With a good understanding of the anatomy and physiology of breathing, it is possible to create energy by doing less than nothing.
That is to say that if you think doing nothing means simply lying down and relaxing then you can actually do less than nothing by breathing less than you would normally do in that situation.
According to popular belief, pranayama or true yogic breathing, as it is sometimes called, has to do with breathing more than normal. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nearly anyone can breathe 5 full breaths in one minute, but people who can breathe just one breath in 5 minutes are harder to find. Breathing less than normal (hypoventilation) is much harder yet much more beneficial than breathing more than normal (hyperventilation).
The old yoga adage goes something like this: ‘The yogi counts their life not by the number of years they live but by the number of breaths they take”. Even common logic tells us the same. Really fit people run fast and may hardly breathe at all, while unfit people who move quite slowly can often be seen to be breathing heavily, or even panting.
Pranayama can be done most simply by sitting on a chair. In fact , the main purpose of this article is to describe some of the most basic breath-control exercises that give the most significant results on a physiological level, yet are quite accessible to most people.
One major benefit of these simple breath-control exercises is an increased energy level, initially manifested by feeling significantly warmer (a result of greater blood flow), and accompanied by a focused, grounded and calm state of mind, with a slower than normal heart rate. These simple breath-control exercises will be described in detail below.
In Figure 1, you can see examples of much more complex types of pranayama that take years of regular practice to master and are only accessible to few people. These will also be described in a general way at the end of this article.
SEATED BREATH-CONTROL EXERCISES (PRANAYAMA):
Simple practice for most people:
I recommend that most people sit in a chair for these relatively simple and accessible breath-control exercises. It is only wise to put your legs cross legged, or in lotus posture (padmasana) if it is as easy to put your legs into the lotus posture as it is for you to cross your arms by placing each hand on the opposite shoulder. You must be able to sit comfortably enough to focus on becoming lengthened in all directions while remaining as relaxed as possible.
The four simplest breathing exercises (apart from relaxed natural breathing) are as follows:
- Inhalation emphasis breathing: make a really long slow inhale and then a short natural breath out.
- Inhalation retention emphasis breathing: Make a gentle full breath in, and then hold your breath in as long as you comfortably can, and then a short natural breath out.
- Exhalation emphasis breathing: Make a gentle full breath in, and then breathe out as slowly as possible for as long as it is comfortably possible.
- Exhalation retention emphasis breathing: Make a gentle full breath in over 3-5 seconds, then a short full breath out about the same length, and then hold your breath out as long as you comfortably can.
Ideally these four main types of pranayama (numbered 2 – 6 below) are done from between 4 – 6 breaths each, with each breath ideally lasting between 30 – 60 seconds each.
A good amount of time for your first attempt is 45 seconds per breath. If you can only do one breath cycle for up to 45 seconds and for every other breath you need to ‘sneak in’ a few extra gentle breaths then 45 second cycles are a good start.
If that is too hard for even one breath then reduce that amount to 30 seconds.
If your full breath cycles are less than 30 seconds per breath, it is is possible that none of the real physiological benefits of breathing (such as increased blood flow and increased delivery of oxygen to the cells) will occur. This is because of the Bohr effect, which essentially states that oxyhaemoglobin (the oxygen carrying red pigment in red blood cells) will not release its oxygen unless there are sufficient levels of carbon dioxide.
A book by the adept scholar of yoga NC Paul, written in about 1850, even goes so far as to suggest that it is carbon dioxide that is the essence of prana (the internal energy, that is referred to as chi in china). For that reason, I recommend that you work towards gradually increasing the length of each breath cycle and ideally beginning the practice with up to 45 seconds per breath cycle as described in more detail below.
- KEVALA KUMBHAKA: 2 – 5 minutes silent meditation (invisible, inaudible breathing resulting from focusing on lengthening and relaxing your body)
- PURAKA UJJAJI PRANAYAMA: 4 – 6 breaths long inhalation (up to 40 seconds inhale: up to 5 seconds exhale)
- ANTARA KUMBHAKA PRANAYAMA: 4 – 6 breaths inhalation retention (up to 5 seconds inhale: up to 35 seconds inhale retention: up to 5 seconds exhale)
- RECAKA UJJAJI PRANAYAMA: 4 – 6 breaths long exhalation (up to 5 seconds inhale: up to 40 seconds exhale)
- BHAYA KUMBHAKA PRANAYAMA: 4 – 6 breaths exhalation retention (up to 5 seconds inhale: up to 5 seconds exhale: up to 35 seconds exhale retention)
- KEVALA KUMBHAKA: 5 – 30 minutes silent meditation (invisible inaudible breathing resulting from focusing on lengthening and relaxing your body, which eventually leads to the feeling of contentment and loving-kindness)
- SAVASANA: 5 – 10 minutes supine relaxation
I really recommend these breath-control exercises to everyone to increase health and longevity and a lust for life. You can obtain an online and downloadable version of these simple breath-control exercises, including even more simple and accessible versions than are described above, in our online shop. and also explained in this video just below.
