Courtesy Eddie Stern
Courtesy Eddie Stern

Eddie Stern on the Physiological and Spiritual Power of Pranayama

The New York–based yoga teacher walks us through several breathwork exercises and explains their life-changing impacts.
By Spencer Bailey
August 29, 2023
29 minute read

The yoga teacher Eddie Stern has spent decades thinking about and practicing breathing and breathwork—more specifically, pranayama—and across these countless hours he has learned and taught an array of techniques that can transform one’s life both mentally and physiologically (not to mention philosophically and spiritually). The founder of the Broome Street Ganesha Temple in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, Stern is a legend in the realms of yoga and well-being, and over the years has counted Gwyneth Paltrow, Mike D of the Beastie Boys, and Madonna among his students. The author of the book One Simple Thing: A New Look at the Science of Yoga and How It Can Transform Your Life and the co-creator of the Breathing App (with Moby and Deepak Chopra), Stern’s approach to yoga is intentionally uncomplicated. As is clear in this interview for our series The Good Life, he prefers to keep things simple. Whether lecturing or in conversation, Stern makes yoga and yogic traditions accessible to all, deeply engaging, and easily understandable.

Here, he talks with us about the thousands-years-old origins of pranayama and leads us through several different breathing exercises, including the “rose breath,” Bhramari, kapalbhati, sitali, and ujjayi. To follow along, we recommend listening to the audio below with headphones on.

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Eddie, let’s begin broadly with how you philosophically think about breathing and breathwork in your own life, as well as in your yoga practice.

I’m pretty much a traditionalist. Since I do yoga and am trained in yoga, I think about breathing—specific breathing and breathing practices—under the umbrella of pranayama. Pranayama is a Sanskrit word. It’s from the yogic traditions. It goes very far back—you see mentions of pranayama in the Upanishads; you see inklings of it in the Vedas; it becomes most developed in the Hatha yoga period, which is around, say, the eleventh to the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. We’re going back several thousand years to the times of the Vedas, at least to the first to second century B.C.E.—so twenty-three-hundred years ago—where these practices of, what happens inwardly when you begin to change the way you breathe? What’s going to happen to your states of consciousness?

We’re looking at a very broad tradition, and there are a lot of changes over these couple of thousand years that occur. But the idea is basically the same: Our breath is connected to our mind. When our breath moves, our mind is moving; when the breath is still, the mind will become still. If you breathe fast and jagged, your thinking patterns will become fast and jagged. If you’re breathing very slow, calm, and measured, your mind will become slow, calm, and measured. What the yogis were doing—and what all of the seekers of “truth” were doing—was experimenting with states of consciousness through breathing. And how could they begin to shift their states of consciousness, shift their states of awareness? Through changing the pattern of breath.

Now, how did they know to tune into the breath? Well, obviously they were very observant, of course, and if you pay attention to your body, you pay attention to your mind; [if] you pay attention to your nervous system, it’ll start to tell you stuff. All you need to do is start to tune in to those things. Our intuition begins to guide us, and the intelligence of the body begins to guide us, as well. So we are basically a field of intelligence that, right now, in this day and age, we’re spending a lot of time ignoring. Because we’ve got stuff to do, and we have pictures to post on Instagram, and we’ve got podcasts to talk on. We’re doing all these things to not really tune into our intelligence—the innate intelligence of our cellular body. But, the people from all contemplative traditions, that’s what they spend time doing.

So, as you start to listen, you begin to go, Okay, well, when my breath is in this state, or when my mind is in this state, I notice my breath is doing that, so what happens if I start to change that a little bit? What if I want to not be thinking about stuff and not be worried about stuff, and not going into states of overreactivity to the state of the world? But I [instead] want to become, I want to know who I am, I want to be really centered. I want to experience who is the experiencer, who’s the awareness which is observing all of this. They use the breath as a fulcrum with which to swing the awareness inward. That’s basically what I do, how I think about breathing techniques, and why I teach them.

What do you think about the relationship between breathing and time? And by that, I don’t just mean the time spent breathing, but how breathing can impact how you relate to how you’re moving through your day—just your general relationship to time.

