When we hear the word yoga, we immediately draw a mental image of yogis contorting their bodies into a human pretzel—but the word encompasses a lot more than just bending and stretching in weird and complicated postures!
Postures or asanas are just one of the eight limbs of yoga as laid out by Patanjali in Yoga Sutra. They are merely a prelude to deeper states of meditation that leads to self-discovery. The real yoga transcends the physical and leads us deeper into ourselves. So how exactly do we go beyond the physical practice, to a state of wholeness? The answer lies in the yogic texts—Pranayama.
The ancient yoga philosophy considers breathing a fundamental tool to enhance one’s well-being and treat depression and a number of diseases. It is a bridge between the mind and the body. However, in the modern day practice, breathing exercises play second fiddle to the most eye-catching elements of the yoga practice—the asanas.
Yoga instructors’ layout complex sequences of postures with little or no focus on breathing, for which they often charge a hefty price and yet you are nowhere close to your inner being. Sure, if your goal is to reduce some weight, increase flexibility and improve your overall physical condition, this works. However, if you are looking to quiet your mind, increase energy, release stress, improve mental clarity, improve overall mental and physical health, then chances are you are not getting your money’s worth as not all instructors focus on those aspects as heavily as they should.
Now you may ask, why stress over correct breathing when it occurs to us automatically, spontaneously and naturally right? Well, it turns out we have been breathing wrong our entire lives! Our breathing is shallow, and the breathing rate is higher resulting in an insufficient intake of oxygen required. Less oxygen leads to loss of energy which in turn increases anxiety, fatigue, and stress levels. Prolonged poor breathing techniques also result in reduced exercise for the muscles of lungs and the heart.
Pranayama helps restore balance in the mind and body. According to the yoga philosophy, “Prana” is the subtle yet vital force of energy without which the body would perish and “ayama” means to regulate or lengthen. Pranayama is the control of prana through the breath.
Research indicates breathing exercises have therapeutic potency. When done right, it not only reduces the stress and anxiety but also regulates our body’s level of cortisol, strengthens our immunity. It also has an impact on chronic health conditions such as blood pressure, asthma cardiovascular health, and even fibromyalgia.
Scientific data is proving what yogis have known all along that breath-work can deliver mind and body benefits. And now yoga studios and classes are slowly catching up on the ancient yogic wisdom. We have listed below few common types of breathing exercises used in yoga. Take a deep breath and dive right in for a more holistic experience.
Note: Since Pranayama deals with vital forces, it is suggested to first learn from a certified instructor.
1. Bhastrika pranayama or bellows breath
Experiencing mid-day slump? Don’t run for an espresso instead find a quiet corner of your office and practice a few rounds of bellows breathing for a pick-me-up. Bhatrika pranayama is all about rapid inhaling and exhaling so that your body gets the maximum amount of oxygen. It helps increase the circulation of blood in the entire body and helps energize the mood.
- Sit in any steady asana. Padmasana, Siddhasana, and Vajrasana are ideal for the practice.
- Lift the hand to Pranayama Mudra. Close the right nostril with the thumb and inhale and exhale in rapid succession 20 times through the left nostril. The abdominal wall moves in and out like bellows.
- Repeat the same with right nostril.
- Return the hand to the knee and repeat the exercise with both nostrils.
2. Kapalbhati or skull shining breath
Looking for simplest ways to a flat belly? Try Kapalbhati. It is a vigorous yoga breathing exercise that not only helps in losing those extra inches but also helps in cleansing your body of toxins and relaxing your mind for a deeper state of meditation. Unlike most other breathing techniques, Kapalabhati emphasizes an active exhalation and a passive inhalation.
There are three types of Kapal Bhati: Vatakrama Kapalbhati, Vyutkrama Kapalbhati, Sheetkrama Kapalbhati
- First, sit on the Padmasana and close your eyes and keep the spine straight.
- Now take a deep breath (inhale deeply) through your both nostrils until your lungs are full with air.
- Now exhale through both nostrils forcefully, so your stomach will go deep inside.
- While the process of exhaling there is a hissing sound, at this point try to think that your disorders are coming out of your nose.
- Repeat this process for 5 minutes.
3. Bhramri Pranayam or bee breath
Are you experiencing anxiety or panic? Bhramri Pranayama can help you calm your mind. It is one of the best breathing exercises to release the mind of agitation, frustration or anxiety and get rid of anger. It not only helps in balancing emotions but also relieves from a headache, improves concentration, builds confidence. It has a soothing effect on the brain and calms the mind.
- Sit in an upright position
- Plug both the ears with your palms and close the eyes.
- Start inhaling through both nostrils and fill the lungs fully.
- Then exhale slowly without opening your mouth, making a continuous humming sound from the throat. The sound should reverberate in the head.
- The sound is similar to chanting of Om, especially the long mmm… in Omkar. The sound should be deep, steady and smooth
- Feel the sound vibration in the head. Be aware of only the continuous drone that the sound produces. This drone is similar to the humming sound of the bee.
4. Anulom Vilom or alternate nostril breathing
Anulom Vilom cleans the pranic channels and makes the prana flow freely in the entire body. Alternate nostril breathing is very helpful in respiratory related illnesses like Asthma. It also helps cure mental health problems like anxiety, tension, and depression.
- Close your eyes and sit in Padmasana and rest your hands on your knees.
- Close the right nostril with the right thumb and draw in air from the left nostril. Do this as slowly as you can, till your lungs are full.
- After one has reached a certain level of proficiency, one can add Kumbhaka or retention of breath to the practice by closing both the nostrils before exhaling.
- Remove your thumb from your right nostril and exhale.
- When you exhale, use your middle finger to close your left nostril.
- Inhale with your right nostril and remove thumb from right nostril then exhale.
- Repeat this process for 5 minutes.
- Focus on your breathing.