Breathing is the very essence of life and the first thing we do when we enter this world and the last thing when we depart. In between, our bodies absorb roughly half a billion breaths.
Apart from sustaining life, the mind, body and breath are so intimately connected that they deeply influence each other. The way we breathe is influenced by our state of mind, and in turn our thoughts and physiology can be influenced by our breathing. Deep breathing practices advocated in advanced yoga training can have a positive impact on our physiology, both body and mind.
For thousands of years, Yoga and Ayurveda have employed breathing techniques (pranayama) to maintain, balance and restore physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. It results in several physiological benefits, achieved through the control of respiration.
The benefits of a regulated practice of simple, deep yogic breathing include:
Increase in energy levels
Reduced anxiety, depression and stress
Lower/stabilized blood pressure
Regulating your Breath – The Yoga Way
The most simple breathing exercise for calming both the nervous system and the overworked mind is a timed way of breathing where the exhalation is longer than the inhalation. This reduces the tone of your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response) while activating your parasympathetic nervous system (the rest, relax, and digest response). Breathing in this way for at least five minutes will bring about a difference in your overall mood. Anyone can do this exercise without having to consult a teacher.
In addition to the practice of simple deep breathing, ancient yogis have detailed different types of rhythmic deep breathing techniques that can have differing effects on the mind and body. Each of these breathing techniques has specific effects on the mind-body continuum.
Please keep in mind that you should learn the following breathing techniques from a qualified teacher who will also be able to guide you when to practice, how many times and over what period of time. In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the oldest texts on Hatha yoga, it is said that: “All diseases are eradicated by the proper practice of pranayama. All diseases can arise through improper practice. The lungs heart and nerves are normally strong and gain strength with regulated and suitable pranayama, but weakened with improper practice. By wrong and excessive practice one’s mental quirks and even nervous tics could become exaggerated. Every practice should be treated with respect and caution. Hence guidance is to be sought.
The Yoga Chudamani Upanishad states: “Just as the lion, elephant and tiger are brought under control slowly and steadily, similarly the PRANA should be controlled, otherwise it becomes destructive to the practitioner.
1. Nadi Shodhana or Alternate Nostril Breathing
A yogic practice that immediately helps you to feel calmer whenever you are feeling anxious or agitated.
Inhale deeply through your left nostril while holding your right nostril closed with your right thumb. At its culmination, switch nostrils by closing off your left nostril and continuing to exhale smoothly through your right nostril. After exhaling fully, proceed to inhale through the right nostril, again closing it off at the peak of your inhalation. Lift your finger off the left nostril and exhale fully. Continue alternating your breathing through each nostril and practice for 3 to 5 minutes. Ensure that your breathing is effortless, and your mind gently focusing on the inflow and outflow of breath. The above description is a beginner’s version of alternate nostril breathing. More advanced versions include regulated breathing on a certain count for inhalation and exhalation as well as breath retention. The Rajadhiraja system of pranayama is a highly advanced practice, which combines alternate nostril breathing with focus on a certain chakra while repeating a mantra. It is only taught individually, hence for those interested to learn more please email us.
2. Ujjayi or Ocean’s Breath
A cooling pranayama that can help soothe and settle your mind when you feel irritated, frustrated or angry.
Inhale slightly deeper than normal. Exhale through your nose with your mouth closed and constricting your throat muscles. If done correctly, this should sound like waves on the ocean. You can also try this practice by exhaling with your mouth open and making the sound “haaaaah”. Try to make a similar sound with your mouth closed, with the outflow of air through your nasal passages. With some practice, you should then use the same method while inhaling, gently constricting your throat as you inhale. Even though Ujjayi can be practiced once in a while as described above, daily Ujjayi must be prescribed by a teacher, and is given when the Sushumna nadii is sufficiently cleared, hence the need to practice under the guidance of a teacher. It is calming, but has a heating effect, stimulating the process of oxidation. It is contraindicated for low blood pressure.
The Pranayama techniques of deep breathing listed above are geared to improving the levels of energy in the body. Through regular practice, you will soon start to breathe more effectively without making any conscious effort.
3. Shiitali Kumbhaka or the cooling breath
Fold your tongue lengthwise and inhale deeply through the fold. Close your mouth, hold the breath on a count of eight and then exhale through the nose. Continue for a eight breaths, sustain for a maximum of eight minutes. Thereafter you massage the diseased are of the body (as prescribed in yoga therapy). Benefits of this method include reduced pitta (heat) in the regions of head, neck, and upper digestive tract. It is contraindicated in case of asthma, bronchitis and chronic constipation.
4. Siitkari Kumbhaka or the hissing breath
This practice has the same basic effects as the shiitali method. Inhale through the nose, hold your breath for eight seconds and exhale through the mouth, while resting your teeth on your tongue and producing the sound s-s-s with your tongue. In addition to reduced pitta, benefits include purification of the senses. The contraindications are the same as for shiitali.
The practice of Shiitali and Siitkari are to be avoided for a period of one hour before and after the practice of pranayama connected with one’s meditation. In general it is best to only practice one pranayama technique at a time.
5. Brahmari or the humming breath
The inhalation is similar to the ujjayi (detailed above) and during exhalation one has to hum like a bee. The humming results in a resonating vibration in the head and heart. Proceed to take ten deep breaths in this manner and then another ten deep Brahmari breaths while closing both ears during the exhale process. This helps to notably enhance the resonance effect and resultant benefits. This method helps in balancing vata (circulation or flow) in addition to subtly enhancing awareness, both mental and emotional. Additionally, it may be practiced together with yoni mudra (as taught by a teacher). Never practice this method while lying on your back. It has to be practiced while sitting in upright position.
6. Bhastrika or the bellows breath
A word of caution: This exercise must only be performed under supervision. Close the right nostril and inhale twenty rapid bellows-like breaths through the left nostril. Repeat with twenty more bellows breaths through the right nostril while keeping the left nostril closed. Proceed to take twenty bellows breaths through both nostrils. This method helps draw prana (the life force) into the body and mind, thus clearing out mental, emotional and physical blocks.
7. Surya Bhedana or the solar breath
Similar to the Nadi Shodhana, inhale through the right nostril and exhale through the left. Repeat this for a minimum of six breaths and a maximum of ten minutes. Benefits include heating and warming breaths that help balance vata in the body. It is contraindicated in case of heart disease, hypertension, epilepsy, hyperthyroidism, peptic ulcer and acidity.
8. Chandra Bhedana or the lunar breath
Inhale through the left nostril and exhale through the right for a minimum of six breaths and sustain for a maximum of ten minutes. This cooling breath process helps reduce pitta. It should not be practiced by people who suffer from depression, who have mental disturbances, excess mucus and a sluggish digestion.
9. Active Yogic Breathing
Practice long, slow and deep breaths in and out through the nose as you walk at a moderate pace. Try to extend your inhalations and exhalations as you walk. Keep the count of steps during each full inhale and exhale. Aim to take ten steps or more for each inhale and exhale. This method works to combine the calming effect of breathing with an active lifestyle.
The process of thinking and emotions are both voluntary and involuntary as is the act of respiration. Pranayama (control of the vital life force) can be achieved through the control of the respiration process. Advanced yogic breathing practices bring benefits to the various systems of the body, by improving circulation and thus enhancing the performance of the various organs.