The Yogic Science of Breath | Pranayama Breathing Exercises

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Today’s podcast has been edited and adapted from The Hindu-Yogi Science of Breath, by William Walker Atkinson, published in 1903. If you have any trouble remembering the breathing exercises covered in today’s podcast, remember that you can read the full transcript for free at our website

To breathe is to live, and without breath there is no life. Not only are we dependent upon breath for life and health, but all animal life must breathe to live, and plant life is likewise dependent upon the air for continued existence.

The new-born baby draws in a long, deep breath, retains it for a moment to extract from it its life-giving properties, and then exhales it in a long wail, and lo! its life upon earth has begun. The old senior gives a faint gasp, ceases to breathe, and life is over. From the first faint breath of the infant to the last gasp of the dying grandparent, it is one long story of continued breathing. Life is but a series of breaths.

Breathing may be considered the most important of all of the functions of the body, for, indeed, all the other functions depend upon it. A person may exist some time without eating; a shorter time without drinking; but without breathing their existence may be measured by a few minutes.

And not only are we dependent upon Breath for life, but we are largely dependent upon correct habits of breathing for continued vitality and freedom from disease. An intelligent control of our breathing power will lengthen our days upon earth by giving us increased vitality and powers of resistance. On the other hand, unintelligent and careless breathing will tend to shorten our days, by decreasing our vitality and laying us open to disease.

Humankind in its normal state had no need of instruction in breathing. Like the lower animals and the child, we breathed naturally and properly, as nature intended us to do, but civilization has changed us in this and other respects. We have contracted improper methods and attitudes of walking, standing, and sitting, which have robbed us of our birthright of natural and correct breathing. We have paid a high price for civilization.

One of the first lessons in the Yogi Science of Breath is to learn how to breathe through the nostrils, and to overcome the common practice of mouth-breathing. The organs of breathing have their only protective apparatus, filter, or dust-catcher, in the nostrils. When the breath is taken through the mouth, there is nothing from mouth to lungs to strain the air, or to catch the dust and other foreign matter in the air.

From mouth to lungs the dirt or impure substance has a clear track, and the entire respiratory system is unprotected. And, moreover, such incorrect breathing admits (during the wintertime) cold air to the organs, thereby injuring them. Inflammation of the respiratory organs often results from the inhalation of cold air through the mouth. The person who breathes through the mouth at night, always awakens with a parched feeling in the mouth and a dryness in the throat. They are violating one of nature’s laws, and sowing the seeds of disease.

To get back in tune with nature, and healthy methods of breathing, let’s have a look at several breathing exercises (known as paranayama) which have been practiced for centuries by the Hindu Yogi Masters of India.

The Yogi Cleansing Breath is a favorite form of breathing which yogis practice when they feel the necessity of cleansing the lungs. This Cleansing Breath ventilates the lungs, stimulates the cells, and gives a general tone to the respiratory organs, and is conducive to their general healthy condition.

Besides this effect, it is found to greatly refresh the entire system. Professional speakers, singers, etc., will find this breath especially restful after having tired the respiratory organs.

Step (1) Inhale a complete breath.

Step (2) Retain the air a few seconds.

Step (3) Pucker up the lips as if for a whistle (but do not swell out the cheeks), then exhale a little air through the opening with considerable vigor. Then stop for a moment, retaining the air, and then exhale a little more air. Repeat until the air is completely exhaled. Remember that considerable energy is to be used in exhaling the air through the opening in the lips.

Practice this exercise until it can be performed naturally and easily. You will find it quite refreshing when you are tired and generally “used up.” Go ahead, and try it out, and I’m sure you will be convinced of its benefits.

Now, let’s move on to the Nerve Vitalizing Breath. This is an exercise well known to the Yogis, who consider it one of the strongest nerve stimulants and invigorants known to humankind. Its purpose is to stimulate the Nervous System, and develop nerve force, energy, and vitality.

This exercise brings a stimulating pressure to bear on important nerve centers, which in turn stimulates and energizes the entire nervous system, and sends an increased flow of nerve force to all parts of the body.

Step (1) Stand erect.

Step (2) Inhale a Complete Breath, and hold it in.

Step (3) Extend the arms straight in front of you, letting them be somewhat limp and relaxed, with only sufficient force to hold them out.

Step (4) Slowly draw the hands back toward the shoulders, gradually contracting the muscles and putting force into them, so that when they reach the shoulders, the fists will be so tightly clenched that a tremulous motion is felt.

Step (5) Then, keeping the muscles tense, push the fists slowly out, and then draw them back rapidly (still tense) several times.

Step (6) Exhale vigorously through the mouth.

Step (7) Practice the Cleansing Breath.

The efficiency of this exercise depends greatly upon the speed of the drawing back of the fists, and the tension of the muscles, and, of course, upon the full lungs. This exercise must be tried to be appreciated. It is without equal as a quick vitality booster.

Our next exercise is the Vocal Breath, which is used to develop the voice. The Yogis are noted for their wonderful voices, which are strong, smooth, and clear, and have a wonderful trumpet-like carrying power. Their practice of this particular form of breathing exercise has resulted in rendering their voices soft, beautiful, and flexible, imparting to it that indescribable, peculiar, floating quality, combined with great power.

