Pranayama is the formal practice of controlling the breath, which is the source of our prana, or vital life force. Here, read up on pranayama exercises & poses, breathing techniques and sequences.
Prana creates an aura around the body. It flows through thousands of subtle energy channels called nadis and energy centers called chakras. The quantity and quality of prana and the way it flows through the nadis and chakras determines one’s state of mind.
Benefits of Pranayama
The regular practice of breathing exercises can completely change the quality of life that one is leading.
- Increases and enhances the quantity and quality of prana, thereby increasing our energy levels
- Clears blocked nadis and chakras, thereby expanding your aura and heightening the spirit
- Makes one energetic, enthusiastic, calmer and positive. Such a state of mind helps us in making better decisions, having mental strength when dealing with adversities and feeling happier
- Brings harmony between the body, mind, and spirit, making one physically, mentally and, spiritually strong
- It brings clarity to the mind and good health to the body.
Types of Pranayama
1. Natural Breathing
Our breath represents life and is the basic movement pattern that enables us to exist and experience. Just as breathing is our most primal, natural movement pattern, so is dysfunctional breathing our most significant aberrant movement pattern. Our primary muscle of respiration, the thoracic diaphragm, is central to our functional core. Its ability to move freely has far reaching consequences on our health from posture, to movement, to spinal stability and visceral function as well as mental health and wellbeing. Breathing is essential to keep us alive but breathing well is essential to good health!
The automatic and natural movement of the breath can be unconsciously altered by many different factors. Shock, injury, emotional and physical pain, anxiety, depression, stress and poor posture all play a significant role in affecting the pattern of our breathing. Dysfunctional breathing patterns often occur after injury as a protective mechanism. Unfortunately, numerous studies support that faulty breathing patterns often persist well beyond the relief of pain and symptoms. Faulty breathing can contribute to and be the perpetuating factor in core instability, anxiety, chronic fatigue, headaches, neck, shoulder, chest, thorax and low back pain, shortness of breath, asthma, acid reflux, hiatal hernia and liver congestion! More on these issues in another post…
Sit in a comfortable position. The body is stable, the shoulders are relaxed, chest is open and eyes gently closed. Become aware of the breath. Notice if it is shallow or deep. Notice what part of the body is moving, the abdomen or the chest. Notice if there is any sound with the breath. Try to focus only on the breath. Try to become aware of the temperature of the breath. When the air is inhaled it is a little cool, when it is exhaled it is a little warmer. Notice the difference. Notice if the breath is becoming smoother and deeper. Notice if there is any strain. Be aware only of the breath. Now try to become more aware of the breath entering the nostrils. Focus only on the nostrils. Now notice the breath flowing down towards the lungs. Focus only on that area. Now focus on the lungs, only on the lungs. Now try to follow the air flowing from the nostrils and down into the lungs. Follow the breath with the inhalation and exhalation. Try to focus only on the breath. Continue with this practice for as long as is comfortable.
2. Basic Abdominal breathing
What is natural when we breathe depends on what we are or are not doing! The innate intelligence of our body will adjust our breathing according to its demands. Our body is intelligently efficient and only uses the amount of energy and oxygen required to maintain our basal metabolism. This means that when we are inactive our breath is generally shallow with only gentle, minimal movement of the ribs. For example, when we are deeply relaxed as in Shavasana (the corpse posture), there is only a very small amount of movement around the navel. When relaxed our breath is mainly abdominal breathing. With the abdominal muscles relaxed the majority of the movement from the diaphragm descending as we breathe in creates movement in the abdomen. The exception is in the final trimester of pregnancy and obesity when the abdomen is already fully distended. For some it is difficult to fully relax the abdominal muscles and/or to allow the diaphragm its full excursion. An inability to abdominal breath can be a sign of increase anxiety levels. Abdominal breathing is the best technique to enhance deeper levels of relaxation.
Try this: Lying face-up relax your abdominal muscles completely. Take a slow deep breath in. Look for the formation of a well-rounded dome shape of the abdomen from the costal arch (in the centre where the ribs finish) to the pubic bone. On exhalation the abdomen will deflate. A hollowing or ‘tenting’ below the costal arch instead of a dome shape indicates an inability of the diaphragm muscle to fully descend.