One of the interesting things about the idea of time and breath is that the yogis measured their lives not by how many years or days they had, but by how many breaths they were taking. They basically said, you have approximately a hundred years to live, and in that one hundred years, you’re going to be breathing the whole time. Every day, you’re going to be breathing each minute roughly between fifteen to eighteen breaths per minute, depending on your activity levels. Generally speaking, this is what humans breathe. So that means each day, you’re going to breathe roughly twenty-one thousand six hundred times per day, about six-hundred million times over the course of your life.

If you know that you have these six-hundred million breaths, or let’s just take one day—twenty-one thousand six hundred —and your life is measured by that, what happens if you use up [fewer] of them? What if you start to breathe more slowly? Would you be able to expand time, and expand your physical time, as well as your mental time as well?


Isn’t that cool? Because we know that when we’re fully absorbed in the moment, time stands still, we transcend time, we’re not aware of how much time has passed. This happens when you’re fully absorbed in a creative project, or you’re meditating, or you’re with people you really love, or whatever it might be—you lose track of the time. So you can use your breath to become totally absorbed in the moment for extended periods of time, and then basically, time stands still. For the yogis, longevity was going to be slowing your breath: Slow your breath; extend your years. That’s what they were looking at.

So, if we look at time and space as one continuum, then we can look at, what is the thing which is holding space? Your body takes up space. And what is the thing which is measuring time? That’s your breath. So what do you do in meditation? You sit really still and you let your breath become quiet. What do you do in pranayama? You focus on the breathing, and your body becomes very still. Both of those things are going to work together and these practices.

You’ve done a number of breathing-focused projects, including the Breathing App with Deepak Chopra and Moby, and more recently, the “Conscious Breath” twelve-hour course with The Chopra Well on YouTube and the “Breathwork for Balance” series on the Chopra app. What’s your approach to thinking about and teaching breathwork, particularly “conscious” breathing and pranayama?

I didn’t realize that The Chopra Well breathing series was twelve hours. That’s a lot of breathing. [Laughs]

I have a very gentle approach to these practices. When I was younger, I used to do a lot more intensive things. I’ve tried some of the intensive breathwork practices as well that don’t fall under pranayama, and I’ve done a lot of the intensive pranayama practices, too. And I find that gentler, slower, smoother, deliberate breathing patterns have a much better effect on my nervous system and on my mind than those other things were having on me.

Now, depending on the type of person you are and the type of needs that you have, and the state of your mind, those different practices are going to be beneficial for you. There is an idea in the yogic traditions that if your mind is moving really fast, if you’re high-strung, if you have a lot of worries, if you have so many things to do, and you have a hard time slowing your mind down, you are not going to do well with a practice where someone says to you, “Just relax and breathe slowly.” You need to do something which is an activity that will match a little bit more of the speed of your mind. So fast breathing, intensive breathing, long sessions of heavy repetitive breathing that you might find in Wim Hof or Holotropic breathing are going to match the speed of your mind, and in the matching of the speed of the mind, will allow the mind to slow down, because when you slow down the breath at the end of those practices, your mind, which has become entrained with these faster breathing practices, is automatically going to come along with the breath now. So what we do is we speed up the breath, to latch it to the mind when the mind holds on to it. When you slow down the breath, your mind can come along. But if you haven’t done anything to harness the mind to an anchor like the breath, then you’re just going to keep thinking, and it’s going to become annoying. You’re going to say, “I hate this yoga shit. I’m going to get a burger, and I’m going to CrossFit.”


So that’s basically some of the idea behind how the yogis or how different schools of thought will approach it.

Here, I’d love for you to explain, in technical terms—maybe not getting too deep into the weeds, because there are many weeds to it, but—some of the pranayama exercises and maybe even demonstrate some of them.

Sure. I’ll start with my favorite one. And it’s extremely easy. So when you think about breathing, I’m going to say, “Take a deep breath.” Go ahead and take one for me. Okay, great. So when you do that, what do you think you’re doing inside your physiology? What do you think is the thing that you’re trying to breathe? An organ.


Okay, good one. What’s next to the heart?