To the student who practices it faithfully, the exercise that follows will, in time, impart the above-mentioned qualities (or what is called the Yogi Voice). It is to be understood, of course, that this form of breath is to be used only as an occasional exercise, and not as a regular form of breathing.

Step (1) Inhale a Complete Breath very slowly, but steadily, through the nostrils, taking as much time as possible in the inhalation.

Step (2) Retain the breath for a few seconds.

Step (3) Expel the air vigorously in one great breath, through a wide opened mouth.

Step (4) Rest the lungs by performing the Cleansing Breath exercise described earlier.

Without going deeply into the Yogi theories of sound-production in speaking and singing, I wish to say that experience has taught them that the timbre, quality, and power of a voice depends not alone upon the vocal organs in the throat, but that the facial muscles, etc., have much to do with the matter.

Some people with large chests produce but a poor tone, while others with comparatively small chests produce tones of amazing strength and quality. Here is an interesting experiment worth trying:

Stand before a glass and pucker up your mouth and whistle, and note the shape of your mouth and the general expression of your face. Then sing or speak as you do naturally, and see the difference. Then, start to whistle again for a few seconds, and then, without changing the position of your lips or face, sing a few notes and notice what a vibrant, resonant, clear, and beautiful tone is produced.

If you are looking for an alternative to caffeine for a mental boost, then you will want to pay special attention to the next breathing exercise, which the Yogis use for stimulating the brain, producing clear thinking and reasoning. It has a wonderful effect in clearing the brain and nervous system, and those engaged in mental work will find it most useful, both in enabling them to do better work and also as a means of refreshing the mind and clearing it after arduous mental labor.

Step (1) Sit in an erect posture, keeping the spinal column straight, and the eyes well to the front, letting the hands rest on the upper part of the legs.

Step (2) Breathe rhythmically, but instead of breathing through both nostrils as in the ordinary exercises, press the left nostril closed with the thumb, and inhale through the right nostril. Then remove the thumb, and close the right nostril with the finger, and then exhale through the left nostril. Then, without changing the fingers, inhale through the left nostril, and changing fingers, exhale through the right. Then inhale through right and exhale through left, and so on, alternating nostrils as above mentioned, closing the unused nostril with the thumb or forefinger.

This is one of the oldest forms of Yogi breathing, and is quite important, valuable, and well worthy of acquirement.

Now, let’s discuss a breathing exercise which you can incorporate into your daily walks, making them even more relaxing, invigorating, and restorative.

Step (1) Walk with head up, chin drawn slightly in, shoulders back, and with a measured step.

Step (2) Inhale a Complete Breath, counting mentally: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 — one count to each step, making the inhalation extend over the eight counts.

Step (3) Exhale slowly through the nostrils, counting as before: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 — one count to each step.

Step (4) Rest between breaths, continuing walking and counting: I, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 — one count to a step.

Step (5) Repeat until you begin to feel tired. Then rest for a while, and resume at your pleasure.

Some Yogis vary this exercise by retaining the breath during a 1, 2, 3, 4, count, and then exhale in an eight-step count. Practice whichever plan seems most agreeable to you.

Lastly, I would like to talk with you about breathing and its relationship to the soul. The real Self is not your body or even your mind. These things are but a part of your personality, the lesser self. The real Self is independent of the body, which it inhabits, and is even independent of the mechanism of the mind, which it uses as an instrument.

The real Self is a drop from the Divine Ocean, and is eternal and indestructible. It cannot die or be annihilated, and no matter what becomes of the body, the real Self still exists. It is the Soul, and it manifests itself in your individuality.

Do not think of your Soul as a thing apart from you, for you ARE the Soul, and the body is the unreal and transitory part of you which is changing in material every day, and which you will someday discard.

You have the power to become conscious of the reality of the Soul, and its independence of the body. The Yogi plan for developing this power is by meditation upon the real Self or Soul, accompanied by rhythmic breathing. The following exercise is the simplest form to use:

Place your body in a relaxed, reclining position. Breathe rhythmically, and meditate upon the real Self, thinking of yourself as an entity independent of the body, although inhabiting it and being able to leave it at will. Think of yourself, not as the body, but as a spirit, and of your body as but a shell, useful and comfortable, but not a part of the real You. Think of yourself as an independent being, using the body only as a convenience. While meditating, ignore the body entirely, and you will find that you will often become almost entirely unconscious of it, and will seem to be out of the body to which you may return when you are through with the exercise.

You now understand the basics of several Yogi breathing methods, which if persisted in will not only improve your health and well-being, but give you a wonderful sense of the reality of the Soul, and make you seem almost independent of the body.

A sense of immortality will often come with your increased consciousness, and you will begin to show signs of spiritual development which will be noticeable to yourself and others. But you must not allow yourself to live too much in the upper regions, or to despise your body, for you are here on this plane for a purpose, and you must not neglect your opportunity to gain the experiences necessary to round out your true Self, nor must you fail to respect your body, which is the Temple of the Spirit.

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