By Eric Santagada
Most people give little thought to their breathing. The ancient yogis, on the other hand, have spent countless lifetimes practicing and refining optimal breathing techniques. Their results led to an astounding conclusion – vibrant health, long life, mental clarity, and happiness are the fruits of effective breathing. As it turns out, the answer has been under our noses the whole time. The yogis call these breathing exercises ‘pranayama’, which means “regulation of the life force.”
In fact, breathing is seen as so simple that most modern people will brush off these yoga breathing exercises as silly and won’t even try them. The benefits must be experienced to be understood. Do yourself a favor and breathe more deeply!
1. The Complete Yogi Breath
Let’s cut to the chase – this breathing technique is the one we all really need and want. It can be done anywhere, anytime.
The basic principle is to fill up our entire abdomen and chest with air, like a wave, from the bottom up, flooding our entire body with fresh life force. This internal process also stretches our spine, tones our internal organs, and increases circulation throughout the body.
Exhale everything completely, so your belly hollows out. After a brief pause, slowly inhale down into the deepest part of your belly*. Feel your belly expand outward. Once the belly is totally full, move your awareness to your lower back and sides, filling them with air next. Once they are full of air, move your awareness to your ribs, filling the mid-section of your abdomen and allowing the ribs to puff out. Lastly, fill the upper chest, all the way up to the collarbones, lifting the heart and coming into a tall posture as you relish a moment of complete fullness at the top of the breath. The whole inhale can be done in a few seconds, or stretched out to 15 seconds or more.
*It might be helpful to visualize the air as water being poured into a cup. It enters at the top, but gathers at the bottom first, then the middle, then the top.
For the exhale, keep the posture tall and the chest lifted. First, allow the belly to empty and come in towards the spine, then empty the mid-torso, and finally empty the chest. Ideally, the exhale should be longer than the inhale, or at least of equal length.
A standard ratio is 2:1:2:1:
- 6 count in
- 3 count hold
- 6 count out
- 3 count hold.
Or 10 count in, 5 hold, etc.
Stay In Touch With Being Zen
2. Victorious breath – Ujjayi Pranayama
This technique is a favorite of yogis everywhere. It is known by many names – ocean breath, nasal throat breath, conquering breath – even darth vader breath!
The basic technique is to breathe through the nose slowly and steadily, slightly constricting the throat so that an audible sound is created. When done correctly, it sounds like a faraway ocean tide.* It should be calm and controlled, never forced.
*Another way to explain it is to pretend you are fogging up a mirror with your breath – “ahhhh”, and then do the same thing but close your mouth. Aim for the same sound on inhale and exhale.
You want the inhale and exhale to be equal lengths, long and slow. Ujjayi has many benefits – The constriction gives fine control over the breath quality, it creates friction, heat, and muscle tone in the throat, and the sound gives us something to focus on, to stay present in the moment.
Many yogis come to love Ujjayi breath, and do it all the time. In the car, in line at the post office, and of course, when practicing asanas (yoga postures)!
3. Shining Skull Breath – Kapalabhati Pranayama
This is one of the most powerful yogic breathing techniques, and can have a surprising effect on our consciousness. The name gives us a clue to its efficacy. As an advanced pranayama technique, make sure you have mastered the first two exercises before trying this one.
The air in our lungs can easily gather at the bottom and get stale. This technique forces all the old air out, stokes our internal fire, tones our internal organs, and creates a vacuum for new life to rush in. This practice is highly invigorating, creating heat, light and mental clarity. Try it first thing in the morning for a serious wake-up call.
Sit comfortably with spine erect. Inhale deeply. 30 times in a row, exhale quickly and forcefully through the nose, while contracting the belly towards the spine on each exhale. This audible exhale can be done as quickly as four-times per second, or as slowly as once every second. Allow an easy, natural, imperceptible inhale between each exhale. After 30 exhales, take a full breath in through the nose, and exhale slowly. Take a few quiet moments to center yourself. Repeat the cycle as necessary, and then notice if your skull feels like it is shining!
4. Alternate Nostril Breathing – Nadi Shodhana
Have you ever wondered why you have two nostrils? The yogis have plenty to say on the subject.
