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The Ins and Outs of Yogic Breathing

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“Calm is retained by the controlled exhalation or retention of breath.” — Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Sutra 1.34

A sage before his time for he knew what science has now proven, Patanjali teaches that breathwork—or pranayama—can cultivate inner strength and calm, in addition to the practice of yoga asanas. Scientific studies today find that pranayamic breathing can help increase parasympathetic activity and cultivate a sense of alertness and invigoration. The mind body connection has never been more established.

Outlined in the fourth limb of the eight-limb path called ashtanga in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, pranayama is the extension and suspension of breath, derived from the Sanskrit word prana, which translates to breath or life force.

The manipulation of breath movement has been shown in various studies to increase parasympathetic activity (responsible for the body’s rest and digest response), generating feelings of alertness and reinvigoration. [1]

In fact, yogic breathing techniques can also be helpful for mental illnesses such as anxiety, panic attacks and depression. [2] In yoga, it is said that our breath is the bridge between the mind and the body—taking time for breathwork can help integrate the mind and body into union and harmony.

Three pranayama techniques to try:

1. Nadi Shodana, or alternate nostril breathing

Inhale energy, exhale stress.

Nadi is a Sanskrit word for “channel” or “flow” and shodhana means “purification.” The practice is believed to balance and purify the prana energy, or life force, of the mind and body. Breathing through the left nostril calms and cools us, while breathing through the right nostril energises and stimulates us. Alternate nostril breathing activates both energies to achieve balance.

Scientific studies prove that breathing through the left nostril increases activity in the right side of the brain (our creative, emotional brain), while breathing through the right nostril stimulates the left side of the brain (our logical brain).

How to do it:

  • Sit upright in lotus (cross-legged), with your hips open. Soften your shoulders, bringing them down away from your ears. Close your eyes, if that makes you feel more relaxed.
  • Place both hands on your knees. Assume the Chin mudra with your left hand, with your index and thumb touching. With your right hand, assume the Vishnu mudra. bend your index and middle finger to your palm, keeping your ring and little fingers straight and outstretched as well as your thumb.
  • You will be using only your right hand to close alternate nostrils as you breathe. Start by using your ring finger to close your left nostril, and inhale deeply on the right nostril for 6 counts.
  • Use your ring finger and thumb to pinch your nose and close both nostrils shut, and hold the breath for 12 counts.
  • Release and open your ring finger, with your thumb closing the right nostril, and exhale slowly through your left nostril for 12 counts.
  • Then, inhale on the same left nostril for 6 counts. Pinch nostrils shut and hold for 12 breaths. Release your thumb, use your ring finger to close your left nostril and exhale for 12 counts through your right nostril. This is one round.
  • Repeat for 10 to 20 rounds.

Keep the breath slow, relaxed and fluid throughout.

2. Kapalabhati Breathing, or the Skull-shining Breath

Use active exhalations to pump toxins out of the body through your breath

Also known as skull-shining breath, Kapalabhati breathing is known for purifying, rejuvenating and invigorating the mind and body. Comprising a series of passive inhalations and active, forceful exhalations to pump breath out from the belly, it also helps to stimulate the digestive system and expel toxins from the body.

Kapalabhati breathwork should be done on an empty stomach—try it first thing in the morning when you wake up for an energizing boost. Do not practise kapalabhati if you have your period, are pregnant or have abdominal pain.

How to do it:

  • Sit comfortably, cross-legged with your hands resting on your knees. Take a few deep, cleansing breaths before you begin.
  • Inhale deeply through the nose.
  • Exhale in 20 spurts of breath through the nose, expelling air out from the diaphragm and belly area, taking shallow inhales throughout as you focus on pumping out breaths in your exhalations. The only movement should be at your diaphragm and belly.
  • Repeat this 3 to 4 times.

Kapalabhati is also a warming breath. If you are feeling cold or chilly, try doing a few rounds of Kapalabhati breathing to warm yourself up and power you through the day.

3. Brahmari, or the Humming Bee Breath

Calm those nerves down with the ancient practice of Brahmari — in the modern office!

Through the ancient practice of Brahmari, it can help you become more sensitized and aware of the physical vibration of sounds. The noise you’d make with Brahmari breathwork sounds like a humming bee, which can therapeutically drown out endless mental loops that can cause you to be trapped in the sufferings of your own mind.

A useful starting point for those whose minds cannot quiet down and meditate, the use of sound waves in Brahmari can still the mind and calm the parasympathetic system. It can also be particularly helpful for those who suffer from anxiety.

How to do it:

  • Sit comfortably and close your eyes.
  • Take a deep inhale for 6 counts.
  • When you exhale, constrict your throat and make a humming noise like a bee for the entire length of your exhalation of 12 counts. The humming bee noise causes in a resonating vibration in the head and heart.
  • Repeat this for six rounds, with your eyes closed.

Your breath affects so many of your body’s physical processes — anxiety, cognition, sleep. By focusing on our breath, it allows our nervous system to have some respite from our body’s natural fight or flight mode. If you’re the sort that can’t seem to fall asleep, try pranayama — according to Patanjali, breath regulation is a vital basis of a healthy life.

References

[1] Jerath, Ravinder & Edry, John & Barnes, Vernon & Jerath, Vandna. (2006). Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: Neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system. Medical hypotheses. 67. 566-71. 10.1016/j.mehy.2006.02.042.

[2] Tiwari, N., Sutton, M., Garner, M., & Baldwin, D. S. (2019). Yogic Breathing Instruction in Patients with Treatment-Resistant Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Pilot Study. International journal of yoga12(1), 78–83. https://doi.org/10.4103/ijoy.IJOY_22_18

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