Smoking is Dirty Pranayama.


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And, how Pranayama can help Smokers to Quit Smoking—and Keep Breathing.

Last year, the medical center of the university where I work recently instituted a “no-smoking-on-the-grounds” policy, which had the effect of pushing all the smokers to a public sidewalk on the edge of a main thoroughfare.

At any time of day, a drive-by reveals the collective stress of the medical center lined up in stunning array—people whose loved ones are in the hospital or in examination and therefore the shape of whose lives are up in the air; patients who were somehow able to steal away; nurses and techs who have been negotiating life and death for hours; and even an occasional doctor, like a god among mortals.

There they all assemble, pressed out to stand alone in a quiet little vacuole of spacetime, where they can breathe deeply, where for the approximately seven minutes it usually takes to smoke one cigarette, nothing can accost them.

They are doing their breathing practice.

Like more healthy and accepted forms of breathing practice, a smoke break is set aside from the usual run of time, designated for a particular form of enhanced breathing that puts the practitioner (here, the smoker) into a more relaxed and centered state, and by doing so relieves stress.

Smoking is a pranayama practice. I am not going to condition or weaken that by saying “It is like a pranayama practice.” It is a pranayama practice—although the prana is corrupt and poisoned and, yes, will help eventually kill you.

Not all cigarettes are as awful as the above. All, however, are awful.

Pranayama is a yogic practice which, depending on how you break the word down, can either mean controlling the life force within the breath (prana = life force, breath of life; yama = to control, to restrict, to restrain), or expanding it. Tantrikas such as Anusara yogis who are greedy for life in all its forms love to define the word the latter way (pran’ = life force; ayama = without restriction). Either way, there is a deliberate dance with the breath that is more purposeful and deeper than breathing is when you are not paying attention to it.

Just as there are many poses within the practice of hatha yoga, all productive of different physical and mental effects, so there are also many different forms of pranayama—all with different physiological, neurological effects. One of these is antara kumbhaka pranayama, a breath of interior retention. A kumbhaka is a pot, a big container with a lid. When the practitioner inhales, she pops her lungs open like a big cookie jar or crock and then closes her glottis to retain the breath inside—sort of like putting the lid on—before exhaling. She takes a big hit of prana and holds it, going deep into the space between inhale and exhale and absorbing the energy of it….ah…before letting it go.

Antara kumbhaka has a stimulating but also a relaxing effect. Does that sound familiar? If you have ever smoked, or even remember smoking ad copy (see bottom of this post ~ed.), it should. Think of what pranayama is, and you will realize that this is what a smoker is doing: taking a long, slow, controlled inhalation, holding it, absorbing the additives and ‘whatevers’ but also receiving the relaxation response of having his lungs opened up like an umbrella for the duration of a retention. Just the way that action works on the brain in clean pranayama—reacting to that holding open of the lungs while they are sealed off—why would it not work the same way in smoking? The mechanism is the same. I suspect the relaxation response antara kumbhaka elicits in the pranayama practitioner is the same physiologically, minus the rich oxygenation, as the one elicited by smoking.

I think that one reason smokers have such a hard time quitting smoking, that they stress out and go a little nuts, is not just because of nicotine withdrawal or a deprival of orality. They freak out because all of a sudden they are deprived of a breathing practice that was part of coming back to who they are, that may have been central to their life for years, and they probably practiced more regularly and with greater commitment than that with which many of us approach our pranayama practices!

If the relaxation/stress-relieving effect that takes place when the lungs are filled and expanded in pranayama also takes place during the act of smoking, then no matter whether a smoker quits cold turkey, with a patch or with gum, there is nothing to substitute the physiological act of breathing deeply, no matter how toxic it might be.

The addiction to smoking is the addiction to breath itself, to a deep inhalation that you open your whole lungs for, that you hold them open for, the dear intake of mammalian landed life.

Maybe in thinking of smoking this way, we can be more compassionate toward our fellow humans who smoke, or more understanding of our own smoking habit if we have one. If we are teachers working with students who are trying to quit smoking, or if we are trying to quit ourselves, we can realize that when somebody has been addicted to breathing, it is not enough to slap a patch on them and give them a lecture. We can employ the resources of our tradition to help others and help ourselves, to substitute a clean practice for a dirty one. We can swap breath with breath.

But most importantly we can recognize the kinship between something poisonous and something healthy. If you are someone who prides herself on clean-living ways, that recognition can be humbling…and ultimately sweetening. The smokers outside the medical center are not essentially polluters or suicidal: it is the same impulse toward a contented life that we all feel that drives them.

The world gets a hit of bigness, of expansion, when we realize that in all of us. Beneath all of what might seem corrupt or legitimate, dirty or clean, is an embodied life that wants to be peaceful and happy.