These simple breath-control exercises (and many of the more complex exercises listed below) are taught daily in our live Teacher Training Courses and form an integral part of the training. Please visit for the latest schedule of training courses.
In you cannot attend our live courses you can also benefit from our 120 hour online course entitled ‘Teacher Training Essentials: Yoga Fundamentals’.
Intermediate Level Practice:
Here is one of my usual daily seated pranayama practice (I will explain easy options at the end). For me, this practice feels like I am getting free energy from the universe and it makes me feel energised and totally calm on a physiological level, while on an anatomical level it eases any joint pain and seems to increase strength and flexibility.
For this pranayama I practice with 40 one-minute cycles (about 40 breaths), which makes a seated practice that last for about 40 minutes
1. KEVALA KUMBHAKA: 4 minutes meditation (invisible inaudible breathing resulting from focusing on lengthening and relaxing your body)
2. PURAKA UJJAJI PRANAYAMA: 4 minutes (4 breaths) long inhalation (55 seconds inhale: 5 seconds exhale)
3. ANTARA KUMBHAKA PRANAYAMA: 4 minutes (4 breaths) inhalation retention (5 seconds inhale: 50 seconds inhale retention: 5 seconds exhale)
4. RECAKA UJJAJI PRANAYAMA: 4 minutes (4 breaths) long exhalation (5 seconds inhale: 55 seconds exhale)
5. BHAYA KUMBHAKA PRANAYAMA: 4 minutes (4 breaths) exhalation retention (5 seconds inhale: 5 seconds exhale: 50 seconds exhale retention)
6a. SAMA VRTTI UJJAJI PRANAYAMA: 2 minutes (2 breaths long inhalation and long exhalation (30 seconds inhale: 30 seconds exhale)
6b. VISAMA VRTTI UJJAJI PRANAYAMA: 2 minutes (2 breaths)1:4:2:1 breathing (7.5 seconds inhale: 30 seconds inhale retention: 15 seconds exhale: 7.5 seconds exhale retention)
7a. NADI SODHANA PRANAYAMA: 2 minutes (2 breaths) alternate nostril breathing (nadi sodhana pranayama) (30 seconds inhale left nostril: 30 seconds exhale right nostril: 30 seconds inhale right nostril: 30 seconds exhale left nostril)
7b. SURYA BHEDHANA PRANAYAMA: 2 minutes (2 breaths) visualised alternate nostril breathing (citta surya bhedana pranayama)
8. SHAKTI CALANI PRANAYAMA: 8 minutes (2 cycles of 4 minutes each cycle) of fast then slow breathing (30 seconds (10 breaths) of ‘rolling up’ breathing: 30 seconds of ‘rolling down’ breathing: 60 seconds exhale retention with bandhas: 30 seconds inhalation: 60 seconds inhalation retention with bandhas: 30 seconds exhalation) [the ‘Rolling up’ and ‘rolling down’ breathing is described in my previous post].
9. KEVALA KUMBHAKA: 4 – 40 minutes meditation (invisible inaudible breathing resulting from focusing on lengthening and relaxing your body) (alway good to finish as you began and then compare the feeling)
10. SAVASANA: 5 – 10 minutes supine relaxation
* Easier versions include sitting in any comfortable posture (even on a chair) and doing less length for each cycle of pranayama.
* If you are new to this you may choose to only do the first 4 types of pranayama with maybe only 1-3 cycles. Depending on your capacity you can do 45 seconds for each cycle or maybe even only 30 seconds for each cycle.
* The timings do not have to be precise, e.g for the inhalation pranayama (2) you can just inhale as long as you can then exhale some time before the end of your timed cycle for as long as you need to.
