Pranayama is breathing exercise that help our body to work more efficiently on both the physical and spiritual levels, it also helps to control the energy flows. We can consciously control the process of respiration, as opposed to digestion, for example. But some preparation work is still required to do it right .
What is pranayama in yoga?
Breathing exercises in yoga (pranayama) first of all help to calm down our mind. In Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, pranayama stands at the fourth out of eight levels of development. The first two are the principles of non-violence and truthfulness, and the third – practicing and mastering asanas (yoga poses). To start practicing pranayama in yoga, it is enough to master only a few basic asanas.
Breathing exercises in yoga energize our body and teach how to distribute the energy through certain nadi channels. Regular yoga classes also contribute to the development and harmony of all seven chakras. As a result, we get a healthier body due to the development of the entire breathing apparatus.
In fact, we need to learn how to consciously manage our inhalation and exhalation (Puraka and Rechaka). And more importantly, how to hold our breath (Kumbhaka) after inhaling and exhaling. It is necessary to master these three processes gradually, with no rush and pushing
Benefits of Pranayama
Breathing practices such as pranayama optimize the work of the whole organism. Regular breathing exercises will help to improve:
- cardiovascular system;
- central nervous system;
- digestive system, due to massage of internal organs;
- develop respiratory muscles and increase the volume of the lungs;
- cleanse the body of accumulated toxins
Breathing is associated with our emotions, so by learning how to manage our own breathing, we can better control emotions. During meditation, breathing also has a key role; concentrating on it helps to get rid of unnecessary thoughts. Improved health, increased energy and clarity of mind are good reasons to make efforts in mastering pranayama. Especially since the basic exercises do not require “superhuman” abilities. They are available for everyone, but the effect can be felt only after regular practice. Strict adherence to the rules and sequence of pranayama execution is also mandatory. It’s better to start mastering pranayamas from basic, simple exercises. After that, beginners can proceed to the next level.
It is better not to practice pranayama, if:
- there are serious heart diseases;
- blood diseases (thrombosis, hemophilia, or leukemia);
- severe head injury;
- retinal detachment;
- middle ear inflammation;
- high blood pressure;
- diaphragm defects.
It is also better to postpone the practice if:
- you are very tired;
- after overheating (heat in the street, sauna) or hypothermia;
- you have a fever or are taking antibiotics;
- you drank alcohol;
- during period choose those pranayamas, when you will not feel discomfort.
Basic rules for practice
If there are no contraindications, then you should familiarize with the basic rules of the breathing exercises.
It is better to do it in the morning before breakfast. If you will practice during the day or in the evening, then do it not earlier than 2 hours after eating. The best place for practicing pranayama is an open air. If not possible, ventilate the room before the lesson.
It is better to do breathing yoga with your eyes closed, so you will be less distracted. Increase the duration of inhalation, exhalation, and breathe retention gradually. There is no need to hold the breath two times longer than it should be.
Most of the pranayamas can be performed while sitting in basic asanas – Sukhasana, Vajrasana or while standing. Some exercises from the meditative sahaja pranayama are performed in Shavasana. The main asanas (poses) will be discussed in more details below
Types of Pranayamas
Yogis have been practiced pranayama for centuries; therefore, there are certain types of them. Some of the exercises help to calm down the mind, to sleep or meditate well. Others fill our body with energy for the whole day. Breathing practices are successfully used for weight loss as they optimize the work of the whole organism. First of all, you need to choose some of the simplest breathing exercises and slowly master them thoroughly. Then, you will have the opportunity to learn more advanced pranayamas. Find out about the most effective types of pranayama here.
Kapalabhati is translated as cleansing of the skull. It is at the same time Shatkarma, a cleansing procedure, and pranayama, a breathing exercise. This is a cleansing technique when it is performed without holding a breath; it is pranayama, when breath retention is presented.
Kapalabhati is performed in one of the basic asanas (Sukhasana, Vajrasana, etc.). Actions that you should make:
- Sit comfortably. Make sure your spine is erect. Hands on the knees.
- Make a deep inhale.
- Make an active and forceful exhale with the nose. Pull your stomach towards the spine. You can place your palm on your stomach above the navel. The palm in this position controls the movement of the abdominal muscles. At the beginning you can even help a little with the palm to take the abdomen deeper.
- Inhale occurs itself when you relax the navel and abdomen. Thinking about inhaling while doing Kapalabhati is not necessary. Attention should be concentrated on the accentuated exhalation. After that you just need to relax the stomach and the air will flow into your lungs automatically without any effort of the body and consciousness.
- Repeat it 20 times, it is enough to complete one round.
- Keep your eyes closed and try to feel and observe your body.
