Pranayama is the yogic practice of controlling breath. If you’ve taken a yoga class, you’re probably familiar with the concept of breathing consciously as you move through poses. This effort to take long, controlled breaths — to maintain calm despite difficulty — is an integral part of the practice. However, pranayama does not have to be done in conjunction with poses; it is a valuable exercise in and of itself and can be practiced in a seated or reclined position.
The word pranayama is made up of two parts: prana, meaning “life force” or “breath which sustains the body,” and ayama, “to extend or draw out.” This focused practice of breathing is a vital component of our overall health, as it helps determine how we experience stress.
The act of breathing is controlled by our autonomic nervous system, which comprises two branches: the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic system is responsible for our fight-or-flight response, and it’s tied to our breath. The pace of busy lifestyles can cause stress, making our sympathetic systems go into overdrive. Our breathing becomes a part of the stress cycle: Stress can cause us to unconsciously start taking shorter, quicker breaths. Taking too many short, quick breaths can trigger our sympathetic system, and with it our fight-or-flight stress response. Experiencing fight-or-flight in excess wreaks havoc on our bodies, causing digestive issues, anxiety, high blood pressure and even disease. However, we only need to tap into our parasympathetic system to calm down and relax. This is where pranayama is most effective.
The way we breathe has a “trickle-up effect” on our minds, meaning it can positively or negatively impact our mental state. The practice of yogic breathing is renowned for reducing anxiety, alleviating depression, lowering blood pressure, assisting sleep, reducing back pain, boosting the immune system, decreasing gastrointestinal discomforts and even prolonging life. The increased movement of the diaphragm when using these techniques also provides a gentle massage to the internal organs.
Practicing pranayama allows us to tap into calming energy while paying attention to the sensations and experiences of our own bodies. When practicing pranayama, do so without comment, instead focusing on how your extremities, organs, muscles and mind feel. As thoughts cross your mind, let them pass without judgment, then return your focus to your breath and body. As you do this, you will let go of daily tension and tap into your parasympathetic system.
Practicing pranayama can be done in a seated position, either on the floor or in a chair. When sitting, it’s important to make sure your hips are above your knees to support proper body alignment. This may require you to sit on a bolster or folded blanket. Five yoga positions are recommended for pranayama exercises: sukhasana (cross-legged), siddhasana (pose of the adept), vajrasana (sitting on the heels), ardha padmasana (half-lotus) and padmasana (lotus). Many people use visualization techniques while practicing: Some envision a bright, cleansing light surging through their bodies, nourishing areas of depletion and discomfort; others visualize a wave of colors filling their chakras. Any visualization technique that works to calm and center you is fine to use.
Pranayama provides natural detoxification. By oxygenating the body through pranayama, vitamins and minerals become more readily absorbed and the lymphatic system is energized. Stay hydrated to better assist your body in this detoxification process. You should never feel as if you are straining the breath. Start with only a few repetitions to prevent overexertion. Never exceed 30 minutes of exercises unless working with a yogi. If you begin to feel light-headed during your pranayama practice, stop what you are doing and go back to your normal breathing until you feel ready to resume. Before practicing, make sure you are wearing loose, comfortable clothing. During pranayama, avoid air fresheners, incense and cleaning products.
While some of these exercises boast benefits to those experiencing asthma, high blood pressure and other illnesses, always use caution before practicing pranayama. Some breathing techniques may not be safe to practice while pregnant. It is best to begin your practice under the knowledgeable supervision of a yogi.
Three Breathing Exercises for Beginners
1. Nadi Shodhana Pranayama: Also known as “alternate nostril breathing,” this practice is best done in the morning on an empty stomach or after a light breakfast. Sitting cross-legged on the ground or in a chair with your feet flat on the floor, straighten your spine (try envisioning a rope that’s being pulled from the top of your “sit bones” and out through the top of your head). Close your eyes and take a few cleansing, centering deep breaths before beginning.
With your right hand, place your index and middle fingers between your eyebrows. You will use your thumb to close your right nostril and your ring and pinky fingers to close your left nostril. This pose is called vishnu mudra.
• With your right nostril closed, exhale through the left nostril. Do not be forceful. Allow all of the breath to leave your body.
• Now inhale through the left nostril. As you do so, envision your breath moving up through the left side of your body, from the base of your spine, through your gastrointestinal system, through your left lung, into the heart, throat and head. Pause when you get to the crown of your head.
• This is where you alternate sides. Close your left nostril with your ring and pinky fingers, simultaneously open the right nostril and slowly exhale. Feel the breath move down the right side of your body. Pause at the end of your exhalation.
• Inhale through this same nostril, feeling the energy move up your spine along your right side, the same as you did when inhaling with the left nostril.
• Alternate sides again, exhaling through the left nostril. This completes one “round” of nadi shodhana.
• Begin by doing seven repetitions, or up to five minutes. Always keep your breath slow and gentle, breathing in a fluid motion, making your exhalations longer than your inhalations. As you advance with this breathing technique, you may slowly increase the repetitions and integrate breath retention into your practices. When finished, take time to sit and allow your body to resume normal breathing.
2. Ujjayi Pranayama: Known as “ocean breath” or “victorious breath,” this practice gets its name from the distinct sound made at the back of the throat on both inhalations and exhalations. Ujjayi may be practiced while holding yoga poses or simply while sitting. If practicing while seated, make sure to roll your shoulders up and back, relaxing your body and straightening your spine before you begin.
• Start practice by slowly exhaling with an open mouth as if trying to fog up a mirror. Your throat should be slightly constricted. This constriction will cause an audible rushing noise.
• Repeat this on your inhalation. Again, it is key that you are able to hear your breath. Do not force your inhales or exhales. After a few repetitions, you will notice your breath sounds like ocean waves.
• Now close your mouth while continuing to breathe this way through your nose. The rushing sound will muffle, but it should still be audible.
• While breathing, feel your body elongate, as if being pulled up, with each inhalation and subsequently shorten, as if becoming grounded, with each exhalation. You should not slump at the end of the exhale.
• Optional: Some people practice ujjayi with the tip of their tongue placed on the roof of their mouth, right behind their front teeth. This positioning can help relax the jaw muscles and prevent clenching.
As you practice ujjayi, you will likely notice an incremental increase in the length of your breaths. This is good, but you should never be holding your breath in or forcing it out. Practice this type of breathing periodically throughout the day, especially when feeling agitated or nervous.
3. 2:1 Pranayama: The key to this breathing technique is making your exhalations twice as long as your inhalations. 2:1 pranayama may be combined with nadi shodhana and ujjayi once it has become familiar. Before beginning, find a comfortable sitting position. Roll your shoulders up and back, relaxing your muscles and elongating your spine. This breathing exercise is excellent to use prior to meditating or going to sleep.
• Start by noticing your breath. Make sure you are taking deep, whole-body breaths that reach your diaphragm. As you practice, feel your breath fill and leave your body from the base of your spine all the way to your crown and back down again. Focus on areas that you want to breathe energy into, such as your gastrointestinal system, hips, shoulders or sinuses. Feel the breath cleanse your body and calm the mind.
• Notice the ratio of your breathing. Try breathing in for four counts and exhaling for the same amount.
• Repeat this deep breathing until you naturally begin to elongate your exhalations.
• Try to get your exhalations twice as long as your inhalations. Do not retain your breath intentionally or breathe in or out forcefully.
• Start by practicing three sets of 10 breaths. Be cognizant of your lung capacity. Overextending your exhalations might cause you to gasp in on your next inhalation. As you advance in your practice you will gradually increase the length of your breaths so that you are taking fewer breaths per minute.