga course and the 30 hours online Ayurveda Fundamentals course. Born and raised in India, his yoga education started from the age of 8 years as part of his school education. Over the period he has studied yoga and yogic philosophy in-depth from various reputed teachers.

Ram Jain is also the author of the internationally acclaimed book: Hatha Yoga For Teachers & Practitioners: A Comprehensive Guide to Holistic Sequencing

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