Understanding Pranayama: How It Can Help You Power Through When Things Get Tough

Marisa Brenizer
Understanding Pranayama: How It Can Help You Power Through When Things Get Tough

Pranayama (breath control) is the yogic practice of working with the breath to increase energy, inspire enlightenment, and simply calm the mind.

Thankfully, you don’t need a yoga mat or any other special tool to dive into pranayama; you can practice these breathing techniques on or off the mat. All it takes is finding a place to rest and shifting your focus to the breath.

1. Breath Awareness

When was the last time you paused and focused on your breath? In doing so, we often realize that we’re not breathing regularly, or taking full, deep breaths. In fact, simply becoming more aware of the breath can inspire us to breathe more deeply.. 

Choose a quiet place to sit or lie down, taking care to turn off any music or distractions (listening to the breath is a part of the process, after all). Then, simply be present with your breathing. Not making any adjustments - simply observing. 

This sounds easier than it is for some, since many of us will feel the urge to micromanage the breath as soon as we find any fault! Consider breath awareness to be the first layer of pranayama; taking the “temperature” of the breath, so to speak, in order to compare and contrast.

2. Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadhi Sodhana)

If you tend to overthink or experience anxiety, alternate nostril breathing is the way to go. It may feel a bit awkward at first, but you can trust that it does wonders for balancing the mind.

Sitting or lying down in a relaxed position, press your right thumb against your right nostril and breathe deeply through the left nostril. At the top of the breath, close your left nostril with your ring finger and exhale through the right nostril. Inhale through the right side while once again closing the left nostril, and then exhale through the left. 

Repeat the process a few times, respecting your natural breath and tolerance level.

3.Ocean Breath/Conqueror Breath (Ujjayi) 

You might want to practice this one in private (or, at least, avoid the library). Ocean breath can be a bit noisy, hence the moniker. You can practice this pranayamic technique in any convenient position or asana, during your yoga practice or any time you need to calm intense emotions. 

Inhale deeply through the nose, contract the back of your throat, and fire up the breath as you exhale (with your mouth closed). Your breath should sound strong and active, sounding a little like rolling waves. This contraction of the vocal chords can be an unusual sensation for your body, and when done too forcefully can be stress-inducing rather than stress relieving. So try to create an ujjayi breath that is only heard by you to make sure that you’re not putting your vocal chords or larynx under too much stress.. 

And, after your awareness becomes more constant, gently close the mouth and breathe solely through the nose (continuing to engage the throat and listen to your “waves”).

4. Cooling Breath (Sitali Pranayama)

Hot-headed? This breathing technique is even better than the “count to ten” method. Cooling breath can help you release addictions and anxiety, too, as well increase your energy and sense of power over stressful situations.

Sit up straight, close your eyes, and roll your tongue upwards in a tight curl. It can be a bit tricky to assume the position, so simply imagine that you’re making an “o” or “u” shape with the tongue, leaving only enough of a gap for a straw to fit through, allowing it to protrude slightly from the mouth. Then breathe in deeply, feeling the cool air running over your tongue. After the inhale, close the mouth and exhale through the nose. Repeat the process again, pausing in between to take a few natural breaths if your mouth feels any strain.

When the going gets tough, the breath gets going! It’s up to us whether that breath lends to our stress or eases it. Practicing daily breath awareness and trying new pranayamas gives us the calm and control to power through anything.