Is Pranayama the same as Breath-work?

Often the words ‘Breathwork’ and ‘Pranayama’ are used to describe the same thing, however these are two distinct practices that promote health and well-being. Both are composed of a variety of different breathing techniques and styles.

Breathwork is a series of different breathing techniques and exercises that originated in the 70s and although it continued to evolve, most modern breathwork techniques have their roots in Pranayama and other ancient traditions such as Shamanism, Taoism, Hinduism and Buddhism. The purpose of breathwork is to improve mental and physical health.

Some Breathwork techniques are:

-Oxygen Advantage,
-Wim-Hof Breathing,
-Rebirthing Breathwork,
-Holotropic Breathing,
-4/7/8 Breathing.

Pranayama is the fourth of the eight limbs of Raja Yoga and is a Sanskrit word formed of ‘Prana’ and ‘Ayama’. Prana means ‘vital energy’ or ‘life force’ which often is translated as ‘breath’. However it is much more than just breathing, because it relates to more subtle energetic layers. The word ‘Ayama’ means ‘control’ and ‘extension’. Therefore, Pranayama cannot be used to only describe breathing exercises, because it utilizes the breathing to influence the flow of prana in the ‘nadis’ or ‘energy channels’ of the energy body. Furthermore, there is another important characteristic of Pranayama to be described and to do so I like to use Swami Satyananda Saraswati’s words: “the techniques of pranayama provide the method whereby the life force can be activated and regulated in order to go beyond one’s normal boundaries or limitations and attain a higher state of vibratory energy and awareness”.

Some types of Pranayama are:

-ChidShakti Prakrya Pranayama (energy and consciousness awakening breathing technique)
-Ujjayi Pranayama (ocean breathing/victorious breath)
-Brahamari Pranayama (Bee’s breath)
-Bhastrika (air is forcibly in and out)
-Anulom Vilom/Nadi shodhana Pranayama (alternate nostril breathing)
-Kapalabhati Pranayama (exhales air from lungs is forcibly but inhalate involuntary).

Pranayama and breathwork should be practiced with care and under the guidance of respectively a trained yoga teacher and a breathwork instructor. This is due to hyperventilation: fast breathing techniques in breathwork and pranayama that can be a risk for people with asthma, hypertension, heart disease, and other pre-existing heart issues. Furthermore, individuals who are pregnant, on their period, or have digestive issues should also not perform fast breathing techniques.

Breathwork and Pranayama are often used interchangeably, however we can say that pranayama is breathwork, but breathwork is not pranayama. In most breathwork and pranayama techniques the breath is used to unblock, purify and harmonize the body, mind and emotional system. However, the intention of Pranayama is to eventually transcend the body, mind and emotional system in order to realize a higher state of consciousness called Samadhi.

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Author: Alessandra Colace Last Updated: 2 January 2023

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