The ancient yogis found that the right nostril corresponds to the left hemisphere of the brain, and the left nostril corresponds to the right hemisphere, through energy channels known as “nadis.” There are many nadis in the body, with the main two beginning at the nostrils, reaching up to the brain, and traveling down around the spine in a double helix shape.
The yogis also believe that at any given time, one nostril is dominant, and therefore, one side of the brain is dominant. This naturally switches every hour or so throughout the day. By practicing this alternate nostril breathing, we can intentionally balance and activate both sides of the brain.
Sit comfortably, with spine erect. The left arm rests on the thigh or lap. Bring the right hand to the face. The thumb regulates the right nostril, the ring and pinky fingers regulate the left nostril, and the middle and pointer fingers can rest on the forehead between the eyebrows.
- Begin by exhaling everything.
- Close the left nostril, and inhale through the right nostril, for a six count.
- Hold the air in and close both nostrils for a three count.
- Exhale through the left nostril for a six count.
- Hold the air out and close both nostrils for a three count.
- Inhale through the left nostril only for a six count.
- Hold the air in, closing both nostrils, for a three count.
- Exhale through the right nostril for a six count.
- Hold the air out and close both nostrils for a three count.
That makes one full cycle – aim to do six cycles at a time. That’s 12 inhales, total. As your lung capacity increases, increase the counts, but keep the same ratio of 2:1:2:1 (two in, one hold, two out, one hold.)
5. Go Outside (Or Open A Window)
The yogic mentality is “get back to nature.” Fresh air, the kind found outside, is the very best for human health. Our hermetically sealed bedrooms and offices, filled with stale, stuffy air, are very bad for us. We exhale toxins, so unless there is a constant supply of fresh air, we end up breathing in each other’s waste products, and our body does not get the oxygen and energy it needs to function optimally.
Who has not woken up in a hot, stuffy room, irritable and exhausted, unable to think straight? Next time this happens, step out of doors, and take 10 complete yogi breaths (see #1 above). You will feel yourself instantly fill with new energy, and will truly understand the power of breath.
First, realize intellectually that airflow circulation is of primary importance. Wherever you find yourself, open a window or two until you feel fresh crosscurrents. If you can’t be near open windows, take frequent breaks to walk outside and use that time primarily to breathe as deeply as you can.
When preparing for sleep, place your head near an open window, if possible. In winter, open it just enough to keep the air moving, and pile on the blankets. The importance of fresh air cannot be overstated!
6. Always Breathe Through The Nose
There are several reasons to always and only breathe through the nose.
The thousands of hairs in our nose act as a filter, protecting us from particles and pathogens in the air. The yogis maintain that mouth-breathing is a main cause of catching contagious disease. Breathing through the mouth also dries the mouth and throat, leading to irritation.
In addition, the nasal passage is longer and windier than the throat, which allows the air to be cooled or heated, moistened or dried, to an appropriate level before reaching the lungs.
On a more esoteric level, much of the prana—or life force—in the air is absorbed through our nasal cavity, not in the lungs. By breathing through the mouth, we are not getting as much prana.
7. Being Breath Meditation
The breath happens whether we think about it or not. It is one of the only bodily functions that works both voluntarily and involuntarily. After all of these exercises, it can be extremely restful and centering to relinquish control, and simply watch the breath as it happens.
Sit comfortably, with your spine erect. Your eyes can be open or closed. Bring your attention to your breath. Do not attempt to alter or control it – simply observe. Notice the feeling of the belly and chest rising and falling, and the temperature of the air passing over the nostrils. Concentrate your mind wholly on breathing, be conscious of nothing else. If your thoughts begin to wander, as they will, gently draw them back to the breath, without judgment. This is at once the simplest and most advanced meditation. For more on meditation, check out this article: Meditation For Busy People.
Why Yoga Breathing Techniques Are Important
Throughout life, the breath is a constant companion, more vital than even food and water. By practicing these simple, ancient techniques, we can improve the quality of our breath and therefore the quality of our lives. If you practice earnestly, in a few weeks you will have such increased vibrancy and clarity that you will wonder where you have been all these years.
Enjoy the exercises, and please leave a comment. Peace and thanks to you!