Breathing is our most vital process. Affecting the activity of every cell, it is intricately linked to our biological functions and overall health.
When we breathe, the oxygen intake permits aerobic respiration. This metabolic process produces the energy we need to power every muscular movement, glandular secretion, and mental process.
Yoga breathing exercises (pranayama) increase awareness of how we breathe and provide techniques to maximize lung capacity, increase energy levels, cleanse the body, calm the mind, and restore overall balance.
Read on to discover:
- How breathing affects our health
- Why yoga breathing exercises are important
- General advice for Yogic breathing
- Awareness-raising Yoga breathing exercises
- Cooling breathwork
- Calming breathwork
- Cleansing breathwork
- Meditative breathwork
- Stimulating breathwork
How breathing affects our health
Shallow breathing deprives the body of oxygen, inhibiting the healthy functioning of our vital processes.
On the other hand, deep, slow, and rhythmic breathing generates calm, content states of mind. Cyclically, when we feel relaxed and happy our breathing naturally slows and becomes more regular.
Deep breathing also makes energy absorption more efficient.
Why yoga breathing exercises are important
Yoga breathing exercises, or pranayama, help increase awareness of the breath, allowing us to establish regular breathing patterns.Although the act of breathing is controlled by the autonomic (or involuntary) nervous system, we can take conscious control of it at any time.
Regularly practicing yoga breathing exercises empowers us to manage our breath and therefore our emotions, states of mind, and even physical health.
Conscious, controlled breathing also has a positive effect on longevity. Awareness of the breath helps us notice when it becomes shallow, erratic, or fast so we can breathe more slowly and deeply.
A slow breathing rate keeps the heart stronger, contributing to better overall health and a longer lifespan.
General advice for yogic breathing
Always do pranayama under the instruction of a qualified yoga teacher and read these tips to practice with caution.
When to practice
Early in the morning and after asana practice when the stomach is empty, the body is supple and the mind is clearer.
Before bedtime, calming breathing exercises are best.
When not to practice
If feeling generally unwell or ill.
Stimulating yoga breathing exercises and kumbhaka (breath retention) are not suitable for anyone suffering from heart problems, high blood pressure, anxiety, or during pregnancy.
Practice yoga breathing exercises with an empty stomach (and bowels) to avoid pressure on the abdomen, diaphragm, and lungs.
It’s advisable to wash your face, hands, and feet before practicing and to allow the body temperature to normalize before showering.
Where to practice
In a quiet, clean, well-ventilated room with natural light. Avoid practicing in direct sunlight and where it’s draughty or windy.
How to sit
Sit with an upright spine and relaxed body in the yoga meditation pose that’s most comfortable for you.
Try sitting on a folded blanket or chair for extra comfort or lying in savasana for awareness-raising exercises.
Take it easy
Do not over-exert yourself to protect the delicate lung tissue and to avoid overwhelming sensations.
If side effects such as tingling, lightheadedness, excessive heat or cold persist, stop practicing. Talk to your yoga teacher and seek medical advice.
Awareness-raising Yoga breathing exercises
Note: exercises 1-3 can be practiced while sitting or in savasana.
#1 Natural Breathing
A simple awareness-raising exercise to establish a relaxed breathing rhythm.
- Observe the breath flowing in and out the nose, without modifying it
- Feel the coolness of the inhalation and the warmth of the exhalation.
- Watch the breath as if you were an external observer.
- Feel the breath flowing at the back of the mouth, in the throat, windpipe, and lungs. Feel the lungs and ribcage expanding and relaxing.
- Feel the abdomen move upward as you inhale, and downward as you exhale.
- Observe the whole process for some minutes.
Benefits and contraindications: this exercise increases awareness of breathing patterns and slows the rate of respiration to induce relaxation. It is suitable for everyone.
#2 Abdominal Breathing (or Diaphragmatic Breathing)
- Lie, relaxed, in savasana.
- Place the right hand just above the navel and the left hand at the center of the chest, observing the natural rhythm of your breath.
- Visualize the breath flowing in and out through the navel; as you inhale, expand the abdomen without straining. Do not expand the chest or shoulders.
- Exhale to relax the abdomen and notice the diaphragm move upward.
- Continue for a few minutes.
Benefits and contraindications: breathing becomes more efficient by re-training to minimize the action of the ribcage. This exercise can improve physical and mental well-being. It is suitable for all practitioners.
#3 Yogic Breathing
- Inhale deeply and slowly, keeping your breath as quiet as possible.
- Allow the abdomen, followed by the ribcage, to expand fully. Without pausing, inhale a little more to reach the upper lungs, until the shoulders and collarbone rise.
- To exhale, relax the lower neck and upper chest first, allowing the chest to move down and inward. Allow the diaphragm to move upward.
- Empty the lungs by pulling the abdomen towards the spine without straining.
