Increasing VO2 Max with Pranayama

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You may have heard of a metric called VO2 max and that it’s wise to improve it. “But isn’t VO2 Max just for competitive endurance athletes, Jess?” you may be wondering. NO, my friends, it’s not. Since you’re reading this, I presume you are breathing and have blood pumping through your entire body and VO2 max is the measurement of how effectively your body utilizes the oxygen you inhale. Now, endurance athletes may be more obsessed with this metric and find it beneficial to pay real money and suffer real physical anguish to have theirs accurately tested (I’ve had mine tested twice and both times were awful), which isn’t needed to improve it, but it’s just a measurement to define someone’s cardio-respiratory health. 

This article is for those who aren’t active endurance athletes. It’s for everyone else, those who are injured, sedentary, have medical issues, are a Taurus (they notoriously can’t stand exercise, just ask my wife) or anyone else who can’t or doesn’t want to metaphorically die on the rowing machine or treadmill to improve their cardio-respiratory health. There is a way to improve your cardio-respiratory health while not moving and you can even lay down while doing it! Welcome to the wonderful world of increasing your VO2 Max with pranayama, aka: controlled breathing in yoga.

Keep reading to learn more about VO2 Max, pranayama and how you can increase your VO2 Max with Pranayama.

**Just like with exercise, make sure you’re cleared with your doctor to do intentional breathing work. Some forms of pranayama are absolutely contraindicated for some individuals so it’s better to be safe than sorry.**

What is VO2 Max

VO2 Max is a metric used to determine cardio-respiratory health and is also a good predictor of how proficient an endurance athlete will perform. Some terms that are the same as VO2 Max are, “maximal aerobic capacity,” “maximum oxygen uptake,” and “maximal oxygen consumption.” Basically, it tells us how much oxygen a person’s body can utilize in one minute.

There are a number of different ways it can be tested, all varying in levels of accuracy, and different ways you can improve it. To read more about VO2 Max you can check out this article that covers it more specifically.

What is Pranayama

Pranayama is the 4th limb in the 8 limbs of yoga. Prana translates from Sanskrit to English as “breath” or “vital spirit” or “vital air” and the translation of yama means “cessation.” Today, most explain it as yogic breath control. There are absolutely some purists who believe you’re only practicing true pranayama if you are also integrating kumbhaka, holding or cessation of the breath whether in or out, into the practice.

That said, there are many practices of pranayama acknowledged and practiced in India and wherever else yoga has proliferated, that don’t necessarily include breath retention or kumbhaka. You are only learning one exercise with breath retention out of the five we’ll cover, which are the ones used in the 2020 research article referenced below.

The 5 different kinds of pranayama you’re going to learn about are kapalbhati, bhastrika, nadishodana, pranav and savitri.  

Science of Increasing VO2 Max with Pranayama

I became interested in the VO2 Max and pranayama connection in 2012 after I sustained an intercostal muscle strain while living in India, studying yoga, pranayama and meditation. For the record, that is an injury I wouldn’t even wish on my worst enemy.  For 3 weeks, unless I was completely laying down, I was in excruciating pain, even while seated and just breathing.  In those 3 weeks, laying on my back 95% of the time, I read until my hands went numb, the Hunger Games but also every pranayama text I could get my hands on, and I did A LOT of pranayama and I mean A LOT.  Once I was better and able to move around I found that schlepping around the hills of Goa was easier than before my injury, which was surprising since I hadn’t moved more than a few meters from my home in weeks.  I had a hunch pranayama allowed me to continue to improve my cardio abilities even when I couldn’t actually “do cardio.” As someone who is from the west, I was curious if there was any scientific research to back my hunch. There was none then, but NOW there is!

In 2020 a study published in the International Journal of Research in Medical Sciences found that after 12 weeks of doing certain pranayama practices for 30 minutes, 3 times a week many metrics improved, VO2 max being one of them. It’s important to note the research participants had no prior yoga or sports training. This means that someone with immense cardio-respiratory health, generally endurance athletes, may not show as many improvements as those who are detrained.

In 2013 a study published in the International Journal of Recent Trends in Science and Technology showed aerobic capacity improvements thanks to yogic practices. In this study they had their participants do some physical yoga postures along with pranayama, so was it the postures or the breathing or both?  It’s hard to say but I felt it was worth mentioning.

Pranayama Caveats

I already mentioned the doctor thing and I’ll include any known contraindications with each practice but seriously, check with your doctor and show them the exercises you’re interested in doing.

