When we are born, our life starts with a breath, and when we die, our life ends with it – prana (our life force energy). Our breath influences mental faculties and physiological health. If our breath is able to sustain our very existence, why would we choose not to nurture it? Learn some breathing exercises techniques also known as pranayama here.
What is Pranayama
In today’s sedentary and stressful lifestyle, most of us live on a shallow and quick breath, using only a fraction of our total lung capacity and living on just enough energy supply for the body to function. This way of breathing limits our vitality and our resistance to diseases, and potentially starves our brain of essential oxygen, creating tiredness, irritability, and disturbed sleep.
Pranayama is not only a deep set of breathing exercises but one of the 8 branches of yoga:
Prana is the subtle energy form that governs all functions of your body and mind, taking responsibility for the coordination of breathing, the senses, and the mind. This profound knowledge of careful direction and circulation of prana through pranayama exercises aims to manipulate the respiration rate, deepen and elongate the breath, and therefore sustain life. Try it for yourself – you’ll see that you will feel the calm, peace and physical benefits, even after just a few minutes!
Deep inhalation and exhalation of breath increases the level of oxygen being supplied to the blood and as a result, it improves the quality of your bodily tissues. Many studies highlight the positive effects of breathwork on medical conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, migraines, obesity, asthma, and high blood pressure, as well as many stress-related conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia.
Preparation for Pranayama
Setting up the right environment will enhance the clarity and focus of your mind during the practice of pranayama and meditation. Set up your space so that it is clean, clutter-free, noise-free, with plenty of ventilation so that fresh air is able to enter the room. Keep some comfort provisions, such as cushions and blankets, nearby in case you need extra support, padding, and warmth.
When you practice pranayama, you should sit in a comfortable position, ideally seated on the floor or on a chair, with the spine erect, chest open and the focus on your breath.
For all breathing exercises listed here, start by sitting comfortably on the floor with legs crossed (siddhasana / padmasana) or sitting on your knees (vajrasana), or on a chair with your back straight and feet firmly flat on the floor. 5-6 minutes each morning is sufficient as a starting point. Ideally breathing exercises should be done on an empty stomach.
Pranayama Breathing Exercises
Bhramari Pranayama (Bumblebee Breath)
A technique that helps promote restful sleep and helps overcome insomnia. It is great at silencing the mind. The vibration of this breath does not allow any thoughts to enter your mind.
Take a normal breath in, then let go and relax. Then cover your ears with your thumbs and your eyes with your fingers to block out external disturbances and enable you to go inward. Take a deep inhalation to your natural full lung capacity, then, as you slowly exhale, make a low humming sound in your throat until your breath is complete. Repeat at your own pace for 2-3 minutes. This is a great exercise pre-bedtime.
Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (Alternate Nostril Breath)
This breath is designed to cleanse the channels of the physical and subtle body. Alternate nostril breathing will help you to balance the left and right side of the brain, the sympathetic and parasympathetic activity, helping you to bring your awareness to the breath and stimulating a grounding sensation.
Using your right hand (reverse, if you prefer left), place your right thumb beside your right nostril and your ring and little finger beside the left nostril. Gently close the right nostril with your thumb and exhale out of your left nostril. Inhale with the left nostril while you count to four. Then close the left nostril and breathe out through the right. Inhale with the right nostril, close the right nostril and exhale from the left. This completes one full circle, but you can continue for 4-5 minutes. Ensure that you take a moment to pause between each inhalation and exhalation – this will help you to keep your breath slow, steady and just slightly deeper than normal.
Ujjaya Pranayama (Victorious Breath)
This breath helps remove the heat from the head, as it cools the back of the throat. It is a great way to draw oxygen into the lungs, helping you to expand, deepen and lengthen your breath. It helps remove phlegm in the throat and relieves the symptoms of asthma and other pulmonary diseases. Ujjaya increases resistance to diseases of nerves, dysentery, dyspepsia, enlarged spleen, coughs and fever.
Sitting comfortably, inhale a slow breath through the nose that travels down the back of the throat and into the lungs, to a full but comfortable lung capacity (sounds like a Darth Vader-like breathing noise), then slowly release it in the same manner as inhalation.
Shitali Pranayama (Cooling Breath)
This breath is a cooling breath, so if you are feeling agitated, angry and overheated, this one is for you. It helps quench thirst and appeases hunger. Shitali pranayama cools the physical body, especially the back of the mouth and throat. It reduces the inflammation of chronic diseases, fever, and indigestion.
Protrude your tongue and make it like a tube/ straw. Draw air in through your tongue to your natural lung capacity with a hissing sound, and exhale slowly through both nostrils – 2-3 minutes is sufficient for this exercise.
Sheetkari Pranayama (Hissing Breath)
Sheetkari pranayama has similar benefits to shitali pranayama. It is known as the hissing breath.
Touch the tongue to the roof of the palate and gently clench your teeth. Open your lips widely so the teeth are exposed and breathe in through the mouth to your natural full lung capacity from the abdomen through to the chest, and then slowly release through the nose. Repeat for 2-3 minutes.
Kapala Bhati Pranayama (Skull Shining Breath)
This vigorous, energizing breath helps to stimulate and strengthen your abdominal muscles and diaphragm. It also massages and improves the function of your digestive organs, purifies the channels of the body and clears the lungs, bringing clarity to the mind and warmth to the body.
Since this is an energizing breath, it is best to do this in the morning only. You can do this when you are cold or when you are feeling sluggish. Start by exhaling your breath and then, in quick motions, take a passive breath in through the lower abdomen, then forcefully exhale the breath while pulling the navel towards the spine. The emphasis is on the exhalation while you contract your abdomen. Take a cycle of 15 breaths and repeat 3-4 times, with a short gap to rest between each cycle.
Bhastrika Pranayama (Bellow Breath)
Another energizing breath that will increase your prana and purify the subtle channels. This exercise will help stimulate your digestive power, giving you improved appetite and metabolism. The below breath brings clarity to the mind and warmth to the body. The stimulating nature of this breath helps to combat phlegm and reduce diseases of the nose and chest, including asthma.
Sitting comfortably with your eyes closed and body relaxed, inhale deeply and exhale deeply using the belly. This is similar to kapala bhati, but with an emphasis on both inhalation and exhalation from the abdomen. Go to a steady pace. You can do 3 rounds of 20 breaths, with a short break in between.
After your Practice
Take some time to rest after each breathing exercise to observe the sensations that you are feeling in your mind and body. You are not trying to orchestrate any experience, you are simply allowing the body to be free in the moment. Use this time to let go of your awareness and be present in the body. You might like to direct your attention to different parts of the body. Just observe what you are experiencing in that part of the body for a while. You’ll see your awareness expanding. This is a perfect opportunity to lead into your meditation practice.
Benefits of Pranayama
- It increases the lungs capacity to energize the body with a fresh supply of oxygen
- It reduces your breathing rate, which can reduce hypertension
- It expels toxic waste from the respiratory system
- It improves the health of your heart
- It strengthens the respiratory and nervous systems
- It helps increase metabolic activity and digestion
- It reduces stress, and calms the mind and nervous activity
- It increases awareness and concentration
- It increases energy and vitality by providing stimulation for the internal organs
- It reduces negative emotions, such as anger, irritability, depression, greed, arrogance, and jealousy