3. Thoracic breathing
To practice thoracic breathing one starts with breath awareness and then tries to focus on expanding the ribcage only, without using the diaphragm. The focus should be only on the expansion of the chest as one inhales and the contraction of the chest as one exhales.
4. Clavicular breathing
Clavicular Breathing Instructions:
- Lie in Shavasana and relax the whole body
- Maintain unbroken awareness of the natural breath for some time, concentrating on the sides of the chest
- Perform thoracic breathing for a few minutes
- Inhale fully expanding the rib cage
- When the ribs are fully expanded, inhale a little more until expansion is felt in the upper portion of the lungs around the base of the neck
- The shoulders and collar bone should also move up slightly.
- This will take some effort.
- Exhale slowly, first releasing the lower neck and upper chest, then relaxing the rest of the rib cage back to its starting position
- Continue for a few more breaths, observing the effect of this type of breathing
- Relax any effort and once again watch the spontaneous breathing pattern
- Bring the awareness back to observing the physical body as a whole
- Be aware of the surroundings and gently open the eyes
Clavicular breathing needs to be understood and practised properly in order to progress in Pranayama and move to Yogic Breathing.Yogic breathing
5. Yogic breathing
Pranayama is generally defined as breath control. Although this interpretation may seem correct in view of the practices involved, it does not convey the full meaning of the term. The word pranayama is comprised if two roots: prana and ayama. Prana stands for vital energy or life force.
6. Deep breathing with ratios
Deep slow breathing using our diaphragm has shown to have many beneficial effects. On average, when most people breathe in normally, they take in only about 350 ml of air into the lungs. When we breathe deeply, using our diaphragm, we can take up to 4500 ml of air.
Regular use of deep breathing has shown to have the following benefits:
- Relieves stress and anxiety and increases focus.
- Improves cardiovascular health and fitness.
- Reduces blood pressure and heart rate.
- Improves quality of life in people affected by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema and asthma.
- Improves immune function.
- Helps in pain management.
- Improves lipid profile.
7. Fast breathing
In fast breathing, one needs to increase the rate of respiration to about 100 breaths per minute. But the breathing is not shallow, one should breathe with equally forceful inhalation and forceful exhalation. This involves fast movement of diaphragm by moving abdominal muslces and chest muscles.
Benefits Of Fast Breathing:
- Due to slowing of respiration rate (15 breaths/min to 4 breaths/min), the heart rate / pulse rate is reduced. The blood pressure is also reduced. So deep breathing is very good for stress and related ailments.
- Due to rapid exchange of gases on cellular level, toxins are removed and the cells are revitalized.
- The fast movement of diaphragm gives massage to the digestive organs, lungs and heart increasing their efficiency.
- Fast breathing is good for increasing the overall Prana in the body.
- This technique can also get rid of excess mucus, helps in removing sinusitis and common cold etc.
Precautions (Contra Indications) :
- Fast breathing should not be done by those who have High Blood pressure, heart problems, ulcers, hernia.
- People who have undergone abdominal surgeries, heart surgeries, brain sugeries should consult the medical expert or consultant.
- This is not recommended during the pregnancy.
8. Viloma – Interrupted Breathing
Viloma pranayama can be practiced sitting or lying down and is a great technique for those new to yoga breathing techniques.
The meaning of the word ‘Vi’ means against, Loma means hair; Viloma means against the natural flow. Viloma is an interrupted breathing technique where you pause briefly during your breath. This pranayama gently introduces the concept of expanding the length of the breath and lung capacity.
There are three variations of this pranayama:
- Interrupted inhalation
- Interrupted exhalation
- Interrupted inhalation & exhalation
Benefits of Viloma Pranayama :
- Improves control of your breath and movement of air within your body
- Helps you cool down after an active yoga class
- Helps to relieve anxiety
- Helps to relieve tension from PMS
9. AnulomVilom – Alternate Nostril Breathing
Anuloma Viloma, or ‘alternate nostril breathing’ is best practiced before seated meditation or asana practice. Its purpose is to stimulate the nadis or energy channels that run throughout the body like electrical wires. The right side of the brain controls the left side of the body, and vice versa.
