Pranayama, one of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, is the practice of mindful breathing as a means to expand our vital life-force and energy. In yoga, we aim to maintain this conscious breathing throughout the yoga practice as a way to stay focused and connected to our bodies. Deep breathing is a way of detoxing the body and is hugely beneficial to our health.
There are countless pranayama exercises, and yoga teachers will usually make use of them at the beginning and end of classes to calm the mind and body. You’ve probably heard of Alternate-Nostril Breathing, Ujjayi Breathing, or Counted Breath, but those are just the tip of the iceberg.
Check out these pranayama exercises you might not know, so that you can incorporate them into your yoga and mediation practice.
1. Sitali (Cooling Breath)
These pranayamas are ideal for cooling the body, and are a wonderful way to combat irritation brought on by excessive heat. This is great for hot summer days, or if you feel overwhelmed in a Hot yoga class.
There are a few different exercises that fall under Sitali. Before starting any of them, be sure to open the diaphragm with some deep breathing.
- Sitting tall with the head, neck, and spine in alignment, close your eyes and open your mouth into an "O" shape.
- Roll the tongue and stick it out of the mouth slightly.
- Inhale through the tongue as if you are drinking through a straw.
- Exhale through your nose.
Try this for 2 or 3 minutes.
If you can’t roll your tongue, you can simply stick out the tip of your tongue between the lips and inhale that way. Another variation is to touch the top teeth to the bottom and open the lips in a smile, breathing in through the teeth, and out through the nose.
This practice really does cool the body, so it’s best to practice in warm weather. Also, be sure that the air you are breathing in is close to body temperature so you don’t aggravate the lungs.
2. Kapala-bhati (Skull Shining Breath)
This breath is detoxifying, energizing, and helps to release negative emotions.
- Sit comfortably, possibly on a block or on bent knees so you can elongate the belly.
- Place the hands on the lower belly so you can isolate this area.
- Inhale deeply through the nostrils.
- Engage the lower belly.
- All at once, forcefully exhale all of the air out through the nostrils.
- Release the belly to passively inhale again.
This is a fast-paced breath that should be repeated 8-10 times. Go slowly at first to master the engagement of the lower belly, then work on a faster breath.
The goal is to inhale and exhale twice every second and perform up to 100 cycles.
Avoid this breath if pregnant and always be mindful of how your body responds. If you feel lightheaded, slow down so you can focus on inhaling plenty of air.
3. Chandra-bhedana and Surya-bhedana (Single Nostril Breathing)
These exercises isolate the inhale and exhale to one nostril. By doing so, we bring into balance the right and left sides of our bodies.
The right is said to be associated with the sun and characterized by heat. The left side is connected to the moon, and cooling. Balancing the energy of the two hemispheres of the body has a harmonizing effect which promotes overall health and happiness.
Chandra-bhedana is said to quiet the brain and cool the body by inhaling on the left (moon) side. Surya-bhedana stimulates the brain and heats the body by breathing in on the right (sun) side. The ideal practice for you depends on the current state of your body and mind.
- Sit comfortably.
- Use the pinky and ring finger of the left hand to close the right nostril.
- Breathe in through the left nostril.
- Close the left nostril with the thumb and release the right side.
- Exhale through the right nostril.
- Continue breathing in through the left and out through the right for 1 to 3 minutes.
To perform Surya-bhedana, switch hands so you inhale on the right side and exhale on the left.
You should not practice both sides on the same day, as it is usually one side that is out of balance and needs to be engaged. People with high blood pressure or heart disease should be cautious with this exercise.
Incorporating pranayama into your yoga practice is just as important as the physical asanas. There are so many wonderful exercises to bring balance, detoxification, and vital health to your body. As with any new practice, it is a good idea to work with an experienced teacher to make sure that you’re performing these correctly and keeping your body safe.
Which are your favorite pranayamas to practice? Share them with us below!