Pranayama or breathing techniques are integral to any complete Yoga practice. If you are new to Yoga or pranayama practices we recommend our post 'Beginning your Pranayama Practice' to get you started on your breathing journey. The general benefits of Pranayama practices include; balancing the body’s energy flow, controlling the autonomic nervous system, calming and relaxing the body, and creating internal awareness.
There are numerous beneficial pranayama techniques, and finding a place to start can sometimes feel overwhelming. For this reason we’ve narrowed down four fantastic practices to begin with. They are Ujjayi, Kapalabati, Nadi Shodana and Brahmaree.
A reminder; when practicing pranayama the following guidelines should be followed:
Breathing – Always breathe out of the nose, unless directed otherwise. Do not strain your breath, it is OK to relax, come back to normal breaths and start the practice again. It should never feel like you are drowning!
Time – Sunrise and sunset are the best times to practice
Place – Practice in a quiet room without draft or cold
Sitting – Sit with the spine straight, perhaps on a folded blanket, pillow or chair
Showering – do not shower immediately after practice, let your nervous system settle first
Eating – Do not eat within 3-4 hours of practice.
Contraindications – Avoid intense pranayama practice while menstruating
Ujjayi is sometimes referred to as ‘Ocean breath’, ‘Victorious breath,’ or ‘Darth Vader’ breath. It creates strength and stability during Asana, stimulates heat, relaxes the body, calms the mind and cultivates internal awareness.
Ujjayi requires the glottis of the throat to be restricted, inhaling through the nose, creating a hollow, whispering sound in the back of the throat, and exhaling in the same manner.
- Start from a seated position. First try exhaling through your mouth as though you are trying to fog up a mirror
- Next breath, close your mouth and continue with the same intention but through your nose
- Next breath, imagine you are inhaling only to the point of the navel, not into the lower belly
- On the exhale, draw your navel in and subtly lift your pelvic floor
- Continue for 2-3 minutes
- Eventually mula-bandha will engage as you breathe out. When comfortable you can practice Ujjayi during any asana
Kapalabhati is also known as ‘shining skull’ practice. It is a cleansing technique (Kriya) but also includes breath work and thus also considered a pranayama practice. ‘Kapal’ refers to the front portion of the skull, where the soft spot is located in a newborn. “Bhati’ means light or perception. This invigorating practice brings clarity, improves the immune system, purifies the blood, relieves asthma and sinus problems and tones the digestive system.
Kapalabhati combines the contraction of the abdomen with a forceful nasal exhalation.
- Sit with a neutral spine, relax your face, jaw, eyebrows and shoulders
- Take a long relaxed breath with a full exhale
- Inhale at normal speed, exhale forcefully by drawing your navel towards your spine
- Continue this method, with every exhalation subtly engage Mula bandha
- Repeat for 20-30 rounds, building up rounds slowly if you need
- At the end of the last round exhale the breath fully, engage and hold Mula bandha, inhale fully, at the top of the inhale engage Jalandar bandha. Hold according to your comfort
- Release and take a few natural breaths
Anulona Viloma is also called ‘alternate nostril breath’. ‘Anu’ translates to ‘with’, ‘vi’ to ‘against’ and loma is ‘hair’, this implies ‘going with the hair’ or ‘going with the grain’. Anuloma Viloma is a deeply relaxing pranayama practice which balances the solar and lunar energies, fosters concentration, alleviates stress and anxiety, and boost immunity.
Anuloma Viloma involves breathing alternatively through each nostril.
- Sit with a neutral spine, make Gyan mudra by touching the thumb and first finger of your left hand and resting it on your knee. Make Vishnu mudra by placing your right hand in a fist and releasing the thumb, ring and pinky fingers
- Close you eyes if you are comfortable and take one full breath, exhaling fully
- Cover your right nostril with your thumb, slowly inhale into your belly through the left nostril,
- Close your left nostril with your ring finger and release your right nostril
- Slowly fully exhale through your right nostril
- Inhale through your right nostril, close your right nostril
- Exhale through the left nostril
- Repeat 5 – 10 rounds
Brahmari pranayama is often called ‘humming bee’ breath. The word Brahmari is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘bhramar’ meaning ‘black humming bee’. Brahmari is deeply calming for the nervous system, relieves insomnia, improves memory and concentration, prevents adrenal fatigue and minimises headaches.
Brahamari pranayama involves breathing through the nose and making a humming sound on the exhalation.
- Sit with a neutral spine, close your eyes if you feel comfortable to do so.
- Exhale fully. Inhale slowly through your nose into your belly
- As you exhale, place the tongue on the roof of your mouth and make a loud humming sound.
- When you feel comfortable add in Shanmukhi mudra by placing the hands in front of the face with elbows pointing outwards and in line with the shoulders, block your ears with your thumbs, place your first two fingers over your eyelids, place the middle fingers on either side of the nose and the ring and pinky fingers at the corners of your mouth
- Continue Brahmari Pranayama for 2-3 minutes or longer if comfortable
Pranayama is essential to any Yoga practice and is a powerful way to balance the flow of energy in your body. To learn more about pranayama see our post 'Beginning Your Pranayama Practice', or grab a copy of the book 'Pranayama The Breath of Yoga' by Gregor Maehle.