  • Pranayama should not feel forced. If your body starts to feel tense or stressed, dial things back or rest.  With each of these practices, only do what you can comfortably do.  You can increase speed or count as you feel more relaxed and the capacity grows.  If you try something and you feel “oops, I think that count is too much,” relax and go down to a more comfortable count.  This isn’t a competition, with anyone, including yourself.
  • Always practice pranayama on an empty stomach.  I personally find first thing in the morning to be ideal.  If you have Pathological Demand Avoidance like I do, you’ll probably do this anyway but will quickly find out why it’s not a good idea. 
  • If you feel dizzy or light headed, stop. Most of us aren’t used to taking in as much oxygen as you will during a pranayama session. Feel free to lay down until the spins pass and then resume, if you’re feeling up for it. Or, take a rest from that session and resume at another time. You don’t have to do this all at once and it’s like any other new skill, it will take time to acclimate.
  • Do NOT do pranayama while driving – see dizzy and light headed caveat above.
  • All practices listed below use nostril breathing. Most people don’t pay any attention to their breathing so try it right now.  How does it feel to breath in through your nostrils and out through your nostrils?  If it’s easy, and if you’ve been cleared by your doc, you’re ready to try the practices below. If you find nostril breathing difficult, start with intentional nostril breathing with no particular count – just breath.  If it feels too hard to do both the inhale and exhale, try inhaling through the nose and exhaling out the mouth.  None of the practices below recommend mouth breathing.
  • Practice with a trained yoga professional. I don’t mean someone who has taken just one 200hr Yoga Teacher Training (don’t get me started on the travesty that is certification courses) and has very little experience but a yoga teacher who has been studying for years, maybe even decades and has a strong pranayama background. Kundalini teachers are a great place to look since the breath is such a huge part of that practice.

How To Do Full Yogic Breathing

I lied, you’re actually learning 6 techniques because the first two listed below are more advanced and you should have some foundation to work with before attempting those. Most people in the US don’t breath correctly to begin with so let’s learn to do that first. Before we even get to the full yogic breathing let’s try a few other things first. Get into a comfortable laying position, maybe throw a pillow under your knees if that feels nice.

  1. Breathe only through your nose. Closing your mouth will help aid this. Can you do that with no problem?
    • If yes, terrific, progress to stage 2 of this side quest.
    • If no, work on this until you can. I find when I get into bed and lay down I struggle with it a bit but with patience and maybe some deeper inhales and mouth exhales, after about 10-15 slow breaths I can access it. Pranayama utilizes nostril breathing so this is imperative to access before continuing.
  2. Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your abdomen and breathe in deeply. As your diaphragm drops and your lungs fills with air the hand on your stomach should go up and the one on your chest shouldn’t move. Can you do that with no problem?
    • If yes, sweet, you can do deep diaphragmatic breathing and are ready to progress to stage 3.
    • If no, stay here and work on this. This is deep diaphragmatic breathing and most people do NOT do this and everyone should. This can take time to master because so many of us breathe as far down as our chest so be super patient. The amount of time it should take you to master this is however long it takes, whether it’s breaths or months. This will make you feel a wee loopy and super relaxed because when you can do this, you’ll be inhaling more oxygen than you normally do.
  3. Keep your hands where they are. Now breathe in but only have your chest rise. This will be a shallower form of breath and the hand on your stomach shouldn’t move and the one one your chest should rise. Can you do this?
    • If yes, dope, onto the mini boss (Full Yogic Breathing) in stage 4.
    • If no, that’s ok. You just spent all that time training yourself to do deep diaphragmatic breathing and now I’m having you go, seemingly, backwards. Just work to isolate the chest breathing.
  4. Full Yogic Breathing or 3 Part Yoga Breath – Now we’re going to take what you just practiced and put it together and add a lil extra near the end.
    • First, inhales deeply w/ the diaphragm. The hand on your stomach will go up.
    • When your diaphragm feels full now you’ll inhales with your chest. When you do this the hand on your chest will rise and the hand on your stomach will go down a little bit. Don’t try to keep your stomach fully extended like it was, let it go down a bit.
    • Last, take in whatever air you can from the collar bone up. I find my hands don’t move much when I do this. YAY! You just finished half of the 3 Part Yoga Breath… now we have to exhale.
    • Exhale whatever you have from the collar bone up first.
    • Next exhale with your chest and the hand on your chest will lower.
    • Finally, exhale all the air from your lungs w/ your diaphragm and the hand on your stomach will lower.
    • Yay!! You did it! Maybe not perfectly but this is a practice not a perfect.

You may need to really separate each part of the breathing, pausing briefly after each part, to really make sure you’re getting it and that’s fine. If you’re struggling, that’s also fine. Feel free to go back and practice separating the parts in prior stages. I do recommend going slowly but don’t go so slowly you start to feel anxious or feel the need to gasp for air. This should feel like an easy peasy, super relaxing practice once you have it down.