- Do three rounds of Kapalabhati pranayama in total.
There is another option for performing Kapalabhati with breathing with one nostril at a time. The right hand is used for Vishnu Mudra: two fingers – the index and middle – are pressed against the middle of the palm, the little finger is placed in front of the ring finger, the thumb is moved to the side.
First, let’s see how we practice Kapalabhati through the left nostril. To do this, the edge of the thumb presses slightly on right nostril.
The movement of air through the right nostril is blocked and Kapalabhati is performed only through the left nostril. Please note that in this position, the right hand armpit is slightly opened.
Then, press the ring finger on a left nostril and perform Kapalabhati through the right nostril. After that, Kapalabhati is performed with pressing on one or another nostril. It is unnecessary to think about what kind of nostril makes exhalation or how deep and fast an exhale is. It is necessary to choose a comfortable pace of Kapalabhati and to breath alternately through right or left nostril.
Bhastrika is similar to blacksmith’s bellows. This pranayama reminds Kapalabhati, but it is much more intense. It is characterized by forced, accentuated exhale and inhale. When inhaling, the nostrils are slightly widened. When exhaling, the abdomen goes as far as possible inside, when you inhale, not only the abdomen is brought forward, but the chest expands, the muscles around the ribs stretch, and the chest volume increases
Such intense breathing results in hyperventilation and our body receives an increased amount of oxygen. Untrained practitioners may feel dizziness because of this. Regular practice of Kapalabhati prepares our body to perform Bhastrika.
After performing Bhastrika breathing exercise, it is recommended to hold breath both after inhalation and after exhalation.
Benefits of Bhastrika:
- Helps with allergies, asthma, respiratory diseases, tonsil, and thyroid.
- Helps to calm down our mind, improves concentration;
- Purifies the blood;
- Improves the work of the brain;
- Improves our immune system;
- Helps with hypotension.
If the person has blood hypertension, and serious heart diseases, this type of breathing exercise is not recommended.
Full Yogic Breath
Full yogic breath consists of three parts: abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing, chest breathing and clavicular breathing.
This is a kind of breathing when the belly goes forward while inhaling and inward while exhaling. At the stage of mastering this breathing exercise, you can put your hand on the navel to control the movement of the abdomen muscles.
This breathing is quite effective. It uses 60% of the lungs capacity. Usually, it is used mostly by men in a daily life, so they easily master this stage of full yogic breathing. Some women experience difficulties in practicing abdominal breathing, because they mostly breathe with a chest.
While performing chest breathing, the chest expands during inhalation, and narrows during exhalation. At the same time, the abdomen moves inward while inhaling and forward when you exhale.
This breathing uses 30% of the lungs capacity. It is believed that women mostly use chest breathing in everyday life. But experience shows that exceptions to this rule happen very often.
Clavicular breathing is performed by moving the chest up. Ladies of the 17th and 18th centuries breathed this way, because their belly and chest were pulled by a corset, and there was nothing for them but to breathe in the upper part of the lungs. This is not very effective breathing; it uses only 10% of the lungs. But to complete all 100%, you must use this type of breathing too.
During the inhalation, the clavicle and the rib cage rise upward, and fall downward during the exhalation. It is important to start the movement of the chest from the center, and not lift up the shoulders.
Full yogic breath includes all three types described above. When inhaling, the abdomen goes forward, the chest expands, and the clavicles rise upwards. When you exhale, the clavicle descends, the chest narrows, and the stomach goes inside.
There is another way to describe exhalation, when exhalation begins in the abdomen. First, the stomach goes inside, and then the chest narrows, after the clavicle goes down. When asked which option is right, yoga teachers in India, as a rule, answer that both ways are correct, it makes sense to choose one of them once and continue to use it in pranayama practice for the rest of your life.
Full yogic breath is the basis for many other pranayamas and their variations. At the stage of mastering this breath, you should strive to lengthen the exhalation. Ideally, when practicing pranayama based on full yogic breath, the proportion between inhalation and exhalation should be 1:2, where one is inhalation and two is exhalation.
Although full yogic breathing is very effective, we should not strive to always use it in ordinary life. Breathing is an unconscious process. If it is kept under control all the time, the automatic respiratory cycle may fail. This can lead to breathing problems during sleep.
Surya Bhedana Pranayama
The name Surya Bhedana pranayama comes from Sanskrit and means “Sun piercing pranayama”. This is only one nostril breathing exercise. Solar pranayama affects the right energy channel in the human body, called Pingala. Activation of this channel enhances physical activity of the body and mind, warms up the body, and contributes to the strengthening of the digestive system.
