7 Breathing Techniques To Use During Your Next Yoga Practice
We always hear about how important our breath is in yoga, but a lot of us don’t actually know how we’re supposed to be breathing, or why we should be breathing in one particular way.
I know I didn’t fully understand it until I went through yoga teacher training. So if you’ve ever found yourself wondering why your instructor is telling you to stick your tongue out or pump your stomach, this article’s for you. Pranayama, or breath control, is a huge aspect of a yoga practice. Prana is our life energy, or “life force.” Yama is the ability to control that life force. We’ve compiled seven different types of pranayama exercises, below, explaining how to do them and why you’d want to.
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One of the more common pranayama practices, ujjayi, means victorious, or “to conquer.”
Often practiced in Vinyasa and Ashtanga classes, ujjayi pranayama encourages a deep opening into the lungs. Ujjayi is often referred to as ocean breath because of the sound we make as we exhale. In ujjayi breath, we learn to gently constrict the throat, creating resistance, which in turn creates a sound similar to waves crashing on a beach. The purpose of ujjayi breath is to find a balance of strength and calmness. The long, slow breath creates stillness in our minds, while the depth of this breath helps us ground down and get in touch with our inner strength. Ujjayi pranayama increases the body’s internal heat, making it the perfect breath to use throughout a yoga practice. It also builds energy and encourages a meditative quality, even through movement.
How to do it:
With sealed lips, start to breathe in and out through your nose very slowly. With each inhale, breathe deeply into your lungs and pause when you’ve reached the top of the breath. As you exhale, gently constrict the back of your throat and slowly release the air out of your lungs. On your inhales, you’ll expand your chest and lungs, and on the exhales you’ll press air outward from your navel up to the throat and out the nose. Both inhales and exhales should be longer and deeper than your normal breath. I find it sometimes helps to count to six on the breath in and the breath out to maintain the length and speed of each breath. You can practice ujjayi breath during your yoga practice, or as a complement to seated meditation.
Ujjayi breath also helps relieve anxiety, so you can practice it anytime you feel nervous or stressed.
Kumbhaka is a breath retention practice. It is a state where no breath is being taken in or let out; it’s the space between inhales and exhales.
Breath retention helps calm the mind. When our breath stills, our mind follows suit. This breathing practice trains the body and mind to stay relaxed even under stress. There is a natural pause between breaths when we breathe normally, but it’s often so quick that we don’t notice it. When we breathe slowly and take long pauses between breaths, we tap into the activity of our mind. The more time we spend observing that space between, the more connected with ourselves we become. We’re able to see ourselves clearly, and in seeing we are better able to calmly grow and change. Kumbhaka activates our third eye, helps us notice thought patterns and emotions and reduces distraction. When we practice breath retention often, the slowing of our thoughts slowly becomes a habit.
How to do it:
Start with ujjayi breath. Take a few breaths to turn your attention to your body and create a little heat. When you’re ready, begin your
When you’re ready, begin your kumbhaka. After you inhale with ujjayi breath, pause for a moment, holding your breath. If you’re counting with your breath, stay for about two counts, and then slowly exhale all the air out through the nose. At the end of your exhale, keeping your navel pressed against your spine, hold the breath out for two counts. Return to your ujjayi breath for two or three rounds before your next retention. Practice kumbhaka before your yoga practice or as a short meditation.
Literally translating to ‘skull-shining breath,’ kapalabhati is an invigorating pranayama practice that helps create heat and cleanse the body.
Kapalabhati is a passive inhale followed by a forceful exhale. This is a great practice to try first thing in the morning to shake off the past night’s sleep and give you energy to take on your day. This form of pranayama increases circulation, reawakens our abdominal organs and releases toxins. It can also give us that extra kick we need to let go of negative emotions or any feelings of stress and anxiety.
How to do it:
The most important part of kapalabhati is the passive inhale and strong exhale.
What we mean by passive is to keep your inhale as natural as possible. When you press your exhale out, your body will naturally take a small breath in to recover the exhale. Allow it do just that without taking any extra measures to breathe in. You’ll pump your stomach in kapalabhati, with your navel pressing in on each exhale. This will create some warmth in your core, which is what makes this pranayama so cleansing and stimulating. Find a comfortable seat, with a straight spine. You can place your hands on your thighs, lower belly, or you can raise them up into the air in a V-shape over your head. Take a deep breath in through your nose. Forcefully, press your belly button toward your spine as you expel the air from your lungs, breathing out your nose. Allow your breath to naturally come in as your belly expands, and then repeat the movement of your navel to your spine as you exhale. Perform this pattern quickly about ten times, pumping your belly. When finished, come back to your normal breath and take note of the sensations in your body.
Bhastrika, which means ‘bellows’, is often referred to as Bellows Breath or Breath of Fire.
It’s similar to kapalabhati, but instead, has equal emphasis on the inhale and the exhale. Another heating practice, bhastrika stimulates our Manipura Chakra, our Solar Plexus (third) chakra, and creates an energizing and stimulating sensation throughout the entire body. Bhastrika is like a cardio workout for your lungs while your body is holding a static position. It’s so energizing it could replace your morning coffee! It takes us out of our heads and into our bodies. This helps relieve stress and bring stillness to the mind. It’s a great way to sync body, mind and spirit—especially on days we feel chaotic and out of balance. You may have noticed you often practice bhastrika while holding long poses in your yoga classes (this is when it’s usually referred to as Breath of Fire). This is because bhastrika increases our physical endurance.