Once you have been able to do Full Yogic Breathing with some amount of proficiency, you’re ready to move onto the pranayama exercises below that were found to increase VO2 Max.

How To Do Kapalbhati

In this first practice (feel free to not do these in order, btw) you’re going to learn how to increase your VO2 Max with a Pranayama technique called Kapalbhati, or Skull Illuminating. It’s a VERY heat generating practice and I can attest, if you haven’t done it for awhile, or ever, it can be a lot. The breaths are short and fast and the movement of your abdomen is strong so your priority is NOT over doing it because no one wants to hyperventilate and pass out. Well, at least not most people.

Contraindications

  • Humans who are pregnant or menstruating (can add undo pressure on abdominal wall)
  • Any recent abdominal surgery
  • High or low blood pressure
  • History of Stroke
  • Heart Disease
  • Gastric Ulcer
  • Hernia
  • Vertigo
  • Epilepsy
  • Migraines
  • Significant Nose Bleeds
  • Detached retina
  • Glaucoma
  • Anyone else if your doc says not to do it

Instructions

  • Blow your nose and have a tissue nearby – trust me on this
  • Sit in any comfortable position with your spine straight
  • Relax your hands on your legs and close your eyes
  • Deeply inhale through
  • Exhale forcefully and while doing so, you’ll pull your navel in towards the spine
  • The inhale will naturally occur and isn’t a focus
  • One cycle is one exhale and one inhale and can be less than a second so they are very quick breaths activated by the diaphragm, not deep breaths.  Do 10-20 cycles or whatever feels comfortable for you.
  • Always be aware of the out breath
  • Relax and let your body go back to its regular breathing and pay attention to how your body feels and if there are any changes
  • Do 1-2 more sets

This can be a real core burner so only do as many as you can comfortably.  

How To Do Bhastrika

Bhastrika, or Bellows Breath is the next pranayama technique you’ll learn to help increase your cardio-respiratory health. Just like Kapalbhati the breathes are pretty quick and forceful, though the time between breaths can be slow or fast, I’ve practiced it both ways.

Contraindications

  • Humans who are pregnant or menstruating (can add undo pressure on abdominal wall)
  • Any recent abdominal surgery
  • High or low blood pressure
  • Risk of Stroke
  • Heart Disease
  • Gastric Ulcer
  • Hernia
  • Vertigo
  • Epilepsy
  • Significant Nose Bleeds
  • Detached retina
  • Glaucoma
  • If you have asthma or bronchitis def consult your doctor
  • Anyone else if your doc says not to do it

Instructions

  • Blow your nose and have a tissue nearby – trust me on this, again
  • Sit in any comfortable position with your spine straight.  There will be movement in this practice so work to keep the spine stationary while you move your arms.
  • Forcefully inhale through the nose and raise your arms over your head and extend your fingers out
  • Forcefully exhale through the nose and lower your arms, clenching your fists into a ball (think of the inhale as your reaching above your head to grab something and the exhale as bringing that thing to your chest so your elbows will be nearly touching your side and your hard won’t go below your shoulder)
  • Do 10-20 cycles and then rest
  • Relax and let your body go back to its regular breathing and pay attention to how your body feels 
  • After 30-60 seconds of rest do 1-2 more sets 
  • You can do this practice without the arms though the proper technique is to integrate them.  If you don’t use your arms, the practice is very much like kapalbhati but now both the exhale and inhale are forceful and originating from the diaphragm. 

How To Do Nadishodana – Alternate Nostril

Now we’re getting to the more chilled out ways to increase your VO2 Max with pranayama, this time with a practice called Nadishodana or Alternate Nostril Breathing.

Contraindications

  • Humans who are menstruating
  • Cold, fever or flu
  • Blocked sinuses
  • Heart trouble, high anxiety or nervousness should consult with doctor

Instructions

  • This can be performed with breath retention but we are not going to as that’s a more advanced practice and has different contraindications.
  • Sit in any comfortable position with your spine straight.
  • Relax your left hand onto your legs.
  • Bring your right hand just in front of your face and place your pointer and middle finger lightly in the center of your eyebrows.  Your thumb and ring finger will be controlling which nostril you’re actively closing.
  • Close your right nostril with your thumb and slowly breathe in through the left nostril.
  • Close your left nostril at the end of the inhale with your ring finger and pause just slightly (both nostrils are closed).
  • Release your thumb from your right nostril and slowly exhale through the right nostril
  • Inhale through the right nostril (your left is still closed by your ring finger)
  • Close your right nostril with your thumb and pause just slightly (both nostrils are closed).
  • Remove your ring finger from your left nostril and slowly exhale through the left nostril. One cycle has now been completed.
  • Inhale through the left nostril 
  • Do 10 cycles
  • Rest for a minute or two and just let your breathing settle naturally where it wants to and notice any differences.

