Yoga Breathing (Pranayama) 101
"For breath is life, and if you breathe well you will live long here on Earth." -Sanskrit Proverb
26,000...that's the average number of breaths a person takes in a single day. Over our lifespan that's about a half a billion breaths! It's the first thing we do when we enter this world and the last thing we do when we depart...so to say it's important is an understatement, and yet most of us go about our days without ever even thinking about it. And why should we? It's a function of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), meaning our bodies do it naturally without any conscious effort...sooooooo no thinking needed right?
Well...technically yes. But the ancient science of yoga looks at it a bit differently.
Our breath is the wave on which Prana (aka Life Force Energy) rides. With each breath we are able to take in and release vital Prana which cleanses and balances the thousands of energetic pathways/channels in the body (known as nadis in Ancient Yogic Science or meridians in Traditional Chinese Medicine) giving us life and providing energy to our consciousness.
Yogic breathing is called Pranayama which can be broken down as Prana (Life-force) and Yama (control). There are many benefits to controlling our breathing through Pranayama exercises such as lowered blood pressure and heart rate, reduced stress and the ability to reach higher states of consciousness. Slow, controlled breathing helps to stimulate the Vagus nerve which is responsible for many bodily functions including that of activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) which counteracts stress caused by the Fight or Flight mechanism of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). Fight or Flight is an important bodily response that allows us to flee from potentially harmful or life threatening situations (i.e our ancestors needing to RUN when a hungry lion entered their dwellings), but since the majority of us aren't in any immediate physical danger these days, most often what activates the Fight or Flight response is emotional and/or psychological stress that can't actually harm us physically. The body, however, cannot decipher between a lion coming to eat us and a high stakes interview we have coming up...it responds to both the same way through STRESS. The constant state of Fight or Flight most of us are in is incredibly harmful to our health, which is why it's so important to incorporate daily practices that help to reduce our stress levels. Pranayama breathing is one of the best ways to lower anxiety, balance the mind and restore our energy.
The yogis believe that the length of our lives is very much related to the amount of breaths taken, therefor the slower and more controlled we breathe, the longer we live. A good example of this in nature is the tortoise...they breathe very slowly (about 4 breaths per minute) and have one of the longest lifespans of any living creature...some up to 150 years old! Conversely the hummingbird, who takes about 250 breaths/minute, has an average lifespan of about 3-5 years. So taking time out each day to consciously slow down and connect to our breathing not only makes us feel better but can also help us to potentially live longer.
Here are my Go-To top 5 Yoga Breathing Exercises...
Ujjayi (Victorious Breath)
By far the most widely known breathing practice in the Western World due to its popularity in yoga asana classes. It's simple to perform and very effective at calming the nervous system and sharpening awareness. This breath in particular stimulates the Vagus nerve quite well which is instrumental in activating the PNS to help combat stress.
Sit up tall in a comfortable seat with your spine elongated (no slouching). You can lay down if you prefer just be sure to have your spine lengthened. Start by taking a deep, full breath in through your nose. As you exhale, open your mouth and make a "saaawwwww" sound as if you were fogging up a mirror. Do this 2-3 times to feel the restriction along the back of the throat needed to create that audible exhale.
Close your lips and breathe in and out through your nose while still making that audible, ocean like sound. Make this sound on the inhale and the exhale, without straining or pushing your vocal chords. Breathe loudly enough so that a person sitting next to you cold hear you, but not a person on the other side of the room.
Smooth out and elongate your breath so that the length of your inhales matches the length of your exhales, creating a steady, slow rhythm. Rhythmic breathing (Sama Vritti) helps to calm the mind and is particularly helpful during stressful situations, which is why Ujjayi is often practiced during physically challenging classes as it gives the mind something to focus on other than the difficulty of the pose being performed.
Breathe deeply, feeling your belly, diaphragm and ribs expand. Take a slight pause at the top of your inhale, and at the bottom of your exhale, observing what it feels like to be full and empty of air. Notice if there is comfort or resistance in either of these states. Observe without judgment as there is no wrong or right way to feel. Observing sensation of the breath helps to ground us in the present moment.
Do this for a couple of minutes (2-5) to begin and increase time with continued practice as you like.
This breath is slightly warming and requires you to breathe in and out through your nose, so if it's a hot day, your sinuses are acting up, or if your doing a slower more restorative practice, it might be one to skip.
Kapalbhati (Breath of Fire)
My favorite breath to practice when I'm feeling sluggish, tired and even a little bit depressed or down. I often do it first thing in the morning if I'm having a tough time waking up as it very quickly and effectively increases circulation and carries oxygen to the brain. It's invigorating, cleansing, helps improve lung capacity, activates the solar plexus (3rd Chakra), improves digestion and even helps tone the abdomen. Just as gold needs to be melted down to get to its purest state, so too can our bodies and minds be purified of stagnant energy and toxins by way of this practice which utilizes Agni (fire). It's sometimes referred to as "Skull Shining Breath" due to the residual high and tingle you get at the top of your head after practicing. Start off by doing 1 round of 30 seconds and over time you can increase your time and speed up your breath pace a bit. If you are pregnant or have high blood pressure this practice should be avoided.
Sit up tall with an elongated spine. Either rest your hands on your thighs or if you've been practicing for a while and want to up the anti you can reach them up over head with your arms fully extend in a wide V shape and your fingers tucked into your palms with your thumbs sticking out like a hitchhiker.
Exhale all the breath out of your lungs, then breath in half way, tuck the chin in slightly towards the chest (jalandhara bandha) and begin to exhale rhythmically and somewhat rapidly, breathing through your nose. Snap the navel back in towards the spine with each exhale, pushing the air out with a little bit of force, using your core to do this. Don't worry about the inhale, it will just happen naturally.