By nature, we are usually dominant on one side or the other; the right brain (creative, artistic) or left brain (intellectual, mathematical). Anuloma Viloma attempts to cleanse the mind and stimulate the right and left nadis so they are balanced. It is performed with a breathing sequence of 1:4:2.
How To Start With The PracticeIf you are breathing to the count of 4, you will breathe in for 4 counts, hold the breath for 16 counts, and exhale for 8 counts. For the purpose of a beginner practice, we will start with multiplications of 4 counts. This practice starts and ends on the left side.
- Prepare: Come to Sukhasana, or any comfortable seated position, preferably with your legs crossed at the ankles. You may want to sit on a meditation cushion or pillow. With your spine straight and shoulders relaxed, begin your yogic breathing, taking full deep breaths in and out through the nose. Close your eyes.
- Begin on the left: Bring your right hand to a Vishnu mudra; curl the ring and small finger into the palm, and leave the thumb, index, and middle finger free. Take 3 deep breaths in and out to get ready. On your 3rd exhale, bring your hand up to your face, occlude the right nostril with your thumb, and breathe in through the left nostril only to the count of 4.
- Hold your breath: Occlude both nostrils with your thumb on the right, and index and middle fingers on the left. Maintain steady, constant pressure on the nostrils. The shoulders should be relaxed. Hold the breath for 16 counts.
- Exhale on the right: Release your thumb, slowly exhale, working the lungs completely empty by the end of 8 counts.
- Inhale on the right: Keeping your hand position the same with gentle pressure on the left nostril with the index and middle finger, inhale on the right (same side) to the count of 4, filling your lungs.
- Hold your breath, repeat on the right: Repeat the steps, alternating the breath from the left to the right, making it smooth and effortless. Over the course of several days, increase the counts from 4 to 5, and 5 to 6, taking your time to progress.
10. Cooling Breath - Sheetali, Sitkari, Kaki mudra
Sheetali (Sheetal – that which is calm and soothing)- Open the mouth and extend the tongue outside of the mouth, rolling it from the sides to form a tube. Inhale through the tube. Close the mouth and exhale through the nose. Make sure the breaths are slow, deep and comfortable.
Sitkari – Bring the teeth together lightly. Separate the lips so that the teeth are exposed. Fold the tongue so that it touches the soft palate in kechari mudra. If that is uncomfortable keep the tongue flat. Inhale slowly, through the teeth. Close the mouth and exhale slowly through the nose. Keep the breaths slow and relaxed.
Kaki Mudra – Though this is a mudra we are including it here due to its cooling effect.– Keep the eyes open and focus on the nosetip. Purse the lips into the shape of a beak. Relax the tongue and inhale through the lips. Close the lips and exhale through the nose. Let the breath be slow and relaxed.
- Cooling breath can be practiced in combination with other breathing practices such as Ujjayi and Bhramari. Either cooling breath can be practiced, whichever is most comfortable.
Benefits of Cooling breath
- Acidity such as heartburn
- Reduces high blood pressure
- Muscular relaxation
- Peptic or mouth ulcer
- Controls hunger or thirst, gives feelings of satisfaction
- Helpful for nausea
- Removes excess heat
- Allows prana to flow more freely through the body
- Can help cool the body, such as during hot weather or a hot flush
- Cools, calms and tranquilises the mind, in cases of anger or frustration
- Reduces emotional excitation
- Balances endocrine system
- Purifies the blood
- Useful to practice before going to sleep if one suffers from insomnia
- Sitkari has a beneficial effect on the teeth and gums which is beneficial during and after pregnancy when mouth health can be compromised.
Precautions and Contraindications
- Low blood pressure
- Asthma, respiratory disorders, excessive mucous, cold or flu
- Chronic constipation
- Avoid in a cold climate
- Avoid if one feels cold easily
- Addition for sitkari – sensitive teeth
11. Ujjayi – Victorious Breath
Focus the awareness on the throat. Imagine you are inhaling and exhaling through the throat. Start to contract the throat slightly on inhalation and exhalation. Keep the breath, slow, relaxed and deep. Focus on the breath and sound. The sound should not be very loud and will be like a baby snoring. The breath will become slower as one continues.