Surya Bhedana Pranayama is based on full yogic breath. We also should use Vishnu Mudra while performing it.
How to perform Surya Bhedana Ptanayama:
- Sit comfortably.
- Perform first exhalation with two nostrils.
- Close the left nostril with the ring finger and perform a full yogic breath with the right nostril. First, the belly goes forward, then the chest expands and, finally, the clavicle rises upwards.
- After inhalation, close the right nostril with the thumb and exhale through the left nostril. Don’t forget to follow the rules of full yogic breathing. Meaning, that when exhaling, the clavicle first descends, then the chest narrows, and then the abdomen goes inward.
If you perform Surya Bhedana pranayama without holding a breath, then the exhalation must be twice as long as the inhalation.
There are variations of Surya Bhedana with breath retention after inhaling. Then, after inhalation, we perform Mula Bandha first, and then – light Uddiyana Bandha. After that, close the nostrils with two fingers, and perform Jalandhara Bandha.
Before exhalation, release Jalandhara Bandha first (head rises up), then the stomach comes to its usual position, then open the left nostril, release Mula Bandha, and only after that exhale.
At the stage of mastering this pranayama, the proportions of breathing with retention are 1: 1: 2, where 1 is inhalation, 1 – retention, 2 – exhalation. Later you should increase the time of retention. First, change the proportion by making retention and exhalation equal, meaning that the ratio should be 1: 2: 2. The next stage is the increase of retention to the ratio 1: 4: 2.
Chandra Bhedana Pranayama
Chandra Bhedana pranayama is translated as Moon pranayama. Its technique is completely symmetrical to Surya Bhedana Pranayama. It activates Ida – the left-sided energy channel and is associated with parasympathetic nervous system. So, the inhalation is made through the left nostril, exhalation – through the right. Inhalation and exhalation should be in the ratio of 1:2. It is better not to practice this breathing exercise in winter.
Benefits of Chandra Bhedana Pranayama:
- Helps with hypertension;
- Reduces fever;
- Calms down our mind;
- Helps to cope with stress, and other mental problems;
- It is not recommended for people suffering from hypo-tension and epilepsy;
- Practice should be 4-5 hours after food.
- Perform only Chandra Bhedana or Surya Bhedana Pranayama in the same day.
- Avoid practicing it if you have flu or some cold.
Nadi Shodhana Pranayama
Nadi Shodhana Pranayama means “breathing cleansing nadis” (energy channels). This is alternate nostril breathing exercise, which is also known as Anulom Vilom.
How to do Nadi Shodhana Pranayama:
- Sit comfortably
- Make the first exhalation through two nostrils.
- Close the right nostril and inhale through the left one.
- Close the left nostril and exhale through the right one.
- Then again inhale through the right nostril, and exhale – through the left.
This breathing is based on full yogic breath. Proportions without breath retention are 1:2. If you perform this breathing exercise with retention after inhalation, the ratio is 1: 1: 2 at the beginning, then 1: 2: 2, and eventually 1: 4: 2, where the first digit is the length of the inhalation, the second one – the length of the breath retention, and the third – the length of the exhalation.
You can also perform Anulom Vilom pranayama (Nadi Shodhana) with breath holding after exhalation. Then the proportions will be the following: 1: 2: 1, then 1: 2: 2. Where the first number is the length of inhalation, the second one is the length of exhalation, the third one – the length of breath retention. It is important to remember that when you hold breath after exhalation, you should make Uddiyana Bandha, meaning that the stomach is maximally diverted inside and goes a little upwards under the rib cage.
Benefits of Nadi Shodhana
Nadi Shodhana helps to balance the energy flow in the right and left channels of the body. At the physical level, it helps to align the air flow in the left and right nostril. Usually, a person breathes better with either left or right nostril. During the day, the active nostril can change.
Hindus believe that when both nostrils breathe freely, and it is difficult to say which one of them is more active, it means that the vital energy (Prana) flows through the Sushumna – the central energy channel. Then the body and mind are in a stable balance.
Thus, Nadi Shodhana pranayama calms the mind, helps to deal with stress and contributes into making adequate decisions in difficult situations.
Ujjayi pranayama if translated from Sanskrit means breathing of the victory, or breathing that defeats all diseases. To perform Ujjayi pranayama, slightly narrow the glottis and make a slight hiss inside the throat. If you can not pronounce this sound, then it is necessary to utter the sound “ha” with an open mouth while inhaling and exhaling. Then close the mouth, but leave the throat in the same position as when uttering the sound “ha”, and continue breathing.