Do this for 30 seconds, and when you're done take a deep breath in and hold your breath at the top of your inhale for a few moments until it feels a bit uncomfortable (if you have the arms overhead you can extend all the fingers fully at this point of the inhale). Then exhale all the air out your mouth and return to regular, relaxed breathing. Lower your arms as you exhale if they are overhead.
Sit quietly with your eyes closed and observe how you feel. What do you notice physically, mentally and/or emotionally after breathing so intensely?
Start with one round as a beginner, and over time you can increase your rounds and length of time for each. A good number to work towards is 3 rounds with each round lasting 1 minute.
Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril)
This is my go to exercise to get grounded when I'm feeling a bit stressed or out of sorts. It's the perfect way to press the "reset button" on the day and if I don't have time to practice asana (which I don't every singe day) I love this practice as it gets me centered and connected more quickly than any other practice I've encountered thus far on this path. It balances the right (Pingala Nadi) and left (Ida Nadi) channels of the body, restoring balance to the Shushumna Nadi that runs up and down the center of our spine. The Ida and Pingala Nadis start at our root chakra and wind their way up and around the Shushumna Nadi until they meet at the 3rd Eye (Ajna) Chakra between our eyebrows. Practicing Alternate Nostril Breathing helps us to feel balanced energetically so we're neither too rajasic (intense) nor too tamasic (sluggish).
Sit up tall either on a chair or seated on the floor with a folded blanket under you for support. Bend your index and middle fingers of your right hand to the padding at the base of your right thumb. You'll use your thumb for your right nostril and your ring finger for your left nostril.
Take one full inhale and exhale as a cleansing breath.
Plug your right nostril with your thumb and slowly inhale through your left nostril. Pause at the top of your inhale and then plug your left nostril with your ring finger and release your right thumb, exhaling completely out your right nostril. Pause at the bottom of your exhale.
Inhale slowly through the right nostril, pause at the top of your inhale, switch nostrils, plugging the right with your thumb and releasing the left with your ring finger. Exhale out the left nostril. Pause at the bottom of your exhale.
That completes one full round of Nadi Shodhana. Repeat for 2-5 minutes (can increase time with practice) and take another big cleansing breath in and out through both nostrils after your last round.
Return to normal breathing and sit in silence for a few moments, observing how you feel. Do you feel differently in your body than you did before you began the exercise? If so, how? Take a moment to really tune in and check in with yourself.
Viloma (3 Part Breath)
I love this exercise for it's ability to fully take us into the present moment by acutely observing and controlling our breath in a way that's a bit unnatural. There are a few ways you can practice Viloma, all having slightly different focuses. I will take you through the version I practice and teach most often as means to ground my energy. I love practicing this 3 part breath at the beginning of an asana practice as it helps me to reel in my racing mind and shift gears energetically. If you are pregnant this exercise should be avoided as it involves a lot of breath retention.
Start either seated or lying down in a comfortable position with the emphasis on spinal alignment.
Take a cleansing breath in through your nose and out through your mouth, emptying out your breath completely.
Take a small breath in (1/3 of your breath capacity), filling just the lower belly, then pause for a moment.
Breathe in a little more air (2/3 full), breathing up to your bottom ribs and pause there.
Breath in all the way to the top of your lungs, filling up completely until you can't breathe in any more and hold your breath at the top of the inhale.
Exhale 1/3 of your breath out and pause.
Exhale 2/3 of your breath out pausing around the mid belly.
Exhale all the breath out of your lungs and pause at the bottom of your exhale.
Take a full cleansing breath in through the nose and out through the mouth and observe how your feel.
Take 3 rounds of Viloma being sure to always take a cleansing breath in between rounds.
Bhramari (Bee Breath)
It gets its name from the humming sound you make upon exhalation that sounds like a bee. Great for drowning out the incessant noise of the mind and can even be used in place of meditation for a beginner who suffers from high levels of stress. A fantastic exercise for calming and balancing the nervous system while heightening a deep, internal awareness.
Sit upright either on the floor in a cross legged seat (sukhasana) or in a chair seated towards the edge so that you can maintain a lifted spine.
Take 2-3 cleansing breaths to feel grounded and begin the process of tuning in.
Take Shanmukhi Mudra (pictured) with your thumbs gently plugging your ears, your index and middle fingers VERY gently resting on your closed eyelids towards the inner creases of your eyes, your ring fingers resting on the sides of your nose and your pinkies above your upper lip. Make sure the ears are plugged enough so that external sound is blocked out.
Take a deep breath in, and as you exhale make a humming sound (hmmmmmm). Feel the vibrations in your nose, forehead and all throughout your head. Make sure to exhale all the breath out.
Repeat this 3-9 times, exploring different pitches at different intensity levels with each round and notice how each one feels and where it resonates the strongest in your body.
When you complete your last round, release Shanmukhi Mudra and sit quietly in observation. Notice how your body feels, where your mind is at and what it's like to see and hear normally again. Do you feel as though your senses are slightly more heightened or acute? Do you feel more calm? Try taking a normal, audible OM and notice how that feels after previously creating sound with sensory deprivation.
Have fun exploring these pranayama practices! If yoga asana isn't your thing or mediation is too daunting, this might be a nice gateway for you to enter the world of yoga and reap it's many benefits. Pranayama performed with asana and meditation is particularly powerful, but each limb of yoga is quite potent on its own. Find a practice that works for you and go with that! The key to making something a lasting habit is to actually enjoy it...so play around and explore!
From my heart to yours...