How to do it:
If you’re a first-timer, start by sitting in a comfortable seat with your spine upright. You can bring your hands to your thighs, palms facing up. Start by taking a deep breath in through your nose. On your exhale, press your belly button to your spine, as you quickly and forcefully breathe out through your nose. Then, on your inhale, quickly breathe in through the nose, expanding the stomach. Your inhales and exhales should be equally strong and equally long. As a beginner, try to keep each inhale and exhale about two seconds long each so you’re moving quite quickly through each breath.
As you continue your practice, your core and lungs will get stronger and you’ll be able to move even faster, at around one second per breath.
5) Lion’s Breath
Lion’s Breath is typically practiced in between asanas (poses).
It requires an open mind and the willingness to feel a little bit silly. Lion’s Breath is practiced by opening the mouth wide and sticking out your tongue as you exhale all your breath. This feels amazing, especially if you’re in a sweaty yoga class and need to cool down your body. It relieves stress or tension in the neck or around the jaw, as well. Lion’s Breath can help open up and stimulate the muscles around the throat, opening up the Vishudda chakra (fifth chakra), an area we tend to close, subconsciously, by looking down at phones or computers all day long.
How to do it:
Come into Virasana (Hero’s pose). If that isn’t available to you, find a comfortable seat that works in your body, you can sit cross-legged or in a chair. Sit with your spine long, shoulders away from the ears. Place your palms on your thighs, facing down. Press your palms into your thighs and start to open the shoulders and heart. Move around a little bit until you find an opening that feels good in the chest and upper back. Start by taking a deep breath in through the nose, and on your exhale, release the breath out through the mouth with a ‘haaa’ sound, like you would if you were trying to fog up a window. Take another deep breath in, and this time lengthen your spine up through the crown of the head. As you exhale, slowly slide your hands toward your knees with the fingertips wide, like you’re making claws with your hands. Open your mouth wide and let out a nice long ‘haaa.’ Take another deep breath in through the nose. On the exhale, stick out your tongue, point it down to the ground, and bring your gaze to the third eye center of your forehead; the space right in between, and just above, your eyebrows. Let out that ‘haaa’ sound once again. This is full Lion’s Breath. Repeat this 3-5 times.
I love to practice Lion’s Breath right after an especially fiery sequence to bring my heart rate down and cool off the inside of my body.
6) Nadi Shodhana
Nadi translates to ‘a channel for the breath to flow’, and Shodhana means ‘cleansing/purifying.’
This pranayama is practiced by breathing through one nostril at a time. It’s perfect for those who find themselves in a lot of stressful situations like commuting to work or managing a busy schedule. Nadi Shodhana is a good way to settle your mind before you begin meditating or use it to get into your breath before you begin a yoga practice. Not only does this pranayama calm the nerves, it supports our lungs and respiratory system and brings our right- and left-brains into balance. If you’re particularly restless during meditation, this breathing exercise is perfect for you.
How to do it:
Find a comfortable and tall seat. Let your left hand relax on your thigh or in your lap and bring your right hand to your face. Plant your pointer and middle fingers on your forehead at your third eye. This is your foundation and you’ll keep these fingers rooted here throughout the entire practice. Close your right nostril with your thumb and inhale steadily through the left nostril. Hold the breath for a brief moment at the top. Now, close your left nostril with your ring finger, release your thumb and exhale through the right side. Keeping your ring finger on the left nostril, inhale through the right. Retain the breath for a moment; close the right nostril, release your ring finger and breathe out through the left.
Try to be consistent with the lengths of your inhales and exhales, keeping them at similar speeds and depths. Repeat this 5-10 times whenever you’re feeling stressed, anxious or restless.
Sitali is a cooling breath practice. If you find yourself overheated, worked up or experiencing hot flashes, Sitali might be exactly what you need. This pranayama is great for those hot summer months or after a sweaty yoga class. It’s also said to reduce bad breath and fevers and lower high blood pressure. It’s also a great mood booster. If you find yourself feeling down, take a few sitali breaths and you’ll feel better in no time.
How to do it:
Open your mouth just enough to stick your tongue out. Curl your tongue into a taco-like curve. If you can’t curl your tongue, simply make an ‘O’ shape with your mouth (keeping your tongue inside), like you’re drinking from a straw. Inhale with your tongue curled, through the mouth, and exhale slowly out your nose. Notice how the breath feels cool as it comes into your mouth. You can either do a few rounds, 5-10, or you can try it for a few minutes, until your body temperature begins to drop down to normal or you feel yourself begin to relax. Now it’s your turn. Give a few of these a try at home or on your yoga mat, and let us know in the comments which ones worked best for you! If you want to learn more about pranayama, take a look at our teacher training courses, where we’ll teach you even more about the different kinds of breath through training and practice.
Caution: Do not practice Kapalabhati or Bhastrika if you’re pregnant, have high-blood pressure, heart disease, acid gastric issues or abdominal pain. If, at any time, you begin to feel nauseous or dizzy, slow down or come back to your normal breath.
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