We are born breathing into this world. We breathe throughout our life, be it involuntarily when we are awake, sleeping or consciously when we are anxious in order to calm ourselves down. When practising yoga, we are often told to breathe properly, control or regulate breathing to our body movement in asanas, practise deep inhalation and deep exhalation. Before joining YTT course, I didn’t know that there are various breathing techniques and breathing exercises in yoga, known as Pranayama.
Pranayama is one of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, which means expansion of vital energy, prana. Prana in Sanskrit means breath. The science of pranayama is the technique of expansion of prana without movement of thoughts or thinking. In another word, let the thoughts disappear.
There are 120 ways of pranayama. Here are the 5 most common pranayama exercises. All of the following exercises can be done in sitting position: Sukhasana (simple cross-legged sitting), Adha Padmasana (half-lotus pose), Padmasana (lotus pose) or Vajrasana (thunderbolt pose).
- Nadi Shodhana. Also known as alternate nostril breathing, it can purify nerves and calm the mind. In Nadi Shodhana, one nostril to be blocked with right hand in Vishnumudra, left hand in relax meditating lock Gyanamudra, exhalation and inhalation though the open nostril before switching sides. It is recommended to practise this exercise for a duration of 10 mins each day. To activate the body in the morning, this exercise should start from inhalation on the right nostril; to cool down and relax the body in the evening/night, start from inhalation on the left nostril.
- Anuloma Viloma. Similar to Nadi Shodhana, this alternate nostril breathing attempts to balance the left and right brain functions. It is performed with a sequence ratio of 1:4:2, that is 1 count for inhalation, 4 counts for breath holding, and 2 counts for exhalation. We may increase the counts with multiplications of 3 to 12 as we progress in the practise.
- Kepalabhati. It means skull shining breath, is a cleansing technique which helps to clear the air passages and create pressure in abdominal area. It can build heat in the body and increase serotonin level. To start, sitting in comfortable position with straight spine, inhalation through both nostrils, then exhalation through both nostril sharply or forcefully while pulling navel in towards spine. The inhalation is passive. Both inhalation and exhalation are short and quick, for one round of 30 counts exhalations and rest for a minute with some deep breaths, before repeating subsequent round. This exercise can be done in the morning, but don’t do it with a full stomach. It is also not suitable for pregnant women, and those who suffering high blood pressure or heart conditions.
- Bhastrika. Bhastrika is a thoracic breathing, done through the chest and engages intercostal muscles on the rib. Unlike Kepalabhati, both inhalation and exhalation are forceful when perform Bhastrika. When you inhale, the rib expands; when you exhale, the rib is squeezed. As the exercise will generate heat in the body, pregnant women, people with high blood pressure or heart issues should avoid this. Bhastrika should also never be done on a full stomach or at night.
- Ujjayi. Ujjayi which means ‘victory over mind’, is a throat breathing exercise. It activates the thyroid gland. This breathing is often used in asana practice. It can be practiced at any time of the day, assist in calming the mind by focusing on breathing. To practise, inhale steadily through both nostril until you reach your lung capacity, exhale slowly through nostril again while constricting the muscles in the back of throat. This exhalation will sound like a gentle rush of air.