In Part 1 of the pranayama series, we gave an introduction to pranayama and the commonly practised techniques.
This article details the 4 pranayama techniques you can try right now as part of your daily routine.
4 Pranayama Breathing Techniques to Practise Daily
Most pranayama techniques are practised sitting down with a straight spine, as in meditation. You can also sit on your heels in a kneeling position known as Thunderbolt pose. Pranayama is best practised in the morning on an empty stomach.
NOTE: If you are pregnant or have stomach issues, please avoid Pranayama as they involve contraction of the abdominal muscles or bandha. In addition, if you have asthma, heart disease or hypertension, please avoid Pranayama with fast rhythms or breath retention, including the three presented here. If you have a specific health condition, please speak with your yoga therapist or health professional before reading onwards!
If you want an easy offline reference for the practice, you can download the FREE guide below.
Dirga Swasam Pranayama
Dirga Swasam Pranayama, or Dirga Pranayama in short, is one of the first techniques taught to new yogis. It involves breathing through “three parts” of the mid-body, namely the belly, the ribcage or diaphragm, and the chest. This is also known as the Three-Part Breath or Complete Breath.
Inefficient breathing is usually common in today’s world, made worse with sedentary lifestyles, bad postures or highly stressful environments. Many do not breathe fully but take shallow breaths, where the air only enters the upper chest and perhaps sometimes, the lower chest.
Learning to breathe deeply and properly with Dirga Pranayama helps to bring awareness to the flow of breath, oxygenates the blood, creates energy, increases focus and calms the mind.
This deep breathing technique also forms the foundation for other yogic practices including meditation.
How To Practise Dirga Pranayama
- Sit in a comfortable position, either cross-legged or kneeling in Thunderbolt Pose. Ensure your spine is upright and your pelvic bones in a neutral position. Root your sit bones and soften your shoulders.
- Close your eyes, relax your body and the muscles on your face. Take a few breaths naturally through your nose.
- Place your palms on your naval and take a slow deep breath into your belly. With this inhalation, feel the ribs expand away from each other as your belly inflates like a balloon. As you exhale, feel your belly deflating.
- Repeat until you are comfortable breathing into your belly.
- Next, place your palms high on your rib cage and take a slow deep breath again into your belly. This time, allow your breath to deepen and feel the air expand into your front ribs and overflowing to the back ribs. Your palms will move away from each other with this expansion. As you exhale, feel the air expel from your ribs first, then from your belly.
- Repeat until you are comfortable breathing into your ribs.
- Finally, place your palms on chest, just under your collar bones. Breathe into your belly and ribs like before, this time expanding your breath up into your chest. As you take a deeper and fuller breath, your chest will expand and raise slightly. As you exhale, feel the air coming from your chest, then ribs, then belly.
- Repeat breathing into your belly, ribs and chest 5 times
Once you have completed this exercise, sit with your palms resting on your knees, facing up or down. Bring awareness to how your body and mind feels. Stay here in this resting position until you are ready for the next exercise.
Ujjayi Pranayama involves breathing through the nose with a slight constriction of the throat to make sound like waves on a beach.
In Sanskrit, the word Ujjayi means to conquer or to be victorious and is therefore referred to as the Victorious Breath. It is also known as the Ocean Breath, because of the sound it makes when done correctly.
Unlike other Pranayama which are mostly practiced in a sitting or lying position, Ujjayi breathing can also be performed during an asana (yoga pose) practice. In fact, this breathing technique is used throughout Ashtanga and Vinyasa yoga practices.
The key benefits of Ujjayi breath include
- Warms up the breath, and hence awakens the body for asanas.
- Allows for better focus and awareness on the present moment.
- Calms the nerves and mind, particularly beneficial for those who suffer from stress or insomnia
How To Practise Ujjayi Pranayama
If this is your first time attempting Ujjayi breathing, try to practise it as part of a pranayama practice before using it during asanas.
- Sit comfortably or stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
- Close your eyes and open your mouth, exhale through your mouth loudly as though you are trying to fog up a mirror. Remember this sound and the sensation of your throat constricting slightly
- Start inhaling AND exhaling, maintaining the sound and sensation.
- Once you are comfortable with breathing with sound through your mouth, close your mouth and breathe through your nose making the same sound.
- When breathing through your nose, you may need to constrict your throat more to create the same sound. So explore with different levels of throat constriction and notice how it affects the sound, the flow of your breath, and how you feel in general
- Keep breathing with Ujjayi for at least 10 breaths, maintaining a steady rhythm. When you are done, sit still to feel the effects of Ujjayi.
