The Sanskrit word bhastrika means ‘bellows’. Thus, Bhastrika Pranayama is also known as the bellows breath, as air is drawn forcefully in and out of the lungs like the bellows of a village blacksmith.
The bellows increases the flow of air into the fire, producing more heat. Similarly, Bhastrika Pranayama increases the flow of air into the body to produce inner heat at both the physical and subtle levels, stoking the inner fire of mind/body– Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati
Also known as bellows breath for its heating effect on the body, Bhastrika Pranayama is a powerful breathing exercise that has been practiced for centuries, heralded for its many physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits.
The technique uses the diaphragm and abdominal muscles as a pump to produce deep and rapid breathing in which both the inhalation and exhalation are active and emphasized (which separates it from kapalabhati, in which only the inhalation is active).
In this article, we’ll be exploring the various techniques of Bhastrika Pranayama in detail, including their benefits, precautions, and step-by-step instructions for each.
In this article, we’ll be looking at:
- The Benefits of Bhastrika Pranayama
- Precautions & Contraindications
- 3 Variations of Bhastrika Pranayama and How to Practice Them
The Benefits of Bhastrika Pranayama
Bhastrika Pranayama has been heralded for years due to its various physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits. Some of these include:
#1: Increases lung function
Bhastrika has been shown in studies to help expand lung capacity, improve oxygenation, and increase the efficiency of the respiratory system. The practice also helps to strengthen the diaphragm and abdominal muscles – both of which help to improve lung function.
#2: Improves digestion
Bhastrika also has been shown to stimulate the digestive system, improve gut flora, and promote the secretion of digestive juices and enzymes, which improves metabolism and nutrient absorption.
#3: Strengthens the immune system
Bhastrika increases the oxygen supply to the body.
This increases “gas exchange” in each cell, promoting the detoxification of waste in the cells, which may contribute to a stronger immune system.
#4: Boosts energy levels
The deep and rapid breaths in bhastrika have also been shown in studies to help increase energy levels, alertness and reduce fatigue by increasing the oxygen supply to the body.
#1: Reduces anxiety & enhances mood
Through the calm, breath regulation, and single-pointed focus involved in bhastrika, the practice has also been shown in studies to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, helping to calm the mind and reduce stress and anxiety.
Studies have also shown the repeated practice of bhastrika promotes the release of endorphins, actively encouraging a more positive and elevated mood.
#2: Improves concentration
Through its meditative focus on equalizing the breath and by increasing oxygenation to the brain, bhastrika also helps to improve focus, concentration, and clarity of mind.
#1: Balances the chakras
The deep and equal breaths of bhastrika, in combination with its calming effect on the mind, are believed to contribute to the balancing of the energy centers in the body, promoting overall physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
#2: Enhances intuition
By contributing to a calm, clarity of mind, Bhastrika Pranayama is also believed to improve intuition and perception by awakening the third eye chakra, which is associated with intuition and spiritual insight.
Precautions & Contraindications
Bhastrika is a dynamic practice that can demand considerable physical exertion, particularly on the lungs, abdomen, and cardiovascular system. For this reason, anyone new to the practice should take brief breaks between each round until adjusted to the breathwork.
While some physical force is required, the body and mind should still be relaxed. Thus, there should be no violent/labored breathing, facial contortions, or extreme body shaking.
If any dizziness, light-headedness, excessive sweating, or nausea is experienced, it may indicate that the practice is being performed inaccurately. In such cases, seek guidance from a trusted instructor who can guide you to safe and effective bhastrika.
Anyone with high blood pressure, significant nosebleeds, heart ailments, hernia, gastric ulcers, stroke, epilepsy, retinal issues, glaucoma, recent surgery, or vertigo should avoid practicing Bhastrika.
Pregnant persons are also not advised to practice Bhastrika Pranayama, due to the stress it puts on the abdominal cavity. This is also why bhastrika should not be performed on a full stomach.
Seniors, anyone with respiratory conditions such as asthma and chronic bronchitis, those recuperating from tuberculosis, and anyone with other significant health issues are advised to perform bhastrika only under the approval and supervision of a skilled instructor.
Anyone with shoulder, arm, neck, or spinal issues should perform a variation of bhastrika that does not include the traditional arm movements.
Finally, bhastrika shouldn’t be performed before bedtime, as it invigorates the nervous system and generates heat in the body, which can awaken the body and make it difficult to sleep.
How To Practice Bhastrika Pranayama: 3 Variations Explained
There are a number of Bhastrika Pranayama variations.