- Decreases high blood pressure
- Activates the natural relaxation response
- Good for any heart problems
- Mental tension, stress, anxiety, tranquilising effect
- Helpful for fluid retention
- Encourages introversion
- Increases psychic sensitivity and relaxes on a psychic level
- Stimulates parasympathetic nervous system and inducing muscular relaxation
- Useful preparation for meditation
- Helpful to balance the emotions
- Helpful during labour
Precautions and Contra-indications
- Very introverted people should avoid
- Low blood pressure
- Avoid contracting the throat too strongly, it should be relaxing and soothing.
12. Bhramari – Humming Bee Breath
The science behind Bhramari pranayama It works on calming the nerves and soothes them especially around the brain and forehead. The humming sound vibrations have a natural calming effect.
How to do Bhramari pranayama (Bee Breath)
- Sit up straight in a quiet, well-ventilated corner with your eyes closed. Keep a gentle smile on your face.
- Keep your eyes closed for some time. Observe the sensations in the body and the quietness within.
- Place your index fingers on your ears. There is a cartilage between your cheek and ear. Place your index fingers on the cartilage.
- Take a deep breath in and as you breathe out, gently press the cartilage. You can keep the cartilage pressed or press it in and out with your fingers while making a loud humming sound like a bee.
- You can also make a low-pitched sound but it is a good idea to make a high-pitched one for better results.
- Breathe in again and continue the same pattern 3-4 times.
13. Bhastrika – Bellows Breath
One has to operate the lungs like bellows.
Take a deep breath in and breathe out forcefully through the nose. Do not strain. During inhalation the abdomen moves outward as the diaphragm descends and as one exhales the abdomen is pulled in. The movement should be slightly exaggerated. Do not expand the chest or raise the shoulders. There should be no jerk to the body. Continue with this type of breathing but increase the speed. This is basically fast breathing. After practicing one round inhale through the right nostril slowly and then exhale through the left nostril. This is one round.
Note: – 100 repetitions of Kapalbhati can be done, before inhaling through the right nostril, instead of a round of fast breathing if preferred.
- Practice is ideal for purifying blood
- Improves complexion.
- Clears the air passages.
- Gives massage to the chest area.
- Warms the body up
- Used for reducing fats
- Speeds up the metabolism.
- Tones digestive system.
- Helps remove excess mucus, helpful when there is cough or cold.
- Helps to balance the doshas.
- Can be helpful during labour.
- Balances the nervous system.
- Brings focus and calmness.
- Gives energy.
- Helps with depression.
- Improves circulation to the heart and lungs.
Precautions & Contra-indications
If there is feeling of faintness, dizziness, excessive perspiration or a vomiting sensation it should be stopped immediately. It should not be stressful or uncomfortable to practice. The respiration, though exaggerated should still be calm. The face should remain relaxed and there should not be shaking of the body. One should build up slowly with bhastrika as it is a very powerful and dynamic practice. It should be avoided if there is too much heat in the body, high blood pressure, heart disease, recent abdominal surgery, stroke, eye problems, epilepsy, ulcer, acidity, headache, vertigo or menstruation
14. Bhastrika – Bellows Breath
Learn the two versions of Single Nostril Pranayama: Surya Bhedana (Sun-Piercing Breath) and Chandra Bhedana (Moon-Piercing Breath)
Step by Step
Step 1: Our right nostril is energetically associated with our body’s heating energy, symbolized by the “Sun” and the syllable HA, our left nostril with our body’s cooling energy, symbolized by the “Moon” and the syllable THA.
Step 2: In the average person these energies are typically in conflict, which leads to disquiet and disease. The goal of traditional Hatha Yoga is to integrate and harmonize HA and THA for happiness and health. The purpose of these two breaths then is to create balance by “warming” a “cool” body-mind and vice versa.
