Yoga encompasses more than just a physical practice: it combines mental and physical techniques that include lifestyle, behavior, philosophy, meditation, breath work, and physical movement. One element, in particular, is pranayama breathing.
What is Pranayama Breathing?
We are often asked, “What is pranayama?” Pranayama breathing is a foundational element of yoga and addresses the importance of breath work to increase energy, oxygen, and your state of mind.
The Indian sage Pantajali authored the classical texts known as the Yoga Sutras and introduced pranayama breathing. Sutras are threads (as sutra translates from Sanskrit) of information that tie together to provide knowledge on the meaning of yoga and offer guidelines for living a purposeful life. Pantajali’s Sutras revealed an eightfold path to unify your body, mind, and spirit.
These eight elements are known as the eight limbs of yoga and are as follows:
- Yama – moral discipline
- Niyama – moral observance
- Asana – body posture
- Pranayama – breath control
- Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses
- Dharana – concentration
- Dhyana – meditation
- Samadhi – bliss
What is Pranayama?
One’s prana, or life force, separates living from dead: it is our life force and energy. Thus, Pranayama, or breath control, is the universal breath and energy that sustains the body.
As an energy source, prana is all around us: our food, attitude, and, our breath. The quality of our prana and the way it flows through our body can frame our state of mind at any given time, as there is a specific breathing rhythm to every thought we have.
As Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of the Art of Living Foundation, stated, “Our breath is linked to our emotions. For every emotion, there is a particular rhythm in the breath. So while you cannot directly harness your emotions, with the help of breath you can do that….If we understand the rhythm of our breath, we are able to have a say over our mind, we can win over any negative emotions like anger, jealousy, greed, and we are able to smile more from our heart.”
Why is Pranayama Important?
We are brought to the present moment when we focus on our breath. Deep focus increases our self-awareness, and sense of inner calm and peace. Pranayama may sound similar to meditation, and it is! Pranayama and meditation are complementary to one another. Pranayama is the fourth limb of yoga and comes just before meditation, the seventh limb. Therefore, pranayama acts as a practice that readies your mind for meditation.
Pranayama Breathing Techniques
YogaLogic outlines seven types of pranayama breathing techniques, allowing you to discover what works best for you. All of these are best practiced when the spine is erect and the back and spine are perpendicular to the floor. This can be achieved by sitting on the floor or sitting in a chair. Additionally, all of these techniques should begin with a few slow, deep breaths.
- Nadi Sodhana – this technique is known as alternate nostril breathing. To start, close the right nostril with the right thumb and inhale through the left nostril. Then, close the left nostril with the ring and little finger of your right hand as your exhale through the right nostril. With the left nostril still closed, inhale on the right and then exhale on the left. In this technique, the breath is meant to be soft and soundless. Continue this for ten to fifteen rounds.
- Anuloma Pranayama – this technique is another form of alternate nostril breathing. You should breathe fast and deep so the breath is strong and audible. To begin, close the left nostril with the ring and little finger of your right hand. Inhale right through your right nostril and then close your right nostril with your right thumb as you exhale through your left nostril. Next, inhale through your left nostril, close it and then, exhale right. Continue this practice for ten to fifteen rounds.
- Shitali Pranayama – this practice is known as a pranayama to cool the body. Start by sticking your tongue out of your mouth and rolling the sides of the tongue up as best as you can. Inhale through the tongue, making a “ssssss” sound. Close your mouth and exhale through both nostrils – continue this for ten to fifteen breaths.
- Ujjayi Pranayama – this technique is often called the ocean breath or the victorious breath. It can be practiced either while seated or throughout an entire flow sequence. As you inhale and exhale, slightly contract the back of your throat, similar to how you do when whispering; maintain this constriction on inhales and exhales and you will notice your breath making a sound like moving ocean waves.
- Dirga Pranayama – begin by lying on your back and closing your eyes. Inhale to fill your belly so it rises and exhale until there is no air left in your belly. On the next inhale, fill your belly and inhale further to fill your rib cage. As you exhale, expel air from your rib cage first and then your belly. On the third inhale, fill your belly, your rib cage and then inhale even more to fill your chest or heart center. When you exhale, do so first from the chest, followed by the rib cage and then the belly. Perform five to six rounds of this.
- Viloma Pranayama –this technique can be practiced two different ways: paused inhalation or paused exhalation. The first method is paused inhalation: begin with an inhale for two to three seconds, hold your breath and pause for one to two seconds. Finally, sip in more air for two to three seconds, pausing one final time and inhaling until the lungs are full of air. Paused exhalation is the exact opposite of this: inhale normally and then exhale for two to three seconds, pause for one to two seconds, and then exhale even deeper, pausing for a final moment.
- Kapalabhati Pranayama – considered a more advanced form of pranayama, this technique focuses on short and powerful inhales and exhales. To start, inhale through your nostrils as you contract your lower belly. Then, quickly release the contraction with the burst of a quick exhale. Begin with 60-65 contractions in one minute, working up to 95-105 per minute.