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Pranayama Breathing Introduction

For those who want to experience yoga in its entirety, it is important to practice yoga as a lifestyle, on and off the mat. One of the “bible” of what a yogic lifestyle entails is the 8 Limbs of Yoga as detailed in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Pranayama, or breath control, is the fourth limb of 8 limbs of yoga [link]. It is defined by BKS Iyengar in Light on Pranayama as the conscious prolongation of inhalation, retention and exhalation to help yogis develop a steady mind, sound judgement and willpower.

Related: 8 Limbs of Yoga – A Holistic Guide for Daily Living

The term Pranayama is derived from the Sanskrit words prana, meaning “life force”, and ayama, meaning “expansion or extension”. Together they translate to breath extension or breath control.

This means that the quality of breath determines the quality of our prana and overall vitality.

But do not confuse prana with the breath itself – many of us go through life breathing automatically but are still lacking in prana. This is because most of us do not breathe into our full body regularly.

The automatic breathing process sometimes only stops at the upper chest, especially when we are met with anxiety or stress. Even during the times we do breathe into the lower belly, our upper abdomen and mid-body fail to expand with the breath.

Pranayama breathing demands we “breathe into” the full body – not just the front torso, but also the sides and the back; not just the chest but the full belly, abdomen, rib cage and chest.

Benefits of Pranayama

Pranayama requires us to be conscious about how we breathe. We actively extend the inhales, exhales and retention instead of letting the automatic breathing process take place. The sole purpose of this activity is to increase our prana and supercharge our health.

There are many different types of pranayama breathing techniques, some are meant to energize the nervous system while others calm our minds and bodies. Regularly practising pranayama breathing allows us to access a host of health benefits.

Note that in our physical body, blood flows through our arteries, capillaries and veins. In our energy body, prana flows through energy pathways called nadis. Pranayama breathing works on both physical and energy body.

Research has shown that regular practice of conscious breathing (eg. Through pranayama techniques) can

  1. decrease stress and anxiety levels
  2. strengthens respiratory system
  3. normalize heart rates and blood pressure,
  4. stimulate lymph flow and hence immunity,
  5. improve digestive system functions,
  6. and improve blood circulation.

Common Pranayama Breathing Techniques

1. Sama Vritti Pranayama

There are actually two types of Vritti pranayama: Sama Vritti and Visama Vritti. The more commonly practised one being Sama Vritti.

Vritti means action, flow or rotation, sama means equal, and visama means irregular.

Sama Vritti, also known as box breathing, entails equalising all 4 processes of the breath:

  1. Inhalation (or puraka)
  2. Internal retention (antar kumbhaka)
  3. Exhalation (or rechaka)
  4. External retention (bahya kumbhaka)

2. Dirga Swasam Pranayama

Dirga Swasam Pranayama or Dirga Pranayama 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.

This is a great exercise to do if you are always breathing shallow, short spurts of breaths. It helps to calm down the mind and body almost immediately.

3. Ujjayi Pranayama

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 practices which are mostly practised in a sitting or lying position, Ujjayi breathing can also be performed during an asana (yoga pose) practice.

Related: Ujjayi Breathing – A Quick Guide for Beginners

4. Bhramari Pranayama

This is also known as the humming bee breath. It involves using the fingers to block the ears and making a humming sound with the exhalation.

It is one of the best techniques to block out noise and focus only on the humming bee sound coming from your throat.

5. Kapalabhati Pranayama

Kapalabhati Pranayama is known as the skull-polishing breath since kapala translates into “skull” and bhati means “shining”. It involves alternating passive inhales, and short but forceful exhales through the nose.

Kapalabhati oxygenates the blood quickly and rejuvenates the mind and body. It helps to release toxins, improves digestion, reduces stress, warms the body and increases energy.

6. Bhastrika Pranayama

Bhastrika is also known as Bellows Breath. This is sometimes confused with Kapalabhati, but these are two different pranayama practices.

  • Kapalabhati involves passive inhalations and active exhalations,
  • But Bhastrika involves both active inhalations and exhalations

Bhastrika is therefore more strenuous than Kapalabhati.

7. Surya Bhedana and Chandra Bhedana Pranayama

These are single nostril breathing techniques. Surya means sun, chandra means moon and bhid (the root of bhedana) means to pierce through.

In Surya Bhedana, all inhalations are done through the right nostril, channelling prana through the pingala / surya nadi. All exhalations are done through the left nostril which channels the ida / chandra nadi. This increases bodily heat and stimulates the brain.

Chandra Bhedana is the opposite of Surya Bhedana as all inhalations are done through the left nostril and exhalations through the right. Channeling the inhalations through the ida / chandra nadi helps to quietens the mind and cools the body.

8. Nadi Shodana Pranayama

Nadi Shodhana is also commonly referred to as Anulom Vilom or Alternate Nostril Breathing.

Both Anulom Vilom and Nadi Shodhana 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.

However, Nadi Shodhana is different from Anulom Vilom in that Nadi Shodhana has an added element of breath retention, also called Kumbhaka, in between breaths.

If you have enjoyed this article, read on to see Part 2: 4 breathing techniques to practice daily or download the FREE guide below to kickstart your daily practice.