Okay, so the lungs are kind of the obvious answer, right? I’m gonna take a deep breath, I’m gonna fill up my lungs. We often think about the lungs as a primary organ of respiration. But the lungs are not the organ of respiration. They’re the organ of gas exchange. Our nose is the primary organ of respiration, the lungs the primary organ of gas exchange, and our diaphragm the primary muscle of respiration. So the diaphragm moving up and down is going to be exerting pressure changes within the lungs that allow air to flow in and flow out.

So what we want to do when we start doing the simple pranayama practice is begin to shift our awareness away from the lungs, and first move it up to the nose. And so this is a practice that I first read about in a book called Pranayama by André van Lizbeth. He was a Belgian who went to India in the early 1960s, studied with a lot of very important yoga teachers, learned a lot of techniques, and wrote a few really good books.

So, this is called the “rose breath,” and we’ll do it together now. Alright, so this is what we do. We sit comfortably. Bring your awareness to your breathing, whatever that means to you. On the simplest level, what bringing your awareness to your breathing means is: Just be aware that you’re breathing. You don’t have to change the breath. Just be aware that you’re breathing. [Pauses for breathing]

And now, bring your awareness or your feeling of sense to the inside of your nostrils. Feel your breath moving in your nostrils. [Pauses for breathing]

And now shift your awareness to the sense of smell in the nostrils—the olfactory nerves. And feel as though you’re drawing your breath right to your sense of smell. You can even imagine that you’re smelling a smell that you really like—baking bread. If you’re gluten-free, baking gluten-free bread. Or the smell of flowers that don’t give you allergies. Roses or incense burning or the smell of the ocean. [Pauses for breathing]

And as you draw the breath in towards the sense of smell, begin to lengthen it slightly, like you’re savoring the smell on the inside of your nostrils. [Pauses for breathing]

So the breath naturally gets longer. [Takes a breath]

Okay, so now the last part we’re going to add into it is, when you exhale, keep your awareness at the sense of smell. And don’t really try to breathe out; just let the breath gently go out from the nostrils. So we breathe in towards the olfactory nerves. [Takes a breath] When the breath leaves, keep your awareness at the olfactory nerves. [Pauses for breathing]

And then let the breath relax, sit quietly for a moment. Okay, let’s open the eyes.

So what did you notice? Specifically, what did you notice on your exhalation there? Did you feel a settling-down of your mind as you were keeping your awareness focused in the nasal cavity?

Yeah. And even more calm when I opened my eyes again.

Yeah, when we opened the eyes, everything was a little brighter and everything expands a little. So, we only did that for like a minute and a half, maximum two minutes. So imagine if you do that for like ten minutes, twenty, thirty, two hours. The mind will increasingly get very, very, very quiet.

This is sort of a preparatory pranayama practice. So, “ayama” means to enhance, lengthen, or expand. “Prana” means our vital energy, our bioelectric energy, the capacity of the mind to be present. Prana is an overarching term which refers to different functions of the nervous system as well. But, at a subtle level, prana and mind are the same thing. They are the force that cause things to move. So when we have a lot of stimulation around us, the mind starts moving along with prana. When we slow the breath down, we slow this prana down—this force which is causing things to move, on a nervous system level, on a mental level, et cetera. “Bioelectric energies” is a nice word for it, because it does refer to two processes that are instigated and influenced by emotions, mind, and physical things all at the same time. So that’s basically an entry point.

What would be some other exercises? In the little time I spent going through your projects, I came across the rose pranayama, and maybe—I hope I pronounce this right—Bhramari, and coherence breathing. Those are all different pranayamas.

Bhramari is a really cool pranayama, where you make a humming sound. You inhale and you exhale; you make a sound like a humming bee. Bhramari means a female fee; bhramara means a male bee. So you can make a sound both on the inhalation and exhalation.

Our brain responds to sound, and there are certain sounds that cause coherent fluctuations in brain signaling. Humming is one of those sounds that causes a coherent state through different areas of the brain, which is a positive thing. It’s like giving them a massage to your brain, basically. The sound of “om” does this; humming does this; music that you really love does this, as well. A music that you really hate does not do this quite as well. [Laughs] Through the humming, basically, we’re giving the brain a little bit of a sound—it’s like an internal sound bath.