Repeat 5-10 rounds, gradually increasing to a 5-10 minute practice.
Benefits and contraindications: the breath can be controlled, especially in stressful situations. Yogic breathing reminds us to breathe more deeply to increase oxygen uptake, though it should not be practiced continually.
This is another very effective yoga breathing exercise for increasing awareness and sensitivity of nostril breathing.
- Sit in a seated meditation position with the spine upright
- Place the left hand on the left knee with the palm facing up, whilst bringing the right hand into Vishnu Mudra
- Use your right thumb to close your right nostril and inhale deeply through your left nostril for four seconds
- You can choose whether to retain the breath for another four seconds and use the other two fingers to close the left nostril as well, or immediately exhale through the right nostril for four seconds and move the thumb away from the nostril
- Keeping the thumb away, inhale through the right nostril for four seconds
- Retain the breath again, or exhale through the left nostril for four seconds
- Repeat this process of inhaling through the left, exhaling through the right, inhaling through the right, exhaling through the left
- You can choose to play around with the inhaling/exhaling time ratios
Practice yoga breathing exercises for 5-10 minutes in a seated meditation posture.
#5 Sheetkari Pranayama (Hissing breath)
This alternative to Sitali Pranayama affects the brain centers associated with biological impulses and temperature regulation.
- Smile with the top and bottom teeth together. Fold the tongue against the soft palate in kechari mudra or leave it relaxed.
- Inhale slowly and deeply through the teeth.
- Close the mouth to exhale slowly through the nose.
Benefits and counterindications: this exercise has a cooling effect on both body and mind. It helps to regulate emotions and cravings while inducing relaxation.
Sheetkari should not be practiced by anyone with low blood pressure, respiratory problems, or sensitive teeth.
#6 Bhramari Variation (Humming Bee Breath)
- Sit on a rolled blanket with the feet flat on the floor, close to the buttocks.
- Rest the elbows on bent knees and the hands on the sides of your head, with thumbs closing the tragus.
- Consciously take longer, fuller, deeper inhales
- As in Brahmari, hum on the exhalation.
Benefits and contraindications: vibration from the humming soothes the mind and nervous system, helping to relieve stress, anxiety, anger, and insomnia. It can induce a calming, meditative state.
Anyone suffering from ear infections should avoid this exercise.
#7 Ujjayi Pranayama (physic or victorious breath)
- Breathing through the nose with the lips closed, gently contract the glottis to produce a soft, snoring sound with both inhalation and exhalation.
- Breathe slowly and deeply, observing how the abdomen naturally contracts.
- Advanced practitioners may incorporate Antar Kumbaka (inward breath retention).
Benefits and contraindications: Ujayii breath calms the mind and slows down heart rate during and after vigorous sequences. It is not suitable for anyone with respiratory conditions.
Cleansing and balancing breathwork
#7 Kapalabhati Pranayama (Shining Skull Breath)
First practice exhaling forcefully by contracting the abdomen in Kapalabhati Pranayama.
This is a preparatory step for forceful inhalation and exhalation in:
#8 Bhastrika Pranayama (Bellows Breath)
- As you inhale, fully expand the abdominal muscles in one brisk movement, without straining.
- Exhale, contracting the abdomen towards the spine as in Kapalabhati.
- Repeat 5-10 times.
- Breathe normally to restore your natural rhythm before practicing up to 4 more rounds.
Benefits and contraindications: Kalabhati and Bhastrika energize while clearing the lungs and purifying the nadis. They should be avoided by anyone with high blood pressure, epilepsy, retinal or gastric problems. Neither are advisable during pregnancy.
#9 Moorchha Pranayama
- Curl the tongue to touch the soft palate.
- Slowly tilt the head back while inhaling with ujjayi breath. Gaze between the eyebrows in Shambhavi Mudra.
- Press the hands on the knees and fully extend the arms while holding the breath for as long as is comfortable.
- Lower the head and relax the arms as you exhale slowly.
- Keep the eyes closed and relax the whole body. Repeat 5-10 times.
Benefits and contraindications: Moorchha Pranayama draws the mind inwards and induces mental tranquillity. It should be avoided by anyone with high blood pressure or epilepsy. Stop practicing if you feel the onset of fainting.
#10 Surya Bheda Pranayama (Vitality Breath)
- Close the left nostril with the ring finger to inhale deeply through the right. Hold the breath in for as long as is comfortable.
- Exhale through the right.
- Advanced practitioners may double the length of the exhalation and the breath retention, eventually reaching a 1:2:2 ratio of inhalation-retention-exhalation.
Benefits and contraindications: Surya bheda pranayama stimulates and awakens prana by activating the pingala nadi, alleviating depression and lethargy. It should be avoided in cases of high blood pressure, epilepsy, hyperthyroidism or anxiety.