Pranayama techniques can help you relax, feel calm, and cope with stress. Here are four simple but powerful breathing techniques you can try out every day.
There is one way of breathing that is shameful and constricted. Then, there's another way: a breath of love that takes you all the way to infinity. - Rumi
We go with our daily lives, breathing in and out day and night without giving it a thought. On a regular day, we take about 24,000 breaths on average. How many of us are aware of this very activity that is our source of life? Imagine the wonders our body would feel if we did some conscious breathing exercises. The concept of conscious breathing is one way of looking at the pranayama techniques.
Pranayama is one of the eight limbs of Patanjali’s Ashtanga yoga that plays an important role in preparing our minds for meditation. You will find two etymologies of the word 'pranayama: Prana + Ayama, as well as Prana + Yama.
A common interpretation of the word pranayama is that they are techniques for breath control. According to this line of thought, Prana represents breath and Yama means to control, thus Pranayama is the control of your breath. Much contrary to the common interpretation, ‘Prana’ does not mean breath. Thus, the translation doesn't exactly capture the essence of pranayama.
The practise of pranayama has far wider implications than just 'breath control’. A better way to understand pranayama is prana + ayama. Here, prana is the life force or vital energy that flows through living beings and inanimate objects. It is equivalent to the concept of chi in Chinese medicine and can also be translated to “livingness”. Matter as we know from Einstein's equation E=mc2 is an expression of energy. Prana is the energy through which body, mind and breath and objects can express themselves. Have you ever felt that you liked the vibe of a place or someone in your life? Now, think about this - what do you really mean when you say that you like her/his vibe?
Coming back to prana, it acts as a medium of consciousness. It is through prana that the consciousness can manifest itself in the universe. The Sanskrit word Ayama stands for expanding the dimension of prana. In this case, pranayama consists of special practices that expand our prana and thus, the medium of consciousness.
Preparation: Breath Awareness Practice
I like to start my Pranayama practice with some breath awareness - to bring our attention back to our breathing. I have noticed that by simply bringing our focus to breathing, the mind starts to relax. Make sure that you create an ambience by lighting some candles or dimming the lights if you are at home.
Our breath is haphazard when we breathe subconsciously, thus we do this to prepare ourselves for Pranayama techniques. You have to become aware of your breathing. Gently inhale and exhale with awareness to make way for the prana to flow in. Let us prepare our mind and body for pranayama by following these yoga breathing exercises:
1) Easy Mindful Breaths
Step 1: Sit in Vajrasana or any meditative asana and pay attention to your posture. Sitting upright with a steady posture, yet keeping your body soft. Bring your awareness to your breathing and mentally note that you're breathing in and out.
Step 2: Now, Hold this position while inhaling and exhaling deeply for 10 breaths. Keep your body still and soften as you exhale. Repeat this in your mind:
Breathing in: I know that I breathe in
Breathing out: I know that I breathe out
Repeat this 3-5 times
2) Expanding the lungs
Step 1: Lay down on your back with the legs folded in padmasana or any cross-legged position.
Step 2: Bring your arms over the head, clasp the elbow of the opposite arm with your palms. Keep your arms flat on the floor. Arc you back and open up your chest.
Step 3: Take slow and deep breaths with awareness and feel the expansion of your rib cage.
Step 4: Increase your awareness of the breath in the lungs. Continue this for 3-5 minutes.
First: Adhama Pranayama (Deep Belly Breathing)
Adham Pranayama is also known as belly breathing or deep belly breathing. There is something about expanding the belly that makes us relax. Have you noticed that we feel relaxed and drowsy after having a full meal and when our stomach is full? Actually, there is a scientific reason behind this but, let's cover this topic some other time.
So, deep belly breathing pranayama helps with anxiety and stress relief by lowering the harmful effects of the stress hormone cortisol on your body. It lowers your pace of breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. It helps you cope with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It improves your core stability and improves your tolerance towards intense exercise. Most importantly, it feels so good!
Step 1: Sit comfortably in padmasana or any cross-legged position, keeping your spine straight. Place your left hand on top of your right hand lightly on your belly. Concentrate on your breath in your belly.
Step 2: Inhale, feel your belly inflate like a balloon. Exhale, feel your belly cave towards your spine. Experience the calming effect.
Step 3: Repeat the process again for 20-50 breaths or longer
Second: Bhastrika Pranayama (Resistive Breath)
Bhastrika Pranayama or Bellows breath technique imitates a pair of bellows that fans the internal fire, creating physical, pranic and psychic heat. I like to practice Bhastrika breathing before I start my asana practice as it helps to create Agni and warm up our body.
The rapid exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide stimulates the metabolic rate, produces heat and flushes out wastes and toxins. It also massages the visceral organs, toning and improving the digestive system. It strengthens the nervous system, inducing peace, tranquillity and one-pointedness of mind. Hysteria, psychosis and chronic depression respond well to Bhastrika.