Now, the humming is also made through the palate of the mouth, and the pineal gland sits right above the roof of the mouth—in the skull, in the brain. Some people say that this is stimulating for the hormones the pineal gland is producing, such as melatonin. Melatonin is an interesting substance because not only is it part of our circadian rhythm—the wake-and-sleep cycle—but if you take some cells of the body and soak them in melatonin, they will stop aging. Melatonin is a reparative, restorative substance that the body is making, that we use in the evening time for cellular repair, as well as for sleep, but the yogis associated it with this nectar of immortality. That you could preserve, somehow, and extend your life.

So, another thing that the humming does—and this has been very well studied—is that it helps create nitric oxide in the paranasal sinuses. So our nasal sinuses are right here in the nose of things sticking out from our face. Inside the cheekbones, in the skull bones, we have these other cavities, which are called paranasal sinuses. In those sinuses, we’re creating a lot of different substances that are fighting off bacteria that come in, and one of those substances is called nitric oxide. It’s antibacterial, antimicrobial. It’s an antiviral. It’s an immuno-modulator. Nitric oxide does all these things. As well, it has contributed to us as upright beings, because of the perfusion of oxygen coming into the lungs and the way that it operates in the spine. So nitric oxide is also linked to us being bipedal beings. We produce it endogenously, which means we’re naturally creating it, but we can enhance its creation through humming because as we hum, we’re speeding up these vortexes of air and sound moving through these cavities, and it speeds up the production of nitric oxide. So that’s one of the things that Bhramari does, as well.

A final thing that it does is, you might have noticed, in the videos, we were placing the fingers over our face in a particular way. Fingers below the lips and below the nose, and resting on the nose, closing the eyes, and then pressing on the tragus of the ear—the flap over the ear that people like getting pierced these days. Don’t know if it’s a good idea or not; it gets in the way of Shanmukhi Mudra.

Now, what this does is that we have this vagal nerve complex, which many people are familiar with, that has to do with signaling from the body up to the brain and carrying messages from the brain to the body. The vagus nerve is also responsible for inflammatory levels in the body. It is eight percent of our parasympathetic nervous system, which is rest, repair, restoration, digestion. It also is deeply linked with emotional and mental states. So we have vagal nerve nuclei attaching into the inner ear, to the skin behind the ear, and when we press on the tragus, and we’re pressing in this whole inner area, we’re stimulating vagal nerve endings. We also have them at the corner of the mouth and the corner of the eyes, where the vagus nerve is connecting with nuclei of the face and the trigeminal nerve, and all of these interesting nerve complexes, which have a lot to do with down regulation of mental and emotional states.

So we’re pressing on these things with our fingers, stimulating the surface area of them, humming internally, and the entire effect is deeply calming. This is a really good pranayama. Really easy to do. Anyone can do it, pretty much. And another thing associated with it is that, if you taste something which is really delicious, what sound do you make?


Exactly! [Laughs] The yummy sound of Young Frankenstein and Gene Wilder: Mmmm. You made the yummy noise. Basically, all you’re doing, you’re extending the yummy noise. It’s the sound of joy. It’s a vocalized expression of joy and delight, which is nonverbal. It’s not at all being filtered through the intellect or through words. You go, Mmmm. Everybody knows what that means. You do it in every country. So now all you’re doing is you’re taking the yummy sound, and then you turn it into a pranayama and you go [makes pranayama humming sound]. And when you do it, your mouth also naturally goes into a little smile. Those smile muscles go into the brain to tell you you’re happy and joyous, as well. That’s a really good one.

Beautiful. And there’s one technique I saw you do that involves these nose-pumping sounds. Can you explain that one?

Yeah, the nose pumping sound.

This is a miraculous sound, by the way. 

Is it? 

I think so.

This one? [Makes repetitive pumping sound through his nose] That’s a miraculous sound?

Yeah, it’s like a train.

[Laughs] This is called kapalbhati. Kapala means “skull.” Bhati means “to shine.” Some people say it also means “to open.” Kapalbhati is a cleansing practice that is preparatory for other pranayamas. It’s energizing. It does some interesting things to the intestines, because you’re pumping the lower belly primarily, so it’s stimulating, some people say, for the microbiome, and it’s stimulating, definitely, for peristalsis. It is also offloading carbon dioxide from the body so that when you finally take a deep breath, afterwards, when the oxygen comes in, it’s going to attach to the red blood cells in a more efficient type of manner. Something like kapalbhati is encouraging the efficiency of use of the oxygen.