Since these aren’t quick, it’s recommended the inhales and exhales are similar in count and the moment both your nostrils are closed is slight.  Start with a count that feels comfortable. Maybe that’s 4 seconds each inhale and exhale or maybe it’s less.  This practice is not to be rushed and should feel easy. If it feels like you can go longer than 4 seconds, try to increase the count by 1 or 2 and see how that goes. Don’t stress yourself with trying to do a longer count than you can do at that moment.

How To Do Pranav – Om

This form of pranayama to help bolster your cardio-respiratory health is a bit different because while there is a breath focus, there is also a chanting, meditative component as well. There are also a number of ways this can be done but I’ll focus on the easiest. If you’ve ever been to a yoga class, chances are you’ve chanted “Om” three times before you start the practice. This is basically that, but longer.

Contraindications

  • None found

Instructions

  • Sit in any comfortable position with your spine straight.  
  • Relax your hands onto your legs.
    • Alternative body position: lay in corpse pose if you feel like being horizontal.  Corpse pose is laying on your back w/ your legs slightly apart and your arms comfortably away from your sides with your hands up.  Imagine if you were doing a snow angel and got tired in the middle and just stopped.  You can also lay with a pillow or many pillows under your knees if that feels better on your back. 
  • Focus on your natural breath as it comes in and as it goes out.
  • Now on the exhale say the word “Om” for the entire exhale.  I recommend doing this out loud at first and just experience the literal vibrations in your chest and head.  It feels pretty nice.  Keep doing it outloud if you like.
  • Continue to do the breathing practice but say or imagine the word “Om” to yourself, in the comfort of your brain.
  • This can be done for any length of time but try to start with 2 minutes.  

Warning – you may get super relaxed and just fall asleep while doing this.  It’s actually one of the pranayama practices I do to relax at the end of the day while in bed. Often it sends me to slumberland.  If you have stuff to do afterwards, I’d recommend setting an alarm, just in case.

How To Do Savitri

This is another super relaxing pranayama practice to increase VO2 Max.  We’re going to work with a breath count that is the same for the inhale and exhale and then there is a breath hold at the end of both the inhale and exhale that is half the count of the inhale and exhale.  If you’ve heard of Box Breathing (Sama Vritti in Sanskrit) this is kind of like that but instead of 1:1 ratio it’s a 2:1 ratio.

Contraindications

  • None found

Instructions

  • Sit in any comfortable position with your spine straight.  
  • Relax your hands onto your legs.
  • Alternative body position: lay in corpse pose if you feel like being horizontal.  Corpse pose is laying on your back w/ your legs slightly apart and your arms comfortably away from your sides with your hands up.  Imagine if you were doing a snow angel and got tired in the middle and just stopped.  You can also lay with a pillow or many pillows under your knees if that feels better on your back. 
  • Focus on your natural breath as it comes in and as it goes out.
  • Start to elongate your inhale to the count of 4
  • Hold your breath for a count of 2
  • Exhale to the count of 4
  • Hold your breath for the count of 2
  • Do this for 2-10 minutes

Again, this should feel easy and relaxed.  If you find yourself stressing or tensing up at any part of the practice, whether the inhale, exhale or either retention, use that challenge point as the gauge for where you should start.  Example if 4:2:4:2 makes you feel like you need to gasp for air during the 2 second exhale breath hold, drop that to 1.  Now, dropping your inhales and exhales to 2 may actually feel too energizing or that may create stress so just drop the breath holds to the count of 1 until you feel you can comfortably get back to a 2:1 ratio.  It’s a relaxed practice so work with what you have and work towards the 2:1.  

Warning – same as above with pranav pranayama.  Can be super relaxing so set an alarm if you have something to do or some place to be after your pranayama session.

Conclusion

We just covered a lot of information regarding pranayama and how to use it to increase your VO2 max, or cardio-respiratory health. Try one at a time, try all of them, or try none of them.  If you find yourself injured and unable to train, you can use pranayama to help curtail any losses in your training.  If you have any movement limitations, using pranayama is a terrific way to access cardio-respiratory improvements without needing to do difficult physical exertion.  If you want to learn more about VO2 Max, in general, check out this other article I wrote!

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AUTHOR

As a highly disciplined competitive athlete for 35 years Jess is now working to find more balance, more fun and more ease in the way she moves her body. In building her home gym she's been able to integrate a lot of equipment that helps her find play and she hopes to inspire others to do the same. She is a former nationally competitive rower, Concept 2 CIRI and 500 RYT Yoga Teacher.