In yoga we call the branch dedicated to our breathing techniques Pranayama, which means breath control.
Breathing exercises are a huge part of any yoga practice, and they can be a very useful tool in our daily lives, too.
There are a bunch of different techniques you can try utilizing for different effects. Here are just a few, in no particular order.
Before you get started, it's always important to try to take a few relaxed breaths before and after each exercise. Start with just 30 seconds per exercise, building to longer increments of time as your body is ready. If you get dizzy, simply stop and relax for a few minutes, evening out your breath.
1. Lion's Breath
This breath control activity encourages a sudden release, and invites a little playfulness into the practice. This is one of the most fun breathing practices, especially for kids. It is also a great addition to an adult class on Friday evenings or Saturday mornings, when everyone is ready to let go of the week they have had, and embrace the weekend.
Lion's Breath involves inhaling deeply through your nose then leaning your head back and opening your mouth very wide to exhale loudly while sticking your tongue out. Try practicing this while rising your arms up on the inhale and forming cactus arms with your exhale to accentuate the relieving effects.
2. Breath of Fire
Used in Bikram classes, this practice is very warming, as the name itself implies. It is great for warming up the abdominal muscles and ignites Tapas, or heat, in the organs. This is superb for a practice that is focused on detoxing.
Practice Breath of Fire by sitting tall, inhaling gently through your nose, then vigorously pumping your exhale out through your nose while pulling your navel in repeatedly and in short spurts. Each pull in with your belly exerts another exhale quickly after the last. Make your inhales and exhales even in force, depth, and time.
3. Skull Cleanser
Otherwise known as Kapalabhati Breathing, this technique is another cleansing breath exercise that raises your energy level dramatically. Basically, it is the same as the Breath of Fire technique, but with a larger emphasis on the exhale, and with your arms straight up above your head to promote lymph circulation through the upper body.
Hold your hands in the mudra of your choice. For example, try Apana Mudra for invoking the future. Simply make your hands look like a dog's head with the ring and middle finger resting on your thumb in a triangle, stick your pinkie and pointer finger straight up like ears.
4. Three Part Breathing
This slow, smooth process is super relaxing and is wonderful for insomnia, anxiety, stress, and frustrating situations. Three Part Breathing calms the mind and soothes the muscles. It is a wonderful way to end a late evening practice or begin a restorative practice.
Start by placing one hand on your upper chest and the other on your navel. Inhale into your chest then your upper abdomen, and finally puff your belly out like a balloon. Slowly release the breath in the same way, smoothly exhaling the air from your belly, then your upper abdomen, then your chest.
5. Alternate Nostril Breathing
This breathing exercise takes focus and clarity to prevent getting confused and to remember where you are in the process. For this reason it is best used before an exam or when you are trying to ignite focus and discipline for any reason. Focusing in this way can be calming as it clears the mind, so many people will use it before bed if they tend to over think stuff at night.
Practice this technique by placing your right middle and pointer fingers in the palm of your hand leaving just your pinkie and ring fingers and your thumb free. Take your right thumb over your right nostril and inhale through the left nostril. Now take your ring finger and place it over your left nostril to exhale through the right nostril.
Next leave your hand as it is and inhale through the left nostril, then switch, placing your thumb over your right nostril and exhaling through the left nostril.
Repeat this until you are finished with your breathing exercise.
The first few times you try this one you may get your left and right confused. Don’t give up; you’re not alone in that struggle. Try to remember that each time you inhale you are sealing the breath in and that is when you switch sides.
6. Bellows Breath
Bellows Breath is very, very invigorating and is a wonderful way to begin an early morning Power yoga practice, or to wake yourself up in the middle of a meeting or long lecture.
Raise your hands up to the sky in little fists, or with the fingers splayed out wide. Inhale through your mouth and with every exhale, drop your elbows into your side body and make a "HA" sound from the bottom of your diaphragm.
Don’t be afraid to be loud here, as this is incredibly freeing and releases any pent up energy, stagnation, or frustrations very quickly.
7. Ujjayi Breath
This is the most used breathing technique, as it is easy to perform during your physical practice, no matter what type of practice you have. It is useful for calming the mind and the nervous system in tricky situations both on and off the mat. It sounds like the ocean and can cool you off very quickly.
Practice Ujjayi breathing by inhaling and exhaling through your nose. Drag the breath along the back of your throat so that it creates a gentle hissing sound and feels like sipping a cool drink through a straw. Try to make each inhale last as long as the exhale, and take each breath a little deeper than the last until your breathing is long and smooth.
Practice your breathing techniques as often as possible. Being able to control your breath will deepen your physical practice dramatically, and will help you take each posture longer, deeper, and more healthfully.
Beyond that, it will change your emotional health and allow you to stay cool as a cucumber in arduous situations down the line.
Which is your favorite yoga breathing technique to practice and why? Share with us in the comments below!