One of the interesting things about breathing is that it can be a conscious or an autonomic behavior. In other words, you don’t have to think about breathing in order to make it happen. Whether you’re asleep, focusing on the job, or running the household, it just happens on its own. Put another way, you don’t always have the opportunity to practice a pranayama by taking conscious control over your breath.
Now, there are limits to what you can do when controlling your breath. (Most of us have tried to hold our breath for as long as possible and wisely given in before we pass out as our body’s way of ensuring we continue to breathe.) Yet, as a calming exercise, as a means for reducing anxiety and depression, as a way to manage sinus allergies and congestion, as a way to improve your respiration, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal health, there are any number of pranayama that can make a big difference.
Except where otherwise noticed, every pranayama starts with a few deep breaths in an asana—a comfortable seated position but with upright posture and lengthening the spine.
The Breath of Victory
Also known as Conqueror Breath or Victorious Breath, this is an essential pranayama practice and the foundation for several other breathing exercises. First, you’ll inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth, constricting the muscles at the back of the throat so that when the breath passes over these muscles it makes a hissing sound, then exhaling through the mouth like saying “HAAAA” or the sound of a seashell/ocean wave. Do this a couple times, then repeat the process except you’ll exhale out of the nose, again creating a slight hissing sound.
This is another popular pranayama and can be done in a seated position or on your back. This technique is exactly what it sounds like and goes from the bottom up. First, you’ll breathe into your lower abdomen, then your mid-abdomen and mid-back, and then your chest and shoulders. You’ll pause for a moment at each stage before proceeding to the next. Finally, you’ll let out the entire breath in a slow exhale.
Start with some ujjiya breathing or a few deep breaths. Next, tilt your chin in toward your chest and pull up your pelvic floor in a Kegel exercise or Mula bandha. Take a full inhale and then hold your breath for 2 ohms (or two breaths worth). When retaining the breath in this manner, many yoga instructors and other pranayama experts suggest imagining that the ribs are hugging the lungs. At the beginning of the exhale, release your pelvic floor and at the end of the exhale raise your head back up to level. This can get pretty intense, pretty quickly. Do not try this exercise on successive breaths unless you’re well-practiced.
Nadi Shodhana Pranayama
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Nadi Shodhana Pranayama is also known as channel-cleaning breath. Other virtually identical alternate nostril techniques are known as Svara Yoga Pranayama (Yoga of Sound Breath) and Anulom/Vilom Pranayama. Regardless, alternate nostril breathing is a great way to open up the nasal passageways by focusing on each individual nostril. Begin by warming up with a few deep breaths. When you’re ready, use the thumb of your right hand to your nose and close the right nostril. Exhale slowly but fully, then inhale slowly but fully. Imagine the breath traveling from your pelvic floor through your lungs and nasal passageways into the crown of your head. Next, use the pinky and ring fingers of the right hand to close the left nostril, and repeat the process by imagining the breath traveling as slow as you can manage from crown to pelvis back to crown. Pausing slightly at the top and bottom of each breath. Continue for five breaths or 5-10 minutes.
Surya/Chandra Bhedana Pranayama
Single Nostril Breathing
This is similar to alternate nostril breathing. Instead of inhaling and exhaling through the same nostril and then alternating the flow, this pranayama always inhales and exhales from different nostril, while isolating a single nasal pathway. Surya Bhedana, or Sun-Piercing Breath, has you plug your left nostril at first and inhale through the right. Then, while holding the breath in, you close the right nostril and exhale through the left. Continue this breathing pattern for 1-2 minutes, then switch the pattern by inhaling through the left and exhaling through the right. This part of the Pranayama is called Chandra Bhedana or Moon-Piercing Breath.
This, too, can be done seated or standing. First, open your arms wide like you’re about to give someone a huge bear hug. Then, exhale and inhale forcefully and rapidly through the nose. Go quickly but not too quickly. A cycle per second should enable you to keep your head, neck, and shoulders still while the abdomen moves the breath. Alternate between periods of rapid breath and periods of rest, each between 15-30 seconds long.
Skull Shining Breath
We sometimes think of this as upward facing pump breath, both because the rapid exhalation makes us think of resetting a hydraulic pump and because it reminds to keep length through the spine. After establishing your breath, squeeze your abdomen in during the exhale, then slowly, gently release your abdominal muscles during the inhale. Then, make a complete and forceful exhale without compromising your posture. The goal is to let the inhalation become about 4 times as long as the exhale. This, too, can get unexpected intense. Discontinue if you start to feel dizzy. At the end of this practice, if you’re up for it, you’ll hold the inhale for up to 30 seconds before exhaling. Then, reset your breathing with a handful of deep full breaths.
You don’t need to have a natural sense of rhythm to practice rhythmic breathing, though you can certainly develop your sense of rhythm through this practice. All you need to be able to do is count. After warming up with a few deep breaths, begin by doing a 4-count (1,2,3,4) on the inhale, hold for a 2-count, then do another 4-count as you exhale and rest for another 2-count. Repeat 5-10 times. As you become more practiced, you can lengthen your counts while always maintaining a 2:1:2:1 ratio. So a 6-count inhale creates a 3-count hold. An 8-count inhale creates a 4-count hold. A related practice, Sukha Purvaka pranayama, uses equal counts for the inhale, hold, exhale, hold.
Yep, you’re going to sound like a bee, but perhaps the real telltale sign is pressing your fingers into the cartilage just outside your ear between the cheek and temple (or sideburns). Take a deep inhale and as you exhale, gently push on the soft piece of cartilage and make a high-pitched humming sound—not a hiss like a snake—but a hum, preferably a high-pitched one, like a bee. Repeat 5-10 times.
Take a couple deep breaths to begin your controlled breath. Then, open your mouth into an “O” shape and inhale through the mouth. Hold for just a moment, then exhale through the nose. Do this for 5-10 breaths, then rest. Repeat as necessary until you feel properly “chilled.” Some practitioners also use a rolled tongue in lieu of a fully open “O” shape.
The Outside or External Breath
This pranayama involves engaging the three bandhas (chin into chest/Jalandhar; sucking the stomach in/Uddiyana; and lifting the groin or pelvic floor/Mulabandha) upon the completion of an exhale. So take several deep breaths to begin. Then inhale and exhale completely and contract these three muscle groups for 10-20 seconds—or however long you can manage. Repeat this practice for up to 5 minutes. For a great companion practice, check out Agnisar Kriya.
This is the classic Ohm chant and breathing. Find your seated position and warm up the breath. Then, close your eyes and mouth, and take a deep breath through the nose. As you slowly exhale, begin the Ohm chant and try to extend the chant and the exhaling breath for up to 20 seconds. Don’t let your preconceptions about the Ohm chant make you think this practice doesn’t require effort and practice. The chant should spend the vast majority of the time emphasizing the OOOOOOO, while capping off the chant with the MMMMMM consonant. Do at least a handful of chant breaths per session to advance your practice.