Yoga Breathing: Where Did it All Go Wrong

Updated on June 24, 2022

Many people who practice yoga have experienced problems with breathing while exercising. The thing that confuses the most is the fact that yoga is supposed to make you feel better, not worse. 

Unfortunately, many modern yoga teachers are unaware of the dangers that come with hyperventilation. Their teaching, especially when it comes to breathing techniques, makes students hyperventilate and damages their health. Modern western yoga is known to often trigger and promote over-breathing, which makes various health conditions get worse than they were before the classes. 

Buteyko breathing technique is far more similar and aligned with traditional yoga breathing techniques than modern western yoga breathing. 

Ancient vs Modern Yoga Breathing

The origins of yoga go way back to ancient India over 5000 years ago. The teaching has five principles which represent the basis of obtaining and maintaining optimal health for your body and mind through yoga exercises. One of those principles is healthy breathing, also called pranayama. 

In the modern world, people practice numerous types of yoga all over the planet, and many of those types don’t completely align with the original yoga teaching. 

Swami Rama, an Indian Yogi, explained decades ago how breathing exercises could help solve various health problems. However, to practice pranayama properly, the teacher has to have the knowledge and experience required for the correct application of the bandhas. Without it, pranayama breathing practices might harm your health. 

Ancient Yoga Breathing 

The ancient philosophy of yoga teaches that breathing is responsible for controlling the flow of the cosmic life force in our bodies, also called ‘prana.’ Yoga breathing is also known as ‘pranayama’ which means “to control the breath” but also “to master the life force.” 

Ancient texts suggest that the nose is the right instrument for breathing and not the mouth. Also, original yoga learnings teach us that the healthiest way to breathe is to start with our abdomen rather than with the chest.  Original yoga manuscripts make no mention od deep breathing. Instead, they advocate calm breathing and advise breathing in a slow and rhythmic pattern, just like Buteyko does. There is no mention of any benefits of taking deep breaths, as many modern yoga gurus tend to advise.

One of the first lessons in yoga breathing is to learn how to overcome mouth-breathing and start breathing only through the nose at all times. 

Modern Yoga Breathing 

Many modern yoga teaching books talk about various types of yoga, but not many of them even mention the importance of nasal breathing. While some of them talk about yoga breathing exercises, yet they don’t mention the importance of learning to properly breathe all the time, and not just during yoga class. Just like Buteyko breathing exercises, ancient yoga breathing teaches us to breathe calmly 24/7. 

Practicing pranayama can be harmful to people who already have respiratory problems, especially if done by someone who doesn’t have adequate knowledge to perform the teaching. 

Many yoga instructors and so-called gurus today are former aerobics instructors, dancers, or athletes. They have solid knowledge about fitness and healthy body movement, but their knowledge about ancient yoga techniques is limited. It usually takes several months to obtain a yoga or a qigong instructor certificate, and that’s not even closely enough time for learning and adapting the philosophy. On top of everything, yoga classes are usually held in gyms.  Gym policies usually strictly forbid teachers to touch or interrupt and correct students unless the student specifically asks for it.

How Pranayama Techniques Work 

Many modern yoga gurus fail to mention that pranayama can be harmful to some people. However, the ancient breathing techniques are beneficial for those who already have strong breathing, making it even stronger and healthier. But if a person with weak breathing practices pranayama, it might be harmful to them. You may compare it to a weak, untrained person trying to lift a heavyweight. It’s far beyond the capacity of their body and it might damage their health. 

The only way to reduce the damage that may occur is to follow the personal recommendations of a yoga teacher. Traditionally, pranayama exercises were personalized for each student. They were passed on from teacher to student only when the teacher considered the student to be ready. For one to be ready to practice the breathing exercises often meant to completely master all asanas, or at least most of them. According to the traditional Indian approach, pranayama isn’t for yoga beginners, unlike the Buteyko breathing technique that doesn’t require any prior knowledge or practice.


Ancient yoga teachers considered the principals of proper breathing to include nose breathing at all times, during inhalation and exhalation. Just like Buteyko breathing for anxiety, it promotes slow, calm abdominal breathing in a slow rhythmic pattern. Chest breathing is never promoted, and neither is taking deep breaths, unlike what many modern yoga instructors advice. Only several ancient breath techniques include breathing through the mouth. 

However, many western yoga teachers today lack knowledge about proper breathing techniques. They often don’t know what makes one’s breathing healthy or unhealthy. Many of them consider breathing exercises during a yoga session to be enough, as opposed to teaching people how to breathe properly 24/7 and not only during class. 

Some types of yoga breathing techniques include hyperventilation and fast breathing. That type of breathing can be harmful to some people with certain medical conditions, similar to what every Buteyko breathing research shows. Many modern teachers don’t perform the exercises with necessary caution and people get hurt. Most pranayama exercises are intended for people who are healthy or at least relatively healthy. Unfortunately, many well-meaning, but under-educated teachers instruct their students to practice some pranayama exercises that may be harmful to some individuals. 

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