Step 3: Sit in a comfortable asana and make Mrigi Mudra. For Surya Bhedana block your left nostril and inhale through your right. Then close the right and exhale through the left. Continue in this manner, inhale right, exhale left, for 1 to 3 minutes.
Step 4: For Chandra Bhedana, simply reverse the instructions in (2), inhaling always through your left nostril, exhaling through your right. Again continue for 1 to 3 minutes.
Surya/Chandra Bhedana Pranayama
Pose Level 1
Contraindications and Cautions
- Avoid Surya Bhedana if you have high blood pressure or heart disease
- Don’t do both breaths on the same day
- Traditionally, Surya Bhedana is said to stimulate the brain and increase body heat
- Chandra Bhedana isn’t usually listed among formal pranayamas in traditional texts; but it’s reasonable to assume that its effects are opposite that of Surya Bhedana: it quiets the brain and cools the body
15. Surya Bhedan – Right Nostril Breathing
Nadi = subtle energy channel; Shodhan = cleaning, purification; Pranayama = breathing technique.
Nadis are subtle energy channels in the human body that can get blocked due to various reasons. The Nadi Shodhan pranayama is a breathing technique that helps clear these blocked energy channels, thus calming the mind. This technique is also known as Anulom Vilom pranayama.
3 Reason: Why You Should Practice Nadi Shodhan Pranayama
- Nadi Shodhan pranayama helps relax the mind and prepares it to enter a meditative state.
- Practicing it for just a few minutes every day helps keep the mind calm, happy and peaceful.
- It helps in releasing accumulated tension and fatigue.
How to Do Nadi Shodhan pranayama? (Alternate Nostril Breathing Technique)
- Sit comfortably with your spine erect and shoulders relaxed. Keep a gentle smile on your face.
- Place your left hand on the left knee, and palms open to the sky or in Chin Mudra (thumb and index finger gently touching at the tips).
- Place the tip of the index finger and middle finger of the right hand in between the eyebrows, the ring finger and little finger on the left nostril, and the thumb on the right nostril. We will use the ring finger and little finger to open or close the left nostril and thumb for the right nostril.
- Press your thumb down on the right nostril and breathe out gently through the left nostril.
- Now breathe in from the left nostril and then press the left nostril gently with the ring finger and little finger. Removing the right thumb from the right nostril, breathe out from the right.
- Breathe in from the right nostril and exhale from the left. You have now completed one round of Nadi Shodhan pranayama. Continue inhaling and exhaling from alternate nostrils.
- Complete 9 such rounds by alternately breathing through both the nostrils. After every exhalation, remember to breathe in from the same nostril from which you exhaled. Keep your eyes closed throughout and continue taking long, deep, smooth breaths without any force or effort.
Cautions to be Taken While Practicing Nadi Shodhan Pranayama (Alternate Nostril Breathing Technique)
- Do not force the breathing, and keep the flow gentle and natural. Do not breathe from the mouth or make any sound while breathing.
- Do not use the Ujjayi breath.
- Place the fingers very lightly on the forehead and nose. There is no need to apply any pressure.
- In case you feel dull and are yawning after practicing Nadi Shodhan pranayama, check the time you take to inhale and exhale. Your exhalation should be longer than inhalation.
Tips While Doing Nadi Shodhan Pranayama
- It is a good idea to do a short meditation after doing Nadi Shodhan pranayama.
- This breathing technique can also be practiced as part of the Padma Sadhana sequence.
7 Benefits of Nadi Shodhan Pranayama (Alternate Nostril Breathing Technique)
- Excellent breathing technique to calm and center the mind.
- Our mind has a tendency to keep regretting or glorifying the past and getting anxious about the future. Nadi Shodhan pranayama helps to bring the mind back to the present moment.
- Works therapeutically for most circulatory and respiratory problems.
- Releases accumulated stress in the mind and body effectively and helps to relax.
- Helps harmonize the left and right hemispheres of the brain, which correlates to the logical and emotional sides of our personality.
- Helps purify and balance the nadis – the subtle energy channels, thereby ensuring a smooth flow of prana (life force) through the body.