Laura Marjorie Miller is an Anusara Yoga teacher living in Nashville, Tennessee.


Bonus: a few old timey ads:


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Laura Marjorie Miller

Laura Marjorie Miller writes about travel, Yoga, magic, myth, fairy tales, photography, marine conservation, and other soulful subjects. She is a regular columnist at, contributing editor at Be You Media, and a public-affairs writer at UMass Amherst. Her work has appeared at Tripping, GotSaga, Dive News Network, and, in Yankee Magazine, the Boston Globe and Parabola. She is based in Massachusetts, where she lives with a cat named Huck. You can find her on twitter at bluecowboyyoga.


33 Responses to “Smoking is Dirty Pranayama.”

  1. rachel says:

    what a beautiful article that is not at all preachy!

  2. Beej says:

    Sweet Laura!!!! Respiration=the act of breathing Spirit again…

    And… if we can remember… smoking tobacco has its roots in ritual and prayer, the smoke carrying prayers to Creator. Western culture has taken the sacred beauty of the ceremonial blessings and made it profane and 'ugly'. The intoxication of the holy crossed the boundaries into toxicity.
    May we all breathe freely and choose how to breathe Spirit in honor and delight!

  3. dmg says:

    yes, thought this was such a compassionate view

  4. Lori Miles says:

    This was a very interesting concept because I am a smoker and a Yogi. I can see needing to do more breath work and Yoga as helpful for stopping smoking. I despise the addiction caused by cigarettes. Working as an addictions nurse, I know that it alters your lifestyle and ties up your ability to be completely free. Not to even mention the physical problems that can be caused by putting chemicals into your body. I can definatley give this a try.

  5. Love this Laura! I'll be sharing this one for sure.

  6. Jane says:

    This is fantastic!!!

  7. redgypsi says:

    Compassionately poignant, I enjoyed this article. It offers a non judgmental approach to how smoking brings one in a present state of awareness and offers solutions to creating health without the harmful aspect.

  8. Robert Allen says:

    Fascinating and challenging as hell. I never would have connected pranayama and smoking, and you've done it creatively and truthfully. I started with an attitude of "no way", but the further I read, I saw the truth of your thesis. Very compassionate and very cool of you to share your article.

  9. r.r. Shakti says:

    Love this article. Thank you! I personally quit smoking after a 7 year, pack a day addiction. Yoga was the culprit. Once my practice increased, my smoking decreased. Then, I went on to create a smoking cessation program for smokers that includes loads of breath awareness and "pure" Pranayama. One of my favorite things to quip: "Smoking didn't interfere with my Yoga, but Yoga interfered with my smoking."

  10. tk wesley says:

    yes, yes, yes it is! This revelation came to me a couple of years after I quit, over 8 years now.

  11. jolinda Van Haren says:

    I love you Laura.

  12. Ben Ralston says:

    Very cool article!

    I’m a yoga teacher. I used to smoke, alot.

    I was the one who always held the smoke down longest. That was the bit I enjoyed the most… and although I think the connection between smoking and pranayama had occurred to me before, it’s great to see it written about so sweetly and intelligently. And yes, as others have said, compassionately.

    Nice work Laura!

    With love,


  13. grasshulaskirt says:

    Nataraja, a teacher at Naropa says smokers are really addicted to pranyama, makes sense! Didnt read the article, but will one day.

    My dad always says there is so much negativity out there about smoking, better just to say "there is a reward for not smoking".

  14. Irisblooming says:

    Beautifully written!

  15. K Sequoia says:

    Fantastic article. I smoked from the time I was 12 until I became pregnant at 35. I struggled for years with it, even after I had changed my life for the better in so many ways, taking up yoga, eating healthy, even being an entry level fitness instructor at one point. I saw over and over how people use smoking to literally create a 'smoke screen' of protection from others, and how I did this as well. At one point, at the urging of a teacher, I even offered up half my cig to the elements before smoking (my friends thought I was nuts – I did this anywhere I was, a party, outside a restaurant, etc; but I was attempting to make the act sacred, to honor the plant spirit and therefore release its grip on me).

    This perspective you give answered a few things for me, and provided a welcome "aha!". I never made this connection before, but as the years went on and I went deeper into my spiritual practice (and meditation) the less and less I smoked. The last few years I smoked only 2-4 a day.

    Thank you!

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  25. Kelly says:

    This is exactly right. I was just explaining that if I quit smoking, I don’t have those few precious minutes of escape and quiet. I hate being a nurse and yogi who smokes. Thanks for writing this.

  26. ex smoker yogi says:

    Other way around,

    practicing yoga is a liberty/freedom to smoke`?

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