Types of Pranayama
Pranayama has a multitude of benefits for both you and your Yoga practice, including increased focus, proper posture, and regulation of your sympathetic nervous system. Sounds pretty great, right? We’re reviewing the types of Pranayama and how to incorporate them into your routine. For Pranayama basics, click here.
Known also as alternative nostril breathing, Nadhi Sodhana is a relaxed, balanced breathing exercise used to calm the nervous system and promote sleep. By increasing the amount of oxygen taken into the body, it is believed that you can slow heart rate, lower blood pressure, calm the mind, and promote concentration.
How to do it: Sit in a comfortable position with straight but natural curvature in back. Using the thumb of your right hand, block your right nostril and inhale through your left nostril only. Be sure to inhale into your belly by expanding your diaphragm. Once you are full of breath, seal your left nostril with the ring finger of the same hand, keeping your right nostril closed, and hold the breath for a moment. Then release your thumb and exhale through your right nostril only. Be sure to exhale all the breath out of the right side by contracting the diaphragm (lifting it towards your heart). A complete cycle of breath includes an inhalation and exhalation through both nostrils. If you’re just starting out, you can do a four-count inhale, then exhale for four counts. Perform up to ten cycles and notice how your body responds. As your practice progresses, you may extend the length of your inhales and exhales and/or incorporate kumbakhas.
Also known as “bellows breath” or “breath of fire”, Bhastrika brings heat and energy to the body, stimulates the nervous system, and increases enthusiasm. Bhastrika is a vigorous practice of forced active inhalations and exhalations that depend on the expansion and contraction of the abdominal muscles and diaphragm.
How to do it: Sit comfortably with a straight back, leaving a natural curve in the lower spine. Begin with one breath per second, and repeat 10-12 times. Relax and breathe regularly for 30-60 seconds. Repeat the cycle 1-2 more times. Gradually increase the number of repetitions of Bhastrika, and decrease the intervals of regular breathing cycles in between.
“Skull shining breath,” or Kapalabhati, is a cleansing breath. This forced, active breathing technique helps clear mucus from air passages, relieves congestion and bloating, and improves lung strength and capacity. Kapalabhati is a type of Pranayama that is invigorating, increases energy, and produces heat. This is an excellent Pranayama to do in the morning to cultivate energy and heat, or when you are feeling sluggish. It is also helpful if you are suffering from congestion or feeling bloated.
How to do it: Sit comfortably with a straight back, leaving a natural curve in the lower spine. Inhale and exhale completely. Inhale completely using the distention of your diaphragm and abdomen, then forcefully and quickly exhale. During the exhale, your diaphragm will contract actively upwards toward your heart, while your abdominal muscles pull in tightly toward your spine and upward toward your heart. Kapalabhati is often combined with other types of Pranayama in advanced practices. Do not do Kapalabhati if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, or are pregnant. Avoid right after eating.
Sitali means “cooling,” which helps to explain why we incorporate this method of Pranayam when we want to slow down or reverse the heating process in the body. It is helpful in summer, hot climates, at the end of a vigorous practice, and for Pitta Doshas
How to do it: Roll your tongue to form a tube shape. If you can’t roll your tongue, keep your tongue flat and make an oval shape with your mouth. Inhale through your rolled tongue (or oval shaped mouth) slowly and completely; it may make a hissing sound. You will notice the air feels cool. When your inhale is finished, close your mouth and seal your lips. You may exhale through your nostrils. In advanced practices, Sitali may be combined with Nadhi Shodhana or other types of Pranayama.
Kumbhaka is the pause between the inhalation and exhalation, the state where there is no active inhale or exhale. The pause after the inhale is specifically referred to as Antara Kumbhaka; whereas the pause after exhalation is referred to as Bahya Kumbhaka. Kumbhaka is believed to strengthen the diaphragm, develop mind control, restore energy, and cleanse the respiratory system.
How to do it: inhale and exhale completely to prepare. Slowly and steadily inhale until you have a sense of fullness in the chest, but without exaggeration. Retain your breath for 10 seconds (or preferably for the same amount of time it took for your inhalation). Ensure face, neck, and shoulder muscles remain relaxed. Exhale completely, but slowly and naturally. Take a few moments to relax. Consider this one cycle. Repeat several times. Kumbhakas are traditionally combined with other Pranayamas. Kumbhakas are recommended for adults. Do not do Kumbhakas if you have heart disease or high blood pressure.
Also known as “square” breathing, or “same,” Sama Vritti is a technique where the length of inhale, exhale, and Kumbhakas are all equal. Sama Vritti is good for restoring calm, order, and regularity to breathing. It helps to promote centering of mind and sleep, and quiets mental chatter. In the presence of high blood pressure, glaucoma, or heart disease, forego Kumbhakas and instead do equal inhales and exhales.
How to do it: Sit in a comfortable position, both hands resting comfortably on knees with palms either up or down. Inhale and exhale completely to prepare. Begin by inhaling to a count of four, hold the breath (Antara Kumbhaka) for four counts, exhale for four counts, then hold the exhale for four counts (Bahya Kumbhaka). Consider this one cycle. Repeat for 3-5 minutes. Sama Vritti is an excellent way to begin your regular Pranayama practice, as it helps establish focus, clarity of mind, and slows breathing.
As an essential body function, breathing is an involuntary act. Although we cannot control whether or not we breathe, we can consciously regulate our breathing rate, depth, and rhythm, thereby affecting our nervous system. Integrating a regular Pranayama practice, which includes deliberate methods of inhalation, exhalation, and breath retention can have far-reaching, long-term physical and mental benefits. As an added bonus, it’s been said that aging is proportional to metabolism, which is directly related to respiratory rate. Pranayama may be the most accessible and budget-friendly anti-aging trick on the street.