Kapalabhati is a traditional cleansing practice that is more advanced than Dirga or Ujjayi Pranayama. It is often known as the skull-polishing breath, since kapala translates into “skull” and bhati means “shining”.
Kapalabhati oxygenates the blood quickly and rejuvenates the mind and body. It helps to release toxins, improves digestion, reduce stress, warms the body and increases energy.
As a bonus, Kapalabhati can help to tone the belly as you are using your abdominal strength during the exhales.
How to Practice Kapalabhati
Kapalabhati involves alternating passive inhales, and short but forceful exhales through the nose. If this is your first time doing Kapalabhati, practise at a slow pace first before building up speed and length as you become more comfortable with the exercise.
- Start in a comfortable seated position, with your spine upright. Rest your hands on your lower belly.
- Breathe naturally and prepare your mind for the practice. You can choose to close your eyes at this point.
- Inhale deeply through your nose until your belly about 75% full
- Exhale forcefully and quickly, contract your lower belly to push out all the air from your lungs. Feel your navel drawing towards your spine
- Release the abdominal contraction so that you naturally suck in air back into your lungs for the exhale. The inhale should be natural without force.
- Again, forcefully and quickly exhale using the contraction of your lower belly
- Pace yourself slowly, doing 5 to 10 cycles of inhale-exhale before returning to natural breathing. Then rest and observe how you feel.
- Repeat 5 to 10 cycles, 3 to 4 sets. Remember to rest in between sets.
As you practise Kapalabhati over time, you can slowly increase the pace and the number of cycles per set (up to 50 cycles).
Anulom Vilom or Nadi Shodana
Nadis are subtle energy channels in the human body that can get blocked or imbalanced due to many reasons. When this happens, the human body is susceptible to diseases and health conditions.
Both Anulom Vilom and Nadi Shodana are breathing techniques that involve breathing through the left and right nostril alternately to purify and balance these energy channels, calm the mind and soothe the nervous system. They are also known as Alternate Nostril Breathing in English.
Do note that Nadi Shodana is different from Anulom Vilom as it has an added element of breath retention, also called Kumbhaka, in between breaths.
How to perform Anulom Vilom
- Sit comfortably with your spine upright, draw your shoulders down and relax. Close your eyes and breathe normally to start with.
- Place your left hand on the left knee, either with the palm open facing the sky or in Chin Mudra (with the thumb and index fingers touching)
- With your right palm facing you, fold the index and middle fingers into the palm, keeping the rest of the fingers as is. We will use the ring finger to open or close the left nostril and the thumb for the right nostril.
- Press your right thumb to close the right nostril and exhale gently through the left nostril to prepare for the practice
To complete one cycle of Anulom Vilom
- Inhale from the left nostril
- Then press the ring finger on the left nostril to close it. Remove the right thumb from the right nostril and exhale
- Inhale again from the right nostril
- Exhale from the left as you switch the opening / closing of the nostrils with your thumb and ring finger.
- Continue inhaling and exhaling from alternate nostrils. Remember that after each exhale, you should inhale from the SAME nostril before changing positions of your ring finger and thumb.
- Repeat for 10 cycles
NOTE: If your right arm is tired, you can rest your index and middle fingers between your eyebrows for support, instead of folding them into your palms
How to perform Nadi Shodhana Pranayama
Nadi Shodana is similar to Anulom Vilom. However, there is retention of breath after each inhale and exhale. Sometimes your teacher may also ask you to count your breath to maintain the right ratio between inhale, internal retention, exhale, and external retention of breath.
To complete one cycle of Nadi Shodhana
- Inhale from the left nostril
- Hold the air in your lungs for 2 counts (or longer) •Exhale through the right nostril as you empty your lungs •Hold the air without breathing for 2 counts (or longer)
- Note: If you find it difficult at this stage, you can close both nostrils to help you
- Inhale from the right nostril
- Hold the air in your lungs for 2 counts (or longer)
- Exhale through the left nostril
- Hold without breathing for 2 counts (or longer)
Nadi Shodhana is more difficult than Anulom Vilom, so I would suggest you start with the latter until you are familiar with the practice before moving on to Nadi Shodhana.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading this article and are ready to get practising! Drop me a note below if this has helped you in any way.
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The YogaMad is founded by Candy, an avid yogini who is passionate about inspiring others to live their best lives while finding mind-body-soul balance. She has a background in business consulting but has left the corporate world in her quest to live out her dreams.