- Maintains body temperature.
16. Chandra Bhedana Pranayama (Left Nostril Breathing)
The word “Chandra” is stands for the Moon and the meaning of Bhedan is piercing, enter or breaking through something e.t.c. and it is also known as Chandra Bhedi Pranayama. We have two nostrils for breathing, in yogic term these two nostrils are called nadi, Right nostril is surya nadi and left nostril is known as Chandra nadi. There is another name for this Ida nadi (left nostril) and Pingala nadi (right nostril). Chandra Bhedana Pranayama is the simple and effective breathing technique. Moon is the symbol of coolness, so by doing this pranayam we feel some coolness in our body. Best and effective breathing process for cooling down the body. In this breathing exercise breathe in (inhalation) is done by the left nadi and we breathe out through the right nadi or right nostril. So this process is named as left nostril breathing or Anuloma type of pranayam. It is afore said that energy passes through Ida nadi (Chandra nadi) on the inhalation and by Pingala or Surya Nadi on the exhalation. These are larger nadis that hold the balance of magnetism and energy created by the sun and moon. They travel from the bottom of the spine to the purpose between the eyebrows. ↑
Precaution of Chandra Bhedana Pranayam :
- Do not perform Chandra Bhedana Pranayama in case of Asthama, low blood pressure, cough and cold and problems related to respiratory system.
- Maintain the ratio of inhalation, retention and exhalation as 1:4:2. For beginners do not hold your breath and keep the ratio 1:2 for inhalation and exhalation. Always take advice of expert person before doing any process of yoga. Perform pranayam with empty stomach. ↑
Procedure of Chandra Bhedana Pranayam :
- Choose a comfortable sitting asana like Swastikasana or Padmasana e.t.c sit comfortably.
- Make a pranayam mudra by your fingers (press the index and middle finger of your hand towards the palm).
- Now use your right thumb to shut the right nostril. (If you are left handed then make the pranayam mudra with your left hand and shut the right nostril with index and middle finger of your left hand).
- Now inhale slowly and deeply through your left nadi until your lungs fills with maximum air.
- Now hold your breath for some time or as per your capacity.
- Breathe out (exhale) slowly through right nadi.(Exhalation should be longer than the inhalation)
- Repeat this process around 10 times. ↑
Benefits of Chandra Bhedana Pranayam :
- Helpful in reduces the body heat.
- Useful in heart burning problems.
- Gives the refreshment to the body and mind and kicked out the feeling of laziness.
- Very effective in High blood pressure.
- Useful in fever.
- Decrease the flow of gall.
- Mind becomes steady by the daily practice of this Pranayama.
- Useful in reducing the tension, stress and other mental problems. ↑
Pranava Mudra For Pranayama (Body Gestures & Mental Attitudes)
The first two fingers of the right hand palm are to be curved and last two fingers are to be kept straight and to be held together. Now straighten the thumb and bending the right hand in the elbow, place the curved fingers in such a way that they come near the lips. Keep the hand from shoulder to elbow glued to the chest. Keep the right hand thumb on the right side of the nose and last two fingers on the left side of the nose. Now by pressing the thumb, the nasal cavity on the right side can be closed and by pressing the last two fingers left side cavity can be closed. The pressure should be light and on just below the nasal bone, where the fleshy part begins. With this arrangement of the fingers, one can close any of the two nasal cavities. Here only the movement of thumb and the last two fingers is expected.
Movement of other parts should be avoided. The face should be kept quite gay and relaxed in order to practice breathing more effectively. Further, in order to practice the cycle of inhaling and exhaling, six supplementary types are given. In all these types, the speed of breathing is more. These are actually the types of quick breathing. While practicing these types one should first sit in one of the following Asanas: Padmasana, Vajrasana or Swastikasana. Then, the left hand should be kept in Dhyana Mudra and the right hand in Pranava Mudra. The eyes should be closed and the whole attention should be concentrated on breathing so that it will be possible to acquire it.
Since the pranayamas or breathing exercises deal with the subtle life force, it is important to practice them as taught by a certified yoga practitioner. Experimenting with these techniques is not advisable.