* The last pranayama (8) is the most advanced and so I recommend that you skip it completely if you are prone to dizziness or nausea, or if you have any medical condition (unless supervised by an experienced health practitioner), or if you can’t do at least 45 second cycles.
* In any of these cycles you can also make it easier when ever you need to by taking a few natural breaths.
* This type of pranayama is done very passively (except for the last one (8), in which you can make it more active if you wish using bandhas kriyas and movement).
* Never force this pranayama. You are on the right track if you end up feeling hot, clear in mind and completely calm after. You are probably forcing and or over-breathing if you stay cold, or get dizzy or nauseous.
* The main idea of this type of pranayama is to build up carbon dioxide, which will enhance the Bohr Effect. This will allow the uptake of oxygen into your body cells and allow to make 20 times as much energy from the food you eat and the air you breathe.
* If 60 second cycles are easy for you (or if you are experiencing dizziness or nausea) then try 70-90 second cycles instead but make sure you can do at least 6 breaths of a particular cycle length before increasing it.
* Once this is learnt to a satisfactory level you can begin to use the breath for more physical means as discussed below and in previous articles linked at bottom of this article.
To get a deeper understanding of these intermediate level types of pranayama and especially the more advanced types of pranayama described below please see our article entitled ‘Secrets of Advanced Breath-control (Pranayama) with Internal locks (Bandha), Energy-control Gestures (Mudra) and Internal Cleansing (Kriya)‘.
Advanced Seated Pranayama (in padmasana unless otherwise stated):
For these pranayamas you need to have good understanding of the intermediate to advanced postures shown, the intermediate level pranayamas listed above, as well as an understanding of ha and tha uddiyana bandha, ha and that mula bandha , lauliki (nauli) as well the use of tongue in various mudras.
The letters (a) to (m) below refer to the photos in Figure 1 above. For more information about how to perform these advanced pranayamas please see our book ‘Applied Anatomy and Physiology of Yoga’ (by Borg-Olivier and Machliss 2013) and/or join our online course ‘Applied Anatomy and Physiology of Yoga’.
(a) ujjayi pranayama in antara kumbhaka (inhalation retention) with ha-jalandhara bandha, ha-uddiyana bandha, ha-mula bandha, dharana mudra
(b) puraka (inhalation) in sitkali pranayama with tha-jalandhara bandha;
(c) ujjayi with antara kumbhaka, ha-jalandhara bandha, tha-uddiyana bandha, ha-mula bandha;
(d) ujjayi pranayama with san mukhi mudra;
(e) nadi sodhana pranayama;
(f) kloman mudra with tha-jalandhara bandha;
(g) sitali pranayama with kaki mudra;
(h) kevala kumbhaka (minimal breathing) in baddha padmasana;
(i) bahya kumbhaka (exhalation retention) with ha-jalandhara bandha, tha-uddiyana bandha, ha-mula bandha in bhadrasana;
(j) bahya kumbhaka with ha-jalandhara bandha, tha-uddiyana bandha, tha-mula bandha in bhagasana;
(k) bahya kumbhaka with ha- jalandhara bandha, tha-uddiyana bandha, tha-mula bandha in bhadrasana;
(l) bahya kumbhaka with ha-jalandhara bandha, tha-uddiyana bandha, ha-mula bandha (obliquus externus abdominis isolation), and simha mudra in yoni dandasana;
(m) bahya kumbhaka with ha-jalandhara bandha, tha-uddiyana bandha and tha-mula bandha in the form of nauli (rectus abdominis isolation) in mulabandhasana.
Just below you can view a short video of me practicing advanced pranayamas, including a version of Shakti Calini Pranayama in a river in Ubud, Bali, a few years ago. For more videos please visit our YouTube Channel
For more about pranayama (breath-control), its potential benefits and the anatomy and physiology of breathing, please see our previous article ‘Breathing (Part 1): How to breathe to help your spine, internal organs and energy levels’.
For more information about how to use the chest to obtain a number of benefits please read out article ‘The Risks and Benefits of Chest Breathing’.
To help understand the relationship between breathing, strength, flexibility and energy levels please see our article ‘Holding your breath for increased strength, flexibility, healthier digestion and to eat less food’.
For a deeper understanding of the physiology of breathing please see our article ‘To Breathe or Not to Breathe’.
To read about the seven main benefits of breathing please read our article ‘Regulate Your Breath to Control Body and Mind‘.
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