Breathing exercise steps and pranayama poses

Breathing exercises - sharpmuscle
16 min read
Updated: April 23, 2023

The breathing exercise, or pranayama, are designed to help reduce stress, increase energy, improve concentration, and promote physical and mental health.

You may be familiar with the term prana, a Sanskrit word that translates as “life force energy,” what is known in Chinese as chi. Prana “rides the wave of the breath”; it is distilled from the air that we breathe.

Pranayama, then, is a means of controlling and extending the breath to regulate your physical and/or emotional state. Through yogic breathing exercise, you can learn how to observe and become mindful of your breathing patterns.

What is breathing?

Because breathing is so automatic, you rarely pay attention to it. Unfortunately, most of us have developed poor breathing habits over the years, only using a small percentage of our 5-quart lung capacity, leading to loss of energy, respiratory problems, mental confusion, and increased tension.

12 breathing exercise

  1. Alternate Nostril Breath
  2. Expansive Breath
  3. Belly and Chest Breathing
  4. Breath of Fire
  5. Breath of Fire with Raised Thumbs
  6. Chin Press Breath
  7. Complete Breath
  8. Cooling Breath
  9. Humming Bee Breath
  10. Sounding Breath
  11. Sucking Breath
  12. Sufi Mother’s Breath

Breathing Tip

If you really pay attention, chances are you’ll find your inhalations and exhalations are shallow and that you tend to breathe high up in your chest.

Shallow breathing doesn’t properly oxygenate the system, allowing toxins to build up. No wonder we often feel tired and sluggish by the end of the day.

Full, deep breathing—also known as diaphragmatic breathing—floods the system with oxygen, nourishes the blood cells, and removes harmful toxins. The result is enhanced skin tone, better posture, fewer respiratory problems, higher levels of energy, improved concentration, and a feeling of overall well-being and health. 1

Our breath also controls our emotions. As you breathe, so you live. When you are angry or stressed, you breathe rapidly or may even hold our breath, which increases our tension level. Your muscles become tight and your pulse increases, which in turn shortens the breath, which increases tension, which shortens the breath . . . and on it goes.

The next time you are tense, try to breathe deeply. With each slow, even breath, feel the tension begin to dissipate as muscles relax. It is nearly impossible to remain in a state of heightened tension if your breath follows a long, rhythmic pattern.

The breathing exercise will help promote this even, healthful breathing. Some exercises—like Complete Breath or Sufi Mother’s Breath—can be done throughout the day: while you’re waiting in line, working at your computer, or sitting in rush-hour traffic (breathe, breathe!).

Don’t wait to get onto the yoga mat to breathe correctly. Incorporate deep breathing exercises into your daily routine and reap the benefits of increased metabolism, improved complexion, healthier lungs, a stronger immune system, better concentration, and reduced levels of stress. 2

Step by step breathing exercise

Pranayamas (or breathing exercises) are the formal practice of controlling the breath, which is the source of our soul, or prana shakti. Here, read on Pranayama exercises and poses, breathing techniques and sequence.

1. Alternate Nostril Breath (Anulom Vilom Pranayama)

Anulom Vilom Pranayama - sharpmuscle
Anulom Vilom Pranayama

Although you may not be aware of it, we normally breathe in one-to two-hour cycles;

First one nostril, then the other is dominant. (If you’re curious, check which nostril is dominant by closing off one nostril and breathing through the other; reverse, and compare the airflow from each.)

Prolonged breathing through one side can drain your energy. Alternate Nostril Breath, an ancient breathing technique, has a profound stilling effect on the mind and restores the proper balance to your breathing pattern, which equalizes the energies and pathways of the nervous system.

Placing your index and middle fingers on your forehead stimulates the “third eye,” your center of intuition and connection to the higher self. Practice Alternate Nostril Breath whenever you seek a calm, clear state of mind.

  • Before you begin, you may wish to use a tissue to clear your nostrils. Sit comfortably in a chair or on a mat, keeping your spine straight.
  • Place the index and middle fingers of your right hand on your forehead, between the eyebrows. Your thumb rests on the right nostril; the ring and baby fingers rest on your left nostril. If you prefer not to place your fingers on the forehead, curl the index and middle fingers toward the palm instead.
  • Inhale and exhale. Close the right nostril with the thumb; inhale through the left nostril for a count of 5.
  • Close both nostrils; hold your breath for a count of 5. (If holding the breath causes discomfort, reduce the count or eliminate altogether.)
  • Lift the thumb; exhale for a count of 5 through the right nostril.
  • Inhale through the right nostril for a count of 5, hold for a count of 5, close your right nostril, and exhale through the left nostril for a count of 5. This completes 1 round.
  • Repeat for 4 more rounds.
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2. Expansive Breath (Phullana Pranayama)

Expansive Breath (Phullana Pranayama) Breathing exercises - sharpmuscle
Expansive Breath (Phullana Pranayama)

This rejuvenating, expansive breath opens the chest, promoting a sense of wellness and fulfillment. The movement also helps relieve tension in your back and keeps your spine flexible. Do this energetic breathing exercise when you feel cold, tired, or run down. It can also double as a warm-up to any yoga session.


Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Hold your arms straight out in front of you with palms together at chest height. Make sure your shoulders are down and away from the ears.

Step 1:

Open your mouth and inhale through the mouth as you fling your arms open and back, bending the wrists so your fingertips point away from you. Lift the chin slightly. Your eyes look upward.

Step 2:
  • Exhale completely through the mouth as you begin to come forward, tucking your chin, and bending at the waist and knees. Hands may be clasped together in front of the chest, or they may rest on your thighs.
  • Let your head hang so that there is no pressure on your neck.
  • Repeat this cycle 12 times at whatever pace feels best for you.

3. Belly and Chest Breathing (Kuksa Pranayama/Uro Pranayama)

Belly and Chest Breathing (Kuksa Pranayama or Uro Pranayama) Breathing exercises - sharpmuscle
Belly and Chest Breathing (Kuksa Pranayama/Uro Pranayama)

Although this breathing exercise may be done from a seated position, it might be easier to feel the movement of your breath while lying on your back. Make sure you are comfortable so that you can attend to your breathing and not be distracted by discomfort in your neck or lower back.

This exercise allows you to fully experience diaphragmatic breathing and purify and oxygenate your system. An added benefit is tension release and anxiety relief, resulting in a feeling of calm and serenity.


Lie on your back (although you may sit if that is preferable). Place a blanket or bolster under your knees if you feel any strain in the lower back and a small pillow under your neck if you feel any tension at the back of your neck.

Step 1:
  • Close your eyes. Place your hands lightly on your belly. Focus your awareness there.
  • Breathe in slowly. Feel your belly begin to expand and round. Your chest should not move. If you’d like, count to 5 as you inhale.
  • Exhale slowly and feel that your belly begin to flatten. If you’d like, count to 5 as you exhale.
  • Rest for a few seconds and repeat 6 more times.
Step 2:
  • Move your hands so that they rest on your upper chest.
  • Shift your attention to the middle of your chest. Inhale and imagine the breath expanding into the front, sides, and back of the chest. Feel your rib cage expand.
  • Exhale completely.
  • Continue breathing in this manner 6 more times, counting inhalations and exhalations if you wish.
  • When you’re done, compare how you felt when you did Belly Breathing with how you felt when you did Chest Breathing.

4. Breath of Fire (Kapalabhati)

Breath of Fire (Kapalabhati) Breathing exercises - sharpmuscle
Breath of Fire (Kapalabhati)

Kapalabhati, an energizing and purifying breath, literally means “Skull brightening.” It aerates the entire system by greatly increasing the flow of oxygen throughout the body, tones the abdominal muscles, strengthens the diaphragm, increases energy, and helps improve concentration.

Do not perform, Breath of Fire or the raised thumbs alternative if you have high blood pressure, diabetes, or epilepsy or if you suffer from depression or insomnia. If you experience dizziness, consult a yoga teacher for guidance.

  • Sit with your spine comfortably extended. Keep your eyes closed or downcast.
  • Inhale.
  • Exhale vigorously by pulling back your abdominal muscles. This will cause a short, forceful expulsion of air through the nose. Imagine that your exhalations could blow out the flame of a candle.
  • Repeat with a steady, quick series of 20 exhalations.
  • Stop and allow the breath to return to normal.
  • Repeat with another set of 20 exhalations.
  • Gradually increase to 3 sets of 20 exhalations.
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5. Breath of Fire with Raised Thumbs (Uditanguli Kapalabhati)

Breath of Fire with Raised Thumbs (Uditanguli Kapalabhati) - sharpmuscle
Breath of Fire with Raised Thumbs (Uditanguli Kapalabhati)

In addition to giving you all the benefits of Breath of Fire, Kapalabhati with arms and thumbs raised is a position of power that strengthens the energy center located at the solar plexus, between the navel and breastbone.

  • Sit with your spine comfortably extended.
  • Raise both arms above your head in a V position without bending them at the elbows. Palms face forward, fingers are lightly curled, and thumbs point in.
  • Follow the directions for Breath of Fire.
  • Lower your arms; breathe normally between sets.