Word of caution: Bhastrika should not be practised by people with high blood pressure, heart disease, hernia, gastric ulcer, stroke, epilepsy, retinal problems, glaucoma or vertigo. The elderly, those suffering from lung diseases such as asthma and chronic bronchitis, those recovering from tuberculosis, or in the first trimester of pregnancy are recommended to practise only under the guidance of a competent teacher.
Step 1: Sit in a comfortable meditation posture (Padmasana and Sukhasana etc) with the hands resting on the knees in Chin or Jnana mudra. Close your eyes.
Step 2: Take a deep breath in and exhale forcefully through the nose. Immediately afterwards inhale with the same force, fully expanding the abdominal muscles.
Step 3: Forcefully exhale via firm contraction of the abdominal muscles. Do not strain. During inhalation, the diaphragm descends and the abdomen moves outward. During exhalation, the diaphragm moves upward and the abdomen moves inward.
Step 4: The movements should be slightly exaggerated. Continue in this manner, counting 10 breaths.
Step 5: breathe normally and calm down
Third: Kapalabhati Pranayama (Skull Shining Breath)
Kapalabhati purifies the whole body by accelerating the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide and at the same time increases oxygen concentration thus cleansing the body. It also increases the metabolic rate of the body and boosts oxygen supply to the brain. This strengthens and balances the nervous system. The practice also tones the digestive organs and helps in respiratory disorders such as asthma, emphysema, bronchitis and tuberculosis.
I usually follow up Bhastrika breathing by Kapalabhati Pranayama, further fueling the Agni and warming up the body. Please start with fewer rounds and do not strain yourself while practising Kapalabhati breathing.
Word of caution: Kapalbhati should be avoided by those suffering from heart disease, high blood pressure, vertigo, epilepsy, stroke, hernia or gastric ulcer and during pregnancy.
Step 1: Sit in a comfortable meditation asana with your hands on your knees in Chin or jnana mudra. Close the eyes and relax the whole body.
Step 2: Exhale completely through both nostrils with a forceful contraction of the abdominal muscles. Inhale passively, allowing the abdominal muscles to gently relax. Complete 10 short bursts of exhalation in succession.
Step 3: Inhale and exhale slowly to calm down to complete one round. Practise 3-5 rounds.
Fourth: Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
My teacher always said if you do not have time to practice yoga, do bandhas and Nadi Shodhana pranayama. And rightfully so, as Nadi Shodhana is a complete practice in itself. From breath retention to rhythmic breathing, it has all the elements to quiet the mind. I would highly recommend following different stages and progress step by step. To know the preparatory steps in detail click here
Step 1: Sit comfortably and block your right nostril with your right thumb. Breathe in by taking a deep breath in from your left nostril. Feel the prana or the air flowing through the left nostril to the lungs.
Step 2: After complete inhalation from the left nostril, close your left nostril by ring & little finger. Release the right nostril and exhale. You can feel the relaxation increasing inside you.
Step 3: After complete exhalation through the right nostril, inhale deeply from the right nostril, while the left nostril is held shut with the help of your ring finger.
Step 4: Next, release the left nostril and exhale out completely. Breath normally and do not force your breath. This is one round and you can practice about 5-7 rounds.
You can also practice this technique with me on YouTube!
Finishing Practice: Diaphragmatic Breathing in Shavasana
I like to finish my pranayama practice with some deep relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing in Shavasana. I tune into my breath and do deep, slow, rhythmic breathing in the corpse pose. This is an excellent technique to relieve muscle tension and fatigue, tone the nervous system and calm the mind.
Step 1: Lay on your back. You can cover yourself with sheets or a blanket. Keep your palms facing upwards with fingers softly curled. Gently close your eyes. Allow the body to relax completely.
Step 2: Drop all your weight onto the floor. Get comfortable. Become aware of your breathing. Breathe through both nostrils with the lips lightly closed. Breathe deeply, softly and evenly.
Step 3: Let your breathing be quiet, free of noise. Let the depth of your breathing be within your capacity. Exhale and inhale deeply, softly and evenly.
Step 4: Now place one hand on your abdomen below the ribcage. Place the other hand on your chest. As you exhale, be aware of the downward movement of your abdomen. Let there be no movement of your chest. As you inhale, be aware of your abdomen rising upwards. Let there be no movement of your chest.
Step 5: Let your mind follow the flow of your breath. Between your chest and abdomen lies the diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle separating the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. When you exhale, pull the navel down towards your spine. Then relax your abdomen as you inhale. Be aware of your abdomen rising upwards, the diaphragm contracting and flattening, creating space and a vacuum to draw in the fresh air. Do not strain or hurry. Let your mind be aware of the calm and serene flow of your breath.
There are various other Pranayama techniques that are not listed above. Each of these techniques has its unique set of benefits. For example, Ujjayi Pranayama helps improve concentration and is amazing for the regulation of body temperature; and Bhramari Pranayama helps people with insomnia. A lot of times people skip out on Pranayama and only focus on Yoga postures. While Asanas have a very tangible result, the benefits of Pranayama can not be ignored. Moreover, to maximise the benefits of doing Yoga, a practice that involves Asanas, Pranayama and Meditation is required.