Although you may not give much thought to your breath during your day-to-day life, some spiritual practices, such as meditation and yoga, make your breath front and center.
If you’ve ever taken a yoga class before, you may be familiar with the constant reminders to “watch” your breathing. Oftentimes, the yoga instructor will spend as much time prompting students to breathe in and breathe out as they will showing them how to do the actual yoga moves.
There is a whole fascinating world of breathing techniques within the practice of yoga. If you learn these techniques, you can amplify your yoga practice, enhancing its mental, emotional, and physical benefits.
If you don’t do yoga, learning and practicing yoga breathing is an excellent way to relax when you’re feeling stressed. These breathing exercises were made to help yoga practitioners cope with the challenge and strain of yoga positions. They are just as effective in helping a person cope with the challenge and strain of everyday life.
In this article, we’ll be going through what yoga breathing means, the five different types of yoga breathing, and how you can work these into your life and next yoga routine.
What Is Yoga Breathing?
Yoga is an ancient Hindu discipline which has been practiced for thousands of years by various Eastern cultures. On a physical level, it aims to increase mental control over the body. On a spiritual level, yoga is a meditative practice that seeks to help the practitioner gain awareness of their consciousness.
Today, anyone can walk into a yoga studio and start doing yoga poses. Back in the day, yoga was traditionally taught through eight separate steps, which were codified by a famous Hindu spiritualist, Patanjali. During 2nd century BCE, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras outlined the eight steps to yoga, called “ashtanga” which means “the path of yoga.” They are:
- Yamas: Means the “rules of conduct.” This has to do with our attitude, both towards ourselves and other people. The tradition advises non-violence, truthfulness, kindness, and generosity.
- Niyama: These are related to the yamas and are directives on how to live a healthy and spiritually-enlightened life.
- Asana: This is the step that we all know and love — the physical postures of yoga.
- Pranayama: This the yoga breathing technique we are focused on in this article. Pranayama works through the mind and the respiratory system. “Prana” means spirit, life force, or breath.
- Pratyahara: This translates to “controlling the senses.” This step is all about detaching yourself from the physical sensations of the body, observing them from a neutral, non-judgmental standpoint.
- Dharana: This means “single-pointed concentration” and builds from the Pratyahara stage. It’s about placing all of your focus on your breath.
- Dhyana: This is a meditative state that goes beyond Dharana.
- Damadhi: This means “liberation” and is a state of enlightenment that comes after years of intense work on yoga and meditation. This is a state that few attain.
As you can see, the initial steps in the process are concerned with improving the health of the body and mind. Pranayama, or yoga breathing, is the step that precedes the spiritual and mindful aspects of yoga practice. So, if you want to center your mind and achieve calm, learning to breathe properly is crucial.
If you’re practicing yoga breathing, you should focus on four objectives:
- Seeking to reduce breathing frequency
- Creating a 1:2 ratio for in-breathing and out-breathing
- Concentrating on breathing
- A period of breath retention after inhalation and expiration
Breath retention is simply holding your breath for one count. Breath retention is key to breath control and maintaining mental awareness over your breathing practice.
Yoga breathing was originally designed as a way to quiet the mind. Today, these breathing techniques have proven physical health benefits. For example, there is research that shows that yoga breathing can be used in the treatment of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Other research has pointed to yoga breathing as a way to control and diminish symptoms of asthma.
The 5 Major Kinds of Yoga Breathing
There are five major types of yoga breathing that you can practice during your yoga routines or in your daily life.
1. Breath Awareness
This yoga breathing tactic is simple. It’s about orientating your attention towards your breath and away from your external environment or thoughts.
To pay attention to your breath, try to focus on a specific aspect of it. This might be the way your breath feels against the walls of your nostrils as it goes in, or “whoosh” sound it makes on its way out.
Especially as a beginner, it can be hard to simply observe your breath. You may find that you cannot help but be pulled back into your thoughts. You may find that it is difficult to focus on your breath without trying to control it. If this happens, gently pull your mind back towards your breath.
Breath awareness is a skill that needs practice to develop. Eventually, you’ll find that you are, at the very least, able to sustain focus on your breath for some duration of time without feeling the need to control its movement.
2. Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath or Ocean Breath)
Ujjayi breath is an energizing and distinctive breathing technique. Because of the sound it makes, you’ll recognize it immediately when you enter a yoga studio, where at least a few people are using it to help them get through difficult poses.
The Ujjayi breath creates a sound during both the in-breath and out-breath.
To start, form your mouth into a round shape as if you are sucking through a straw. Do not create a tight or uncomfortable expression; keep your facial muscles relaxed.
Then, breathe in deeply through your mouth, creating a soft “sucking” sound. Focus on breathing into your belly so that you can breathe deeply.
As with all yoga breathing, take a brief pause after your inhale. Then, gently constrict the opening of the throat to create some resistance to the exhale of air. This should create the sound of ocean waves rolling in and out.
3. Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (Alternate-Nostril Breathing)
Alternate-nostril breathing is a relaxing breathing pattern, best conducted during seated or lying yoga postures.
Gently press your right thumb against your left nostril. Take a deep breath and pause while you press your left ring finger against your right nostril, releasing the left nostril. Breathe out. Alternate in this way, following the 1:2 inhale-to-exhale ratio that yoga breathing aims to achieve. Don’t forget the brief period of breath retention that occurs between each out breath and in breath.
4. Kapalabhati Pranayama (Breath of Fire or Skull-Shining Breath)
Kapalabhati consists of alternating short, explosive exhales and slightly longer, passive inhales.
You create the exhales by contracting your lower belly (between the pelvic floor and navel). This pushes air out of your lungs. The inhale follows each contraction, and is a bit more shallow. You want your inhale to occur naturally, almost as a response to the contraction, focusing on filling your belly before expanding your lungs.
5. Bhastrika Pranayama (Bellows Breath)
Bellows breath is another energizing breathing practice that can get you and your heart rate up when you’re feeling sluggish. It’s said to increase prana (life force) and clarify the mind.
Begin bellows breathing by exhaling forcefully through your nose. Follow by inhaling forcefully. For this breath, you want to contract or expand your diaphragm and belly at the same time to really put in the force. You shouldn’t do more than three rounds of this breath, with seven to 10 breaths in each round.
How to Use Yoga Breathing
Yoga breathing tactics are meant to help you power through the more difficult poses and help you hold them for longer. They are also meant to help you focus and reach a meditative state during the passive parts of your yoga routine, as when sitting, standing, or lying down.
When you are doing a challenging pose, such as the forward bend (uttanasana), choose either ocean breath, skull-shining breath, or bellows breath. The chief advantage of these breaths is that they remind you to keep air circulating in and out of your body. In this way, you can work through the pain of the position and hold it for longer. This also prevents the unhealthy impulse of holding your breath during hard poses.
In your daily life or when doing seated yoga positions, such as the lotus flower pose (padmasana), try conducting the alternate-nostril or basic breath awareness tactics. These are both calming breathing tactics that help clear your mind, prep you for meditation, and calm your anxiety. They are a great way of starting or wrapping up a yoga routine, or for relaxing at any point during the day.
Yoga Breathing Is Not Just for Yoga
Yoga breathing is an ancient way to achieve benefits in modern life. As you’ve seen in this post, yoga breathing is a carefully thought-out system that has been created and practiced for the purposes of good health, inner peace, and spiritual betterment. You can certainly use them to enhance your yoga practice and become a better yogi.
But why not apply yoga breathing while at the office or when doing dishes at home, or when your Spire Stone sends you a notification that your breathing seems tense? In this way, you may find that you feel as good in your day-to-day as you do when doing yoga.