6. Chin Press Breath (Murcha Pranayama)

Chin Press Breath (Murcha Pranayama) Breathing exercises - sharpmuscle
Chin Press Breath (Murcha Pranayama)

Murcha Pranayama (Chin Press Breath) stimulates the thyroid, which regulates metabolism, while stretching the muscles at the back of the neck. It improves willpower and concentration and promotes a sense of inner peace.

While doing Murcha Pranayama, focus on a goal you would like to meet, knowing that your steady breathing is moving you that much closer to accomplishing it.

  • Sit with your spine comfortably extended. Close your eyes.
  • Inhale through nose for a count of 5. Lift your chest, moving your head back slightly as you tuck your chin toward your chest.
  • Hold your breath for a count of 5. (Breath count may be modified to suit your comfort level.)
  • Exhale through your nose for a count of 5.
  • Raise your chin so that it’s level with the floor.

7. Complete Breath (Paripurna Pranayama)

Complete Breath (Paripurna Pranayama) Breathing exercises - sharpmuscle
Complete Breath (Paripurna Pranayama)

It has been said that the breath is the pulse of the mind. When you tense, your breathing becomes rapid and shallow; this, in turn, heightens our tension level.

Practicing Complete Breath will calm your emotions, relieve tension, relax your muscles, and help you concentrate. Complete Breath also purifies the respiratory system as you expel stale air from your lungs and oxygenate your blood cells.

As an added benefit, deep breathing helps your complexion by increasing circulation and bringing more blood to the face. It’s simple . . . just breathe (deeply). Relish the feeling of health and serenity that Complete Breath brings.

  • This breathing exercise can be done in any comfortable seated position with the back straight, or in Corpse pose with bolsters under your knees to keep the lower back on the floor and to prevent strain.
  • Relax; close your eyes. If you like, you may rest one hand lightly on your chest and the other on your stomach.
  • Exhale completely. Inhale slowly and begin sipping air in through your nose. Allow your stomach to expand like a balloon.
  • Continue to sip in the breath, allowing the air to move into your chest, completely filling the lungs. Sip in one more breath.
  • Hold your breath (retention) for a few moments. Begin exhaling slowly through the nose, down into the chest and abdomen, squeezing out all the stale air from the bottom of the lungs. Hold the breath out (suspension) for a moment.
  • Repeat 5 times.

You may also wish to try a 4-part breath done in a series:

  • Inhale for a count of 5, exhale for a count of 5 (no retention or suspension). Repeat 3 times.
  • Inhale for a count of 5, hold for a count of 2, exhale for a count of 8, and hold out for a count of 2. Repeat 3 times.
  • Inhale for a count of 8, hold for a count of 2, exhale for a count of 10, and hold out for a count of 2. Repeat 3 times.
  • Inhale for a count of 5, hold for a count of 2, exhale for a count of 8, and hold out for a count of 2. Repeat 3 times.
  • Inhale for a count of 5, exhale for a count of 5 (no retention or suspension). Repeat 3 times.

8. Cooling Breath (Shitali Pranayama)

Cooling Breath (Shitali Pranayama) - sharpmuscle
Cooling Breath (Shitali Pranayama)

You probably won’t want to perform this breathing exercise in front of a mirror (unless you could use a good laugh). But Shitali Pranayama is an effective way to cool the body and calm the mind while expelling toxins from the system. It is also said to relieve a variety of stomach and lower stomach (abdominal) diseases.

Try this type of breathing on a warm day when the heat has you feeling overwhelmed.

  • Sit with your spine comfortably extended.
  • Curl the sides of your tongue to form a straw between lips.
  • Inhale through the opening created by your tongue for a count of 7. (Breath count may be modified to suit your comfort level.)
  • Withdraw your tongue, close your mouth, and hold breath for a count of 7.
  • Exhale through nose for a count of 7.
  • Repeat 5 or 6 times.

9. Humming Bee Breath (Brahmari pranayam)

Humming Bee Breath (Brahmari pranayam) Breathing exercises - sharpmuscle
Humming Bee Breath (Brahmari pranayam)

The vibration caused by this exhilarating breath, similar to the one created when chanting Om, helps you release tension by calming the body and mind.

Focusing on sound and vibration also helps ground you in the present moment, filling you with peace and contentment. As you do this breathing exercise, imagine you are sitting outside on a sunny day, listening to the soothing hum of honeybees working in a flower-filled garden.

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  • Sit comfortably with your spine erect.
  • Close or lower your eyes.
  • Inhale deeply for a count of 7. (Breath count may be modified to suit your comfort level.)
  • With lips parted slightly, hum as you exhale for a count of up to 14.
  • As the momentum builds, see if you can get your lips to vibrate as you exhale.
  • Repeat 2 more times.