In the yogic texts, you read about, for people who are striving after liberation, that when you’re liberated, the top of your skull opens and your spirit can fly free, unencumbered out. Kapalbhati helps to do that. There’s also interesting things occurring with our cerebrospinal fluid, which pumps up and down the spine about eight times per minute. The cerebral spinal fluid has a lot of very interesting things that it does, including clearing the debris out from the brain that collects from thinking all day long. Every time we think—have a thought, do an action, whatever—synapses are [firing] in our brain, and these are electrical messages. Anytime there are some electrical messages, that leaves a little bit of debris. That eventually can turn into plaque and other types of things. So, thinking leaves a mess behind it.

Every night, when we sleep, we need to clear this mess out from the brain. This is called the glymphatic system, where the cerebral spinal fluid is going to be really washing clean all the debris from thinking and other activities of the brain, out through the lymphatic system. It uses the glial cells, which are part of the tissue of the brain, part of the nervous tissue, to help do all that cleansing. I don’t know if there’s a lot of literature on this, but I think that the kapalbhati has something to do with stimulating this washing of the brain with the cerebral spinal fluid.

That’s the best description of sleep I’ve ever heard.


And it’s a really good reason to sleep also, if for nothing else.

There’s also this hissing sound in one or maybe several pranayama. Could you speak to the hissing sound?

Yeah. I can speak to the hissing sound. Is this the whispering sound of the breath, or is it this one? [Makes sucking sound with his mouth]

Probably the whispering, but—

Yeah, so the one I just demonstrated is called sitali, which is a cooling breath where you breathe in through the mouth. There are not too many of them where you breathe in through the mouth. The whispering one is called ujjayi, and this relates basically to: There are five different types of pranas. One of them is an upward-moving prana, and it rules the region of the throat. This hissing sound, you focus on the throat to make the sound, and it’s said to be energizing, purifying for the energy of the throat. A lot of things are happening in the throat. We have our vocal cords so we can express stuff. We have the carotid arteries, where blood pressure is being monitored. We have a lot of vagal nerves. We have all sorts of stuff happening in the neck.

In the tantric traditions, the throat chakra has the sixteen petals at the throat, like petals of a lotus. Each one has a vowel sound—the different vowel sounds of the Sanskrit language. One of the things which is purified at the throat is speech as it moves from our thinking, our intuitive levels, to a verbalized level. And that’s very important, because often people don’t think before they talk. Or often, we’re trying to say something, but we can’t quite verbalize what that thing is we want to say. So the purification of the throat is said to be the bridge between our verbal communication and our inner communication, which is our thinking process, and our internal states of emotions, and then the feelings that come from emotions, as well.

You’ve been at this a long time, and you’ve seen all kinds of reactions and responses to the work you do. And I was wondering, what have been some of the most profound impacts you’ve seen, either on yourself or people you’ve worked with, to these breathwork exercises, to these pranayama techniques?

Well, there’ve been a lot of very cool things that have happened, and most of them have to do with people who are struggling with diseases, or going through really hard times of their lives, where simple practices just help them—either help them in their healing process, whether it’s physical healing, or emotional healing. But if someone says that they did some of these practices, and this got better, that got better, or they were able to deal with life better, that’s really gratifying. I can’t say there’s any one huge, profound whatever. It’s more like all the small little things that build up over the years.

Keep it simple. That’s the most important thing. There are a lot of complicated things out there. There are people with complicated minds. I have a complicated mind. I like complicated things. But keeping it simple goes a long way. The longevity of simple things is better, too.

To finish, what to you, Eddie, is the good life?

The good life, to me, is a really challenging question. I don’t know. This thing about the good life, because I’m still honestly just trying to figure out what life is. I don’t even know what life is. It’s this process, right, of stuff happening. And so when is it good? Is it good when it’s good for everyone? Can you have a good life when other people are suffering and having really painful lives? I wish I had a good answer for you. But I don’t. And I think that if there is such a thing as a good life, then I wish it for all people.

This interview was recorded on October 14, 2022. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.