The word Prana refers to the “Life Force Energy” within us, the very essence that keeps us alive. It manifests in the body as breath, thus making breathwork one way to control, expand and direct this energy. Pranayama utilizes breathing to influence the flow of Prana in the Nadis (energy channels) of the energy body.
How we breathe plays an essential role in the body: Our mind is linked to the flow of life energy within our physical body. By directing this flow, we are able to influence the mind and reach a state of calmness. Pranayama provides the tools to go beyond one’s boundaries and attain a higher vibration.
Here is our introduction to the many different breathing techniques: from calming breaths such as Nadi Shodana to activating breaths like Kapalbhati or Bhastrika Pranayama.
Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath)
The Sanskrit word ujjayi means ‘victorious’. While Ujjayi Pranayama is classified as a tranquilizing pranayama, it also has a heating effect on the body.
If you are a Vinyasa Yogi, you are probably familiar with this breathing technique. It is commonly practiced in Vinyasa classes, allowing the mind to anchor on the subtle sound of the breath, which is why Ujjayi Pranayama is also known as the ‘ocean breath’.
Ujjayi Pranayama can be practiced in any position: standing, sitting or lying down.
- First, bring your awareness to the breath, allowing it to become calm and rhythmic.
- After some time, shift your focus to the throat. As the breathing becomes slower and deeper, gently contract your throat so that you hear a soft “rushing” sound. If this is practiced correctly there will be a simultaneous, effortless contraction of the abdomen.
- Throughout your practice, keep your awareness on the sound produced by the breath in the throat.
Samma Vritti Pranayama (Equal Breath)
This breathing technique is calming and relaxing, allowing the fluctuations of the mind to settle and bringing awareness to deeper levels of being. By counting the breath, you direct your focus inward, away from external distractions – this process is called pratyahara.
- Inhalation (Puraka): Breathe in through your nose, slowly counting to four.
- Full retention (Antara Kumbhaka): Feel the air filling your lungs. Hold your breath here and slowly count to four again.
- Exhalation (Rechaka): Slowly exhale to the count of four. Feel your muscles softening.
- Void retention (Bahya Kumbhaka): Hold the void retention for another four counts.
Repeat these steps until you feel calm and centered. Gradually, by practice, you can expand the length of the inhalations, exhalations, and retentions, while keeping them in balance.
Nadi Shodana Pranayama (Alternate Nostril Breath)
According to yogic knowledge, we have thousands of energy channels (Nadi) running through our subtle bodies. Three of them are considered most important: Sushumna Nadi (central energy channel), Ida Nadi (lunar energy channel) and Pingala Nadi (solar energy channel).
Through the practice of Nadi Shodana Pranayama, we can purify these energy channels. By balancing our energy, we calm the rhythm of the heart and the mind. If you want to lower your levels of stress and anxiety, this is a great technique as it soothes the nervous system.
Hold the fingers of your right hand in front of your face. Rest the index and middle fingers gently between the eyebrows. Use your thumb to close the right nostril and the ring finger to close the left nostril.
- Close your right nostril with your thumb, and inhale through the left nostril.
- Close the left nostril with your ring finger, and exhale through the right nostril.
- Next, inhale through the right nostril.
- Close the right nostril and open the left for the exhalation.
This is one round of Nadi Shodana Pranayama. Practice around 5 to 10 rounds, making sure the length of in- and exhalation remains the same.
Sheetali Pranayama (Cooling Breath)
The Sanskrit word Sheetali is derived from the root sheet which means “cold” because this practice cools the body and the mind. It reduces mental and emotional agitation, inducing muscular relaxation and mental tranquility. Sheetali Pranayama also encourages the free flow of prana throughout the body.
- Extend your tongue outside your mouth as far as possible, without discomfort.
- Roll the sides of the tongue up so that it forms a tube. Inhale and draw the breath in through this tube.
- At the end of the inhalation, draw your tongue in, close your mouth, and exhale through the nose.
Practice several rounds, especially during hot weather or after a heating asana practice, until the temperature balance in your body is restored.
Kapalbhati Pranayama (Skull Shining Breath)
Kapalbhati Pranayama is an activating breath used to energize the mind, remove sleepiness, and prepare for meditation. On a physical level, it tones the digestive organs and has a cleansing effect on the lungs.
- Inhale halfway.
- Exhale through both nostrils with a forceful contraction of the abdominal muscles, drawing the belly in.
- The following inhalation should happen effortlessly and passively by allowing the abdominal muscles to relax fully.
- After completing ten rapid breaths in succession, breathe deeply in and out. Allow your breath to return to normal. This is one round. Practice up to 5 rounds.
It is important that the rapid breathing comes from the abdomen while the shoulders and chest remain relaxed.
Bhastrika Pranayama (Bellows Breath)
The Sanskrit word Bhastrika means “bellows” because the abdomen pumps the breath like the bellows used by a blacksmith. It is also called “Breath of Fire” because this dynamic pranayama practice increases the flow of air, stoking the inner fire of mind and body.
- Take a deep breath in.
- Breathe out forcefully through the nostrils, contracting the abdominal muscles. Immediately afterward breathe in with the same force, pushing the abdomen fully out.
- Continue breathing in this manner, counting 10 breaths. After 10 breaths, take a deep breath in and breathe out slowly. This is one round. Practice up to 5 rounds.
Although Kapalabhati and Bhastrika have a lot of similarities, there are important differences. Bhastrika uses force on both inhalation and exhalation, expanding and contracting the lungs above and below their resting or basic volume. Kapalabhati, on the other hand, actively reduces the volume of air in the lungs below this level through forced exhalation.
Pranayama is only one of eight limbs that were described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali over 2000 years ago. Each of the eight limbs covers a different aspect of yoga: From the outer limbs that focus on the physical body and one’s interaction with the external world, to the inner limbs that focus on developing one’s internal world.