This type of breathing warms up the body, burns toxins, has healing power. Slower breathing causes a slower heartbeat, which in turn reduces the load on the heart muscle. Therefore, a similar type of breathing is an integral part of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga – a very dynamic style of asana practice. In Ashtanga Vinyasa, yogis should breathe with a slight hiss. Chest breathing is prevailing.
When practicing Ujjayi pranayama in one of the sitting positions, it makes sense to choose a full yogic breath as a base for this breathing exercise. Experienced yogis may perform this technique with breath retentions both after inhalation and after exhalation. The proportions are the same as in the practice of Surya Bhedana and Nadi Shodhana pranayama.
Benefits of Ujjayi:
- Improves concentration;
- Increases blood circulation and improves metabolism;
- Helps to get rid of toxins;
- Helps with many chronic diseases (cold, cough, digestion problems, fever etc).
- Makes positive effect on the voice.
- Stimulates and balances the thyroid.
People suffering from hypertension should retain from practicing Ujjayi pranayama.
Sheetali is translated from Sanskrit as “cooling down, chilling breathing”. To perform this pranayama, you need to:
- Sit comfortably in meditative position and close your eyes.
- Put your tongue out of the mouth; fold it by rolling its both sides up.
- Inhale smoothly through this tube.
- At the end of inhalation, retract the tongue inside.
- Make a usual exhalation with the nose. There is no need to observe any proportion.
While practicing this type of yoga breathing exercise, you will feel coldness on the tongue, in the mouth, and on the throat. Therefore, it is better not to practice Sheetali in the winter.
In the summer this pranayama can be a good way to avoid overheating. In India, during the practice of breathing techniques, the body significantly warms up, so at the end of the cycle, Sheetali pranayama is good for cooling down. However, in our climate it is not so relevant.
Benefits of Sheetali Pranayama:
- Helps to get rid of excessive heat in the body;
- Reduces anger, anxiety, and stress;
- Refreshes the body and mind, improves memory;
- Purifies blood;
- Helps with hypertension, indigestion, fever, skin problems;
- Harmonizes all the endocrine system.
Do not practice this pranayama if having viral infections (cold, cough, asthma, tuberculosis etc) or hypo-tension.
Some people face difficulties with folding their tongues. Then they can perform another pranayama – Shitkari, which means “cooling breathing”.
To perform this yoga breathing exercise you need to:
- Sit comfortably in a meditative position, your eyes closed, body relaxed.
- Slightly open your mouth, press the tongue against the upper teeth so that there is a small space between the tongue and the teeth.
- Inhale through this space.
- Close your mouth and make the usual exhalation with the nose.
- Repeat 10-20 times
This technique is similar to Sheetali, only the position of the tongue is different. The effect of this pranayamas is similar – cooling the body. In addition, Sheetali and Shitkari help reduce headaches associated with high blood pressure, but during the cold season it is better to refrain from its practice because it can lead to sore throat. It is also not recommended for people suffering from respiratory diseases and hypo-tension.
“Bhramari” is translated from Sanskrit as “big black bee”. While doing this pranayama we have to pronounce the sound “M” while exhaling and inhaling. It is better to practice it in a small group in a room with a good acoustics.
How to do Bhramari?
- Sit comfortably in a meditative position.
- At the first stage of mastering this yoga breathing exercise, make the usual inhalation, and pronounce the sound “M” while exhaling. Everyone can manage to do this.
- At the next stage, it is necessary to learn how to pronounce “M” while inhaling, drawing the air not only with the nose, but also with the throat. Exhalation after that is regular. If you can’t pronounce the “M” while inhaling, then you should utter the “A” sound while inhaling. Memorize the position of the rear part of the larynx. It is necessary to pronounce the sound “M” on the inhalation with the same position of the larynx. It is important to remember that the “M” sounds much higher when you inhale than on the exhale.
- When you mastered the second stage, it means that you can do both – inhale and exhale pronouncing “M”. If so, then you can move to the full version of Bharmari.
- Close your ears with the index fingers by placing them on the cartilage, keep a slight pressure.
- Inhale and exhale uttering the sound “M” and concentrate on the sound. It causes vibration throughout the body. First, the vibrations are noticeable in the lips, then inside the head, and then you can feel vibrations along the entire spine, including the tailbone. During the practice of Bhramari, you can slightly lower or raise the chin, feel the change in the timbre of the sound. Choose the position of the head when you feel vibrations in the body the most.
- Repeat 5-6 times per day.
Benefits of Bhramari Pranayama
Bhramari Pranayama develops concentration, a sense of inner peace, and, as a result, helps to cope with the stresses arising in the outer world, frustration, and anxiety. In addition, same as cooling pranayama, it reduces hypertension and helps with headaches and insomnia. It is also very useful for people suffering from thyroid dysfunction.