The importance of the breath in spiritual practice cannot be overstated. For centuries, countless Buddhists, yogis, and Eastern healers have turned the simple act of breathing into the foundation of their daily practice. For this reason, most meditation styles and yoga methods include a strong focus on deep breathing techniques. In meditation, we are taught the importance of cultivating correct posture and breath to prepare the mind for meaningful practice.
The word ‘pranayama’ means “to extend the vital life force.” Although this ancient practice of conscious breathing techniques is ideally done under the guidance of an experienced teacher, many simple yet powerful techniques do exist that can be used at any time to transform your breathing and state of mind.
Pay Attention to How You Breathe
How deeply do you breathe when you’re not paying attention? Many of us are unintentionally shallow breathers, which is a mindless breathing pattern where you inhale through the mouth, hold the breath and take in less air. And when we feel fear or shock, we gasp by inhaling sharply through the mouth and holding the breath. When repeated often enough, these breathing patterns can activate our fight-or-flight stress response. Long-term shallow breathing can deteriorate our mental and physical health and lower our immunity.
Practicing pranayama techniques for just 5 to 10 minutes per day can make you more conscious of your breath and encourage you to breathe more deeply throughout the rest of the day. Check out these brilliant ways to making your breath long, easeful, and smooth.
9 Pranayama Techniques for Beginners
1. Full Yogic Breath
Also known as diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing, this foundational technique involves inhaling slowly and with purpose.
Draw your breath deep into the lower abdomen. Slowly allow the breath to fill upward (toward the navel) and outward from the spine. As the breath fills this area, allow it to expand the lower belly, sides, hips and back (expanding the lumbar spine and the sacrum).
Then, continue the inhalation by expanding the mid-torso in a similar manner. Once the mid-torso feels full, complete the inhalation by drawing the breath into the upper chest, shoulders and lower neck. Feel your collarbones lift slightly. Hold the breath in for the count of two to four. Exhale with control through the nose and go in reverse. Release the air from the upper chest, then the mid-torso, and finally the lower abdomen.
2. Box Breathing
This slow-paced breathing technique is great for lowering stress levels. Sit comfortably with your back straight. Inhale through your nose, filling up your belly to the count of 4 seconds. Hold the breath in for 4 seconds. Exhale through your nose or your mouth (your choice!) for 4 seconds. Hold the breath out for 4 seconds. This is one round of box breathing. Practice several rounds.
3. Sitkari Pranayama
Open the mouth slightly with your tongue just behind the teeth. Inhale slowly through the space between the upper and lower teeth, letting the air wash over your tongue as you raise your chin toward the ceiling. At the end of the inhalation, close the mouth and exhale through the nostrils as you slowly lower your chin back to neutral. Repeat for 8 to 12 breaths.
4. Alternate Nostril Breathing
Also called Nadi Shodhana, this wonderful practice increases both energy and calmness. According to yogic texts, this method is said to balance the right and left hemispheres of the brain to produce a pure and grounded state of mind.
Sitting up with a tall yet relaxed posture, take your right thumb and close off the right nostril, then inhale fully through the left nostril. When your lungs have expanded completely, release your thumb and immediately use your ring finger to close off the left nostril and exhale slowly through the right. Repeat while switching nostrils after each inhale.
5. Sitali (Straw) Breathing
This technique has a cooling effect on the nervous system; even better, EEG scans have shown that it helps quiet the mind.
Sit comfortably with your shoulders relaxed and your spine long. Slightly lower the chin, curl the tongue lengthwise, and project it out of the mouth. (If you cannot do this, simply make a small circle with your lips.) Then, inhale gently through the “straw” formed by your curled tongue (or lips) as you slowly lift your chin toward the ceiling, lifting only as far as the neck is comfortable.
At the end of the inhalation, with your chin comfortably raised, retract the tongue and close the mouth. Exhale slowly through the nose as you gently lower your chin back to a neutral position.
6. Lengthening the Exhale
This breathing practice involves gradually increasing your exhalation until it is twice the length of your inhalation. It relaxes the nervous system and can even aid insomnia and anxiety.
Begin by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground, hip-width apart. Place one hand on the abdomen and take a few relaxed breaths, feeling the belly gently expand and contract with each breath cycle.
Mentally count the length of each inhalation and exhalation for several breaths. If the inhalation is longer than the exhalation, start to even them out so that they are the same length. Once your inhalation and exhalation are equal, gradually increase the length of your exhalation by 1 to 2 seconds by gently contracting the abdomen on the exhale.
As long as the breath feels smooth and relaxed, continue to gradually increase the exhalation by 1 to 2 seconds once every few breaths. Make sure you experience no strain as the exhalation increases and keep going until your exhalation is up to twice the length of the inhalation. Even an exhalation that is only slightly longer than the inhalation can induce a calming effect. Be sure not to push yourself beyond your capacity.
7. Bellows Breath
Also known as Breath of Fire, researchers from the Department of Physiology at Nepal College have found that this stimulating breathing exercise decreases blood pressure and heart rate, balances the nervous system and enhances overall wellbeing.
Sitting comfortably with your back straight, take a deep breath. Then begin to inhale and exhale rapidly through your nose. Try to keep your mouth closed and your face and jaw as relaxed as possible. Keep your inhales and exhales equal in duration. The more experience you have with this technique, the faster paced your breath will become.
8. Kapalabhati (Skull Shining)
The word “kapala” means skull and “bhati” means light (referring to the light of learning, perception and knowledge). Kapalabhati breathing consists of alternating short, forceful exhales and slightly longer, passive inhales. The exhales are generated by powerful contractions of the lower belly (between the pubis and navel), which push air out of the lungs. Inhales are responses to the release of this contraction, which automatically sucks air back into the lungs.
Focus on your lower belly. If needed, press your cupped hands gently against your lower belly. Quickly contract (or pump your fisted hands against) your lower belly, pushing a burst of air out of your lungs. Then quickly release the contraction (or your hands), so the belly “rebounds” to suck air into your lungs.
Take it slowly at first. Repeat 8 to 10 times, completing one exhale-inhale cycle every two seconds. As you practice, over time you can increase your pace. Do around 20 cycles at first, and gradually increase the number of cycles you do each practice.
Find a comfortable position, either seated or lying down in a quiet spot where you won’t be disturbed by other people. Close your eyes and place your hands on your laps with palms down. Alternatively, place one hand on the heart and other on the belly.
Breathe normally and allow yourself to fully inhabit your physical body and clear your mind.
Inhale deeply through the nose, filling the belly and expanding the rib cage as much as possible (as in #1, the full yogic breath).
Open your mouth and release the breath with a gigantic, audible sigh. Repeat 3 to 4 times. Then return to normal breathing. Slowly open the eyes. Sit quietly for a few moments and notice how you feel.
Inhale, Exhale, Repeat
Some breathing exercises help quiet focus and the mind, whereas others energize and awaken it. Try all of the above breathing practices to reduce stress, activate the brain’s relaxation response and improve cognitive function. The key is to breathe consciously, regardless of the specific technique you are using. Even just a few minutes a day can make a real difference!