10. Sounding Breath (Ujjayi Pranayama)

Sounding Breath (Ujjayi Pranayama) Breathing exercises - sharpmuscle
Sounding Breath (Ujjayi Pranayama)

Also known as Victorious Breath, Ujjayi is a calming breath that balances the nervous system, slows the mind, and stills the emotions. The sound made by this breath could be compared to that made by the ocean, which can have a tranquilizing influence.

You may wish to visualize the cleansing, calming ocean when you practice this type of breathing, which expels stale air from the lungs and purifies the respiratory system.

  • Sit with your spine comfortably extended, or lie in Corpse pose.
  • Exhale completely.
  • Draw in the breath slowly through your nose, allowing the inhalation to fill your abdomen and lungs.
  • Contract the back of your throat slightly and make a soft, hissing sound as you exhale and inhale slowly through the nose. The sound should be audible but not loud, similar to the sound of steam softly escaping from a radiator.
  • Continue breathing slowly, focusing on the sound you make, as you inhale and exhale.
  • Repeat 3 to 5 times.

11. Sucking Breath (Sitkari Pranayama)

Sucking Breath (Sitkari Pranayama) Breathing exercises - sharpmuscle
Sucking Breath (Sitkari Pranayama)

Many yoga breaths warm and energize, but Sitkari Pranayama is also a cooling breath, like Shitali, or Cooling Breath. Because your mouth is open during the inhalation, you may wish not to do this breathing exercise if your teeth and gums are sensitive to the rush of cool air.

  • Place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth just behind your upper teeth.
  • With the mouth open but keeping the upper and lower teeth together, draw the breath in through the mouth for a count of 7. (Breath count may be modified to suit your comfort level.)
  • Close your mouth and hold for a count of 7.
  • Breathe out through nose for a count of 7.
  • Repeat 5 or 6 times.

12. Sufi Mother’s Breath (Sufimata Pranayama)

Sufi Mother’s Breath (Sufimata Pranayama) Breathing exercises - sharpmuscle
Sufi Mother’s Breath (Sufimata Pranayama)

Sufimata Pranayama (Sufi Mother’s Breath) is said to promote a feeling of safety, security, and nurturing. As with all deep breathing exercise, the increased flow of oxygen improves the complexion and cleanses the inner organs by helping to remove toxins from the system.

On the inhalation, concentrate on a sense of well-being that enfolds you like a soft, warm blanket; when you exhale, acknowledge someone in your life who has nurtured and cared for you. Feel protected, secure, and loved.

  • Sit with your spine comfortably extended, or lie in Corpse pose.
  • Breathe in through the nose for a slow count of 7.
  • Hold the breath in for a count of 1. (Breath count may be modified to suit your comfort level.)
  • Exhale through the nose for a count of 7. Hold the breath out for a count of 1.
  • Repeat a few times.

Benefits of breathing exercise

There is some evidence to suggest that deep breathing exercise have a positive effect on a person’s anxiety and stress levels.

For example, a 2011 review article in Health Sciences explains some of the potential health benefits of deep breathing techniques, specifically for deep breathing from the diaphragm. 3 These potential benefits include:

  • Fatigue reduction
  • Nervousness subsided
  • Asthma symptoms decrease in children and adolescents
  • Better stress management
  • Decreased Hypertension
  • Reducing aggressive behavior in adolescent males
  • Improve migraine symptoms

Studies suggest that a 6-week practice of pranemic breathing, or breathing that focuses on controlling the speed of breath, can have a positive effect on a person’s heart rate variability, which is correlated with stress, and cognition. And also improves anxiety. 4

  1. Chirag Sunil Hakked, Ragavendrasamy Balakrishnan, Manjunath Nandi Krishnamurthy. “Yogic breathing practices improve lung functions of competitive young swimmers.” Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine. Volume 8, Issue 2, 2017, Pages 99-104, ISSN 0975-9476. doi: 10.1016/j.jaim.2016.12.005.
  2. Breathing Exercises. American Lung Association. Available from:
  3. Varvogli, Liza and Christina Darviri. “Stress management techniques: evidence-based procedures that reduce stress and promote health.” Health science journal 5 (2011): 74-89. Available from:
  4. Chandla SS, Sood S, Dogra R, Das S, Shukla SK, Gupta S. “Effect of short-term practice of pranayamic breathing exercises on cognition, anxiety, general well being and heart rate variability.” J Indian Med Assoc. 2013 Oct;111(10):662-5. PMID: 24968492. Available from:

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