What’s the difference between pranayama and breathwork?

By Levi Banner BA, E-RYT 500

November 17th, 2018

What’s the difference between pranayama and breathwork?

…Wait! Aren’t they the same thing?!…

Is pranayama breathwork? … Well, sort of. I guess, in a way.

Is breathwork pranayama?… Well, no, actually, not really.

So what IS Pranayama?

Pranayama is a set of ancient yogic breathing techniques. Brought to us through the sacred yoga scriptures long ago. Originally passed down through the generations, we can now gain access to deep meditation states, activate our awareness of self and have a healthier and more vibrant body as a whole just simply by practicing a few simple breathing techniques on a regular basis.

What pranayama does is slow down the breath and therefore slows down your thoughts. As the ancient saying goes, “control the breath, control the mind”

So in pranayama you control your breathing in order to achieve a certain state of meditation.

In pranayama you control the breath.

In breathwork you release control!

So what is Breathwork?

Instead of sitting up in a yogic meditation pose, you will normally lay down on your back. Then you breath in a cyclical way and the object is to release control and allow yourself to experience whatever comes up.

In breathwork you can let your mind run wild!

And that’s just what it does. The mind gets completely out of the way and you might drop into a deep meditative state, your awareness of self might get activated and you can come out glowing!

All this goodness is waiting for you when you simply get out of your own way. When you release the agenda of your ego and let the sacred purpose of your soul come through.

When you simply surrender, then the breath through breathwork takes you on a journey.

So how does this stuff work scientifically?

In pranayama you extend the breath so that you can slow the thoughts. This in turn produces more carbon dioxide in the blood stream, therefore giving you a meditative high feeling.

In breathwork the conscious connected breathing does the opposite. It hypo-oxygenates the cells. Which means it fills your bloodstream with more oxygen than ever before causing a rapid healing to take place in the body mind and spirit in which are all connected.

In pranayama you extend the breath and accent the natural pause between the breaths.

In pranayama you actually hold your breath.

In breathwork you cut out the normal pause between the breath and connect the inhales and exhales in a cyclical breathing somewhat like a circular breath or a spiral type of sequence.

As soon as the inhale is up, the exhale begins. As soon as the exhale is over the inhale begins right away.

Which one is more effective?

Well, both work amazingly for their intended purposes.

Now don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love pranayama. Indeed I practice it almost daily and have so for about 12 years. I find pranayama extremely effective at keeping a blanced and happy state of consciousness in my everyday life. I find it cleanses my body and mind and creates a balanced and healthy state of mind and body more than anything.

In my yoga practice, pranayama is key. Breath is key.

However, I have found that breathwork is the most powerful tool for healing and transformation out there. I have even found myself in some of the more profound meditative states promised through pranayama, yoga and meditation simply by laying down and breathing in a cyclical way.

So wait, I still don’t get it. Are they the same thing or not?

No! They’re a separate thing altogether. Here’s some history….

Now, obviously breathwork would have been inspired by pranayama. The ancient techniques from yoga would have informed the modern psychologists how the breath is so potent in inducing altered states of consciousness. Which was the aim from the very beginning of the 1970s when Stanislav and Christina Groff created Holotropic Breathwork.

In an attempt to further the healing process of their clients beyond the western scientific mind, these modern psychologists were even using hallucinogenic drugs to bring their clients into altered states of consciousness!

They found the breath was just as powerful or even more in inducing these experiences in which they called holotropic states of consciousness and the practice of Holotropic Breathwork and breathwork as a whole was created.

Since then there have been many branches of breathwork starting with Rebirthing created by Leonard Orr using what he learned from the Groff’s. Afterwards, a myriad of other breathwork styles, new names and techniques which are mainly variations of the Holotropic system founded by the Groffs. All of which are completely separate to the techniques of the ancient yogis.

For Pranayama there are really only a handful of techniques taught. Though there are many variations, the actual techniques found in the ancient scriptures are only a few.

My teacher Linda Star Wolf was a student of Stan Groff and then Jacqueline Small who formed Integrative Breathwork.

Eventually Star Wolf connected the dots of shamanism and breathwork and created Shamanic Breathwork well over 22 years ago!

Now, I have taken this work and brought it to Bali and around the world.

If you’d like to join me for a two-week breathwork training, visit my website to find out more:


If you’d like to transform your life from the inside out using the power of the breath, join me for the Shamanic Healing Initiatory Process taking place January in Bali.

Sign up or find out more here:

SHIP | Dec 17, 2020

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