Some more advanced techniques incorporate kumbhaka (breath retention), bandhas (internal locks), single nostril breathing, arm movements, and different breathing paces.
Note on Breathing Pace:
- There are three different breath rates that can be practiced depending on an individual’s capacity: slow, medium, and fast. Medium and fast pace are best suited to experienced practitioners.
- Slow bhastrika breathing involves breathing approximately one breath every 2 seconds, without undue force on inhalation or exhalation. (This is pretty similar to normal but amplified breathing).
- Medium bhastrika breathing increases the speed of respiration to around one breath per second.
- Fast bhastrika breathing increases the speed of respiration even further to 2 breaths per second.
- As your abdominal muscles strengthen with regular practice, you can slowly increase the number of respirations over time.
Technique 1: Traditional Bhastrika
Traditional Bhastrika Pranayama has its roots in the ancient Hatha Pradipika.
This version is the most simple and is recommended for beginners. It can be considered a preparatory practice to master before moving on to the more advanced bhastrika variations outlined below.
- Sit in a comfortable meditation posture with your hands placed on your knees in a mudra of your choice.
- Keep your head and spine straight, close your eyes, and relax your whole body. Take a deep breath in and breathe out forcefully through the nose.
- Immediately inhale with the same force, fully expanding your abdominal muscles. Exhale forcefully by firmly contracting your abdominal muscles, without straining.
- During inhalation, the diaphragm should move down and the abdomen outward. During exhalation, the diaphragm should move upward and the abdomen inward, with slightly exaggerated movements. Notice these movements.
- Continue for 10 breaths, then take a deep breath in and exhale slowly. Repeat up to 5 rounds
- When accustomed to this style of breathing, gradually increase the speed of your breaths, maintaining a rhythmic breath pattern and ensuring the force of inhalation and exhalation is equal.
Technique 2: Bhastrika Through Alternate Nostrils
While this technique may sound similar to Nadi Shodhana, there are some key differences that separate the practices.
For example, while both traditionally feature deep inhalations and exhalations through the nose, alternate nostril-bhastrika uses forceful diaphragmatic contractions and takes multiple in and out breaths per nostril before moving to the other side.
Nadi Shodhana instead uses prolonged inhalations and exhalations between 5 to 20 seconds and sometimes longer, with just one breath per nostril before switching to the other.
- Begin seated in any comfortable meditation pose, such as padmasana or sukhasana.
- Keep your back straight and your eyes closed. Your whole body should be relaxed.
- Raise your right hand and perform nasagra or vishnu mudra by curling your index and middle fingers toward your palm, leaving your thumb, ring finger, and pinky finger straight and extended.
- Using this mudra, close your right nostril with your thumb and breathe in and out forcefully through the left nostril ten times. The abdomen should rhythmically expand and contract with each breath, and the pumping action should be performed by the abdomen/diaphragm.
- After ten breaths, take a deep breath in and breathe out through the left nostril.
- Following this, close your left nostril and repeat the same process through the right nostril.
- Release the mudra and place your raised hand on your knee, allowing both nostrils to be fully open. Then repeat the same process through both nostrils.
- Performing ten breaths through the left, right, and both nostrils constitutes one complete round. For maximum effect, practice up to five rounds.
- Throughout this practice, focus your physical awareness on the breathing process and the physical movement of the abdomen, while your spiritual/emotional awareness rests on the manipura chakra.
Technique 3: Bhastrika With Arm Movements
In this technique, we coordinate forced inhalations and exhalations with movements of the arms and shoulders, to further assist the opening and restriction of the abdominal and thoracic (lungs) cavities to deepen lung function.
- Begin seated in a comfortable meditation posture with your back straight, spine upright, arms and shoulders relaxed.
- To prepare, take one slow, deep inhalation and follow it with a deep, slow exhalation.
- Make a soft fist with your two hands and place them slightly in front of your shoulders.
- While inhaling forcefully, force your hands up vertically, opening the palms when the hands are up.
- While exhaling forcefully, force your arms down, making a fist again in front of the shoulders.
- Repeat this movement about 20 times. This is one round. The speed
- Try to maintain a rhythmic movement in which the out-breath and in-breath are equalised (perhaps use a song with a regular beat or a metronome to help you).
- Complete up to three rounds with short breaks between rounds.
- After completing the rounds, take a few deep breaths and relax in either the sitting posture or lying in savasana.
If you’ve enjoyed this article, why not check out our other pranayama guides: