Your breath practice, or pranayama, is one of the most important aspects of your entire life. You can go weeks without food and water, a few days without sleep but only a handful of minutes without air. Breath can be used to calm you or bring your energy up. It can warm you up and also cool you down. It also can bring back a sense of balance when you’re feeling fragmented. The quality of your breath translates to the quality of your yoga or meditation practice. If your breathing is shallow and forced your practice will reflect those same qualities. Conversely breath that is steady and full will guide the body through practice with grace and ease. I’ve broken down five breath exercises for you to incorporate into your yoga or meditation practice.
The very foundation for all other pranayama practices. Seems simple enough but requires mindfulness. A slow inhale through the nose for a count of four and an exhale through the nose for the same steady four count. As you become more familiar with this breath practice you can begin to lengthen the count of your inhale and exhale.
This pranayama practice is a cooling one and meant to help dissipate excess heat. Not only is this a helpful tool in cooling down after a sweaty vinyasa practice but also throughout your day if you tend to be on the warmer side. I’ve demonstrated by sucking the air in through my teeth however you can also do this practice with pursed lips or a rolled tongue. Focus on the cool air drawing across the tongue and to the back of the throat, exhale all the warm air out through your nose. Repeat as many times as needed to chill out.
Also known as the Skull-Shining Breath (interesting imagery) this pranayama practice is designed to clear out any stagnant energy or fogginess in the mind. It also is a warming breath practice and you’ll definitely feel the heat after a few rounds. Emphasis is centered on the sharp, quick exhale while the slightly longer inhale will happen spontaneously. In addition to focusing on the exhale you want to bring your awareness to toning the lower abdomen in towards the spine and upwards towards the ribcage. If this is your first time practicing Kapalabhati I suggest stating with 10-20 breaths and working your way up as you become more comfortable.
Sometimes called a cleansing breath this one is exactly as it sounds. Breathe in through the nose, breathe out through the mouth. Simple, easy and effective. Every class I teach begins with clearing breaths to help students release any tension and stress that may still be lingering. I often mention taking a few minutes before your asana practice to center yourself and this breath practice is an excellent way to do just that. Alongside Sitali clearing breaths are also useful in releasing excess heat. While there are no requirements for how long to inhale and exhale I would start with your equal four count and then try extending your exhale. Lengthening the exhale signals to the nervous system that it is safe to relax and rest.
Alternate Nostril Breathing/Channel-Clearing breath aids in balancing an uneasy, restless mind. Helpful in reducing stress, anxiety and insomnia as well as providing the mind with clarity and focus. This is one of the most complex pranayama practices so if it feels strange at first that’s perfectly normal. It takes time to find your rhythm so stick with it and try not to overthink the practice. Begin by placing your right hand in front of your face. If your right hand is non-existent or out of commission you may use your left hand just swap the ring finger and thumb placement. Rest your thumb on your right nostril, your index and middle on the bridge of your nose or between the eyebrows and your ring finger on your left nostril. Take a clearing breath first and then close off right nostril with your thumb. Inhale through left nostril, close it off with your ring finger, lift your thumb and exhale out of right nostril. Take a breath in through right nostril, close it off with your thumb, lift your ring finger and exhale through left nostril. This completes one round. Continue the cycle as many times as you need until you feel centered and calm. It’s important that you begin the practice with an inhale through the left nostril and finish the practice with an exhale out of the left nostril. A count of four in and a count of four out is a great ratio to start with however you may shorten/lengthen your count to meet your needs.
These are just a few of the many pranayama practices that exist so if you enjoy this aspect I encourage you to explore other practices. I also strongly urge you to practice pranayama with the guide of a certified yoga instructor especially if this is your first time dabbling. Pranayama is a powerful tool so it’s important to take caution when practicing. Listen to your body’s signals and ease back if you begin to feel dizzy or lightheaded. One last thing to be mindful of are any medical conditions or contraindications that you may have. Consult your doctor if you have any concerns regarding pranayama and your health.