Sit comfortably. Close your eyes and breathe consciously. Breathe in and out through your nose. Now, slowly deepen each breath, experiencing the way air moves in and out of your body! Connect yourself with each breath, leaving little time for your thoughts. Allow yourself to drift into this cyclic breathing process. Feeling better? Feeling relaxed?
That’s the magic of conscious breathing, or prānāyāma. The renowned yogi Paramahansa Yogananda describes the whole process of breathing mindfully as follows:
Prānāyāma is derived from two Sanskrit words — prāna (life) and āyāma (control). Prānāyāma is therefore life control and not breath control. The broadest meaning of the word prāna is the force of energy. In this sense, the universe is filled with prāna; all creation is a manifestation of force, a play of force. Everything that was, is, or shall be, is nothing but the different modes of expression of the universal force. The universal prāna is thus the Para-Prakriti (or Pure Nature), imminent energy or force which is derived from the infinite Spirit, and which permeates and sustains the universe.
What he’s trying to say here is that breathing exercises allow you the chance to strip back the hustle and bustle, wear and tear of our daily lives. At the core of all that you meet your True Self: you’ll find that version of you that’s in its easiest and most natural state, unhindered by the expectations of yourself or others.
The Science Of Prānāyāma
From a therapeutic angle, regular practice of various types of prānāyāma techniques could help in strengthening, protecting, and energizing the various systems of the human body. On a spiritual note, one could consider these breathing techniques as the gateway to a calmer, more natural version of you.
Yoga āsana practice already acts as a catalyst to make your respiratory system more effective, but there are many added benefits to focussing on just the breathing itself. Although these breathing techniques are simple, they’re powerfully effective tools to invite more relaxation into your life. They’ve been documented and used in some form or other since the very first yoga publications. In the past decade, scientists and researchers have taken an interest in studying and documenting the effects of these practices in clinical settings.
According to a 2009 study published by the International Journal of Yoga about the use of breathing exercises for people suffering with asthma, “breathing exercises (prānāyāma), mainly expiratory exercises, improved lung function subjectively and objectively and should be regular part of therapy.” In 2013, they also documented prānāyāma’s use in reducing anxiety. They concluded that “after practicing prānāyāma, only 33% of the participants of the experimental group experienced high test anxiety, while this percentage was nearly twice in the control group (66.7%).”
5 Prānāyāma Exercises For Home, Work Or School
There are numerous prānāyāma techniques, but these five practices below are my favourites. They are quite simple, and easily integrated into your yoga routine. They work well anytime that is convenient to you, but doing them on an empty stomach can fetch better benefits.
1. Kapalbhathi Prānāyāma (Skull-Cleansing Breath)
Simple, powerful exhalations — that would be the simplest way to explain this breathing technique. Inhalations are passive and almost non-existent while exhalations are powerful and forceful, engaging the muscles of your abdomen.
- Keep your spine straight and place your right palm on your stomach.
- Take a deep inhalation and exhale forcefully.
- Every inhalation thereafter should passive and almost non-existent, but the exhalation should remain forceful. If you have backache or neck pain, then support your back by leaning against the wall.
A good beginning practice for the Skull-Cleansing Breath is 25 repetitions. Please avoid practicing this breathing technique if you are menstruating or pregnant. It strengthens and tones your abdomen, improves the detoxification process, and stimulates your circulation.
2. Ujjayī Prānāyāma (Victorious Breath/Ocean Breath)
This breathing technique gets its name from the soft hissing sound that comes out as you inhale. Various teachers teach this in various ways, sometimes comparing the sound to the ocean or Darth Vader. Many people initially teach this technique using the visualisation of a mirror in the back of your throat, and you’re trying to fog it up with your breath.
- Sit erect with neck and shoulder relaxed.
- Inhale deeply through the nose and slowly exhale through your mouth, constricting your throat, making an AH sound.
- Once you are comfortable, close the mouth as you exhale and make the same sound.
Start practising this prānāyāma for five minutes, slowly extending the time with your meditation. Many people practice this technique in āsana classes, challenging themselves to establish a link between the movements and the breath. Ujjayī breath is known for increasing metabolism and body temperature in practitioners.
3. Bhastrika Prānāyāma (Bellows Breathing)
This is a very vigorous breathing technique that consists of a series of powerful inhalations and exhalations. It’s quite a fast practice compared to the others, so if you have any respiratory or cardiac conditions you may choose to skip this exercise.
- Sit up straight, resting your back against a wall.
- With each inhalation,
- Take a sharp, quick inhale, letting your diaphragm drop low, followed by a sharp, quick exhale while contracting the abdomen. Try three rounds of ten breaths.
Since this breathing technique exerts an extra dose of intra-abdominal pressure, it might not be appropriate for pregnant and menstruating women. It’s great for regulating the flow of energy in your body, and acts as a reset for your system if you start flagging in the middle of the day.
4. Seetakari (Cooling Breath)
Do you have frequent bouts of anger or restlessness? Are you one of this people who is always warm, even on a chill day? This Cooling Breath is a quick and easy way to cool down, literally and figuratively.
- Sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Press your teeth gently together, letting your lips come apart.
- Inhale, slowly and deeply, through the gap in between the teeth rows as if you are making a hissing sound. Close the lips and expel the air slowly through your nose. Try this prānāyāma for 10 minutes, and gradually increase in intervals of five minutes.
Since Seetakari Prānāyāma lowers the body temperature, it’s helpful if you’re experiencing a fever, hot flushes, or want to cool off after a hot yoga class. You won’t want to use this technique much in the winter, or if you’re suffering from a cold.
5. Anuloma Viloma Prānāyāma (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
There are numerous variations of Anuloma Viloma Prānāyāma, and it’s often considered as the simplest among all the yogic deep breathing techniques.
- Find your favourite seated position, with your back straight.
- Close the right nostril with your right thumb. Place the middle and index fingers of your right hand in between your eyebrows and let your little finger float to the sky. Hover the right right ring finger close to the left nostril.
- Exhale completely via the left nostril, and slowly allow the air to filter back in. At the height of the inhalation release the right nostril and press the left nostril close before you begin to exhale. Trade back and forth for ten rounds, making sure you do a complete exhale and inhale before switching nostrils.
This kind of breathing is great to have a calmer sleep, and by switching sides it integrates both sides of the brain — just like when you pat your head and rub your stomach!
Try Them Yourself
According to yoga guru, B.K.S Iyengar, “breath is the king of the mind.” If your breath rules you, in order to rule yourself you must first conquer the breath. On the other hand, as Buddha says, “believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” So give these practices a try and see they feel! Let us know in the comments below which ones work best for you and if you have a favourite!