Most of us have attended yoga classes where the teacher before, during or after the physical practice invites us to practice one or more types of breathing or pranayama. Breathing is one of the pillars of yoga, not only while practicing specific techniques (bhastrika, ujjayi, etc.), but throughout the practice of asana (postures) and even beyond the mat in our daily lives.
Breathing is a reflex that accompanies us from birth to death and this unconscious act can be of great help to us if we make it conscious, iif we learn to observe it and adjust it in our favor. By becoming aware of the breath we learn to regulate it and it ceases to be mechanical, survival or limited. Little by little, with conscious and integrated practice, our breathing changes, becoming comfortable, spacious and natural. This is the breathing of the yogi or of the newborn, very far from the shallow and unconscious breathing that we usually do in modern life.
So breathing becomes complete, where we not only work on the lower and upper part of the lungs, but also involve the three basic breathing movements: abdominal diaphragmatic breathing (adhama or low), thoracic diaphragmatic breathing (madhyama or medium), upper chest breathing (uttama or upper). Learning to differentiate each type of breath, its characteristics, its movement, or noticing each type of breathing in the different asanas (we do not breathe the same in rib extension postures, as in those where we are face down or putting pressure on the throat area) will bring us closer to a deep understanding of yoga. We must become aware of the breath at every moment. This should be our main focus of attention (bhavana) during our practice.
“If you control the breathing, you control all the situations in life.” – Yogi Bhajan
What is pranayama?
In terms of yoga we speak of pranayama, the discipline of the conscious regulation of prana or vital energy. It is one of the 8 steps or branches of yoga, it is described in the text “Yoga Sutras” by Patañjali, a text more than 2500 years old and it is even mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita, still earlier, the regulation of breathing and prana as a devotional method or approach to divinity.
“tasmin-sati-śvāsa-praśvāsayoḥ-gati-vicchedaḥ prāṇāyāmaḥ” | “Pranayama is the cessation of inspiration and exhalation when it has been acquired. (ásana)”. Yoga sutras de Patañjali, II 49
Due to the oral tradition of yoga or the Vedic philosophies it is not until a few thousand years later, in a more modern text, the 15th century Hatha Yoga Pradipika, that the yogis put in writing what these techniques of yoga or pranayama breathing are. So we can answer the questions ‘How is pranayama practiced?’ and ‘What are the basic techniques of yoga?’
Basic Yoga Breaths
Major or classic pranayamas vary between 5 and 11 types, depending on the source. In Hatha Yoga Pradipika we find 8 main pranayamas:
“atha kumbhakabhedah suryabhedanamujjayi sitkari Sital tatha bhastrika bhramari murccha plavinityastakumbhakah.” | “There are 8 pranayamas or kumbhakas: surya bhedana, ujjayi, sitkari, sitali, bhastrika, bhramari, murcha y plavini.” – Hatha Yoga Pradipika, II 44
We can also add nadi shodhana which is considered preparatory, kapalabhati which is a kriya or shatkarma (cleansing of the body) and also chandra bhedana as opposed to surya.
The major pranayamas
- Kapalabhati. The skull cleansing breath. It is the breathing technique that cleans the air passages that pass through the head. It consists of exhaling with abdominal blows that will give brief and intense bursts of forced expulsion of air, leaving the inspiration to become passive.
- Nadi Shodhana. It is one of the most complete techniques of pranayama. It consists of one complete circular breath, one cycle contains two breaths: inhale left, exhale right, inhale right, exhale left. As it is an alternate breath, to practice it, hand mudras are used as vishnu mudra (the clamp) or nasagra mudra (the mudra of the nose). It’s objective is to bring balance, prepare the nadis (energy channels) and the nostrils to obtain the same flow of air through the two nostrils, equalizing the duration of inspiration and exhalation.
- Surya Bhedana.Solar respiration. Circular breathing, always inhaling with the right nostril and exhaling with the left nostril, activating the energy in the solar nadi (pingala). We will use mudras to alternate the nostrils.
- Ujjayi.The warrior or victory breath. It is the basic breath on which most pranayamas are based. It is recommended to apply ujjayi during asana practice, both in dynamic and static postures.
For this, we create a small closure of the glottis for the entire breath cycle (first the navel is filled, then the ribs and chest and finally the collarbones) for the entirety of inhaling and exhaling. A gentle and continuous sound is produced by the friction of the air and the breath is extended spontaneously and naturally. It is a deep and regular breathing.
- Sitkari. Breathing through clenched teeth, gums, and tongue. Summer cooling breath. Refreshing breaths are the only ones that are not performed solely and exclusively through the nostrils, but different parts of the mouth are also used.
- Sitali. Calm breathing. It is also a refreshing breath. inhaling is done by forming a circular tube with the tongue. Breathe out through the two nostrils.
- Bhastrika. Etymologically, bhastrika means bellows (like to stoke a fire, by the sound of breathing). Unlike kapalabhati, with bhastrika both inspiration and exhalation are active.
In order to exhale, the abdominals contract in a lightning, vigorous and energetic way towards the inside and when inhaling the same but towards the outside. Both inhalation and exhalation are active. A constant rhythmic sound is produced. The abdominals are the only muscles in action.
- Bhramari. The breathing of the bee. The ears are covered with a mudra (sanmukhi, the mudra of the six doors) to amplify the inner sensation and sound produced by breathing. Breathe in through both nostrils. Slightly half-open the lips and exhale through the mouth producing a “zzzzzzzzzz” bee-like sound. The sound is produced by the vibration of the lips when exhaling. It can be done with the letter “b”, the “m” or the mantra “OM”.
- Murcha. The practice of expansion of consciousness or loss of senses. The emphasis during breathing is placed on exhalation, which brings us to this state of mind expansion of consciousness. The technique is to lengthen the exhalation as much as we can within the limits of the abilities and experience of the practitioner.
- Plavini. The floating breath. Perform a complete yogic inhalation, deep and fast, with the two nostrils, opening the fins of the nose to allow a greater entry of air. Retention with full lungs, to the maximum capacity of the practitioner.
- Chandra Bhedana. Lunar respiration. Contrary to surya bhedana, always inhaling with the left nostril, to activate the ascent of prana through the nadi ida, and exhaling with the right. We will use mudras to alternate the nostrils.
How to practice pranayama?
These techniques, especially if practiced with retentions (kumbhakas), can be intense or exhausting, so it is important to remember the qualities that define pranayama according to Patañjali:
dirgha-sukshma: long, regular, soft and subtle.
It applies not only to the depth of the breath, but also to the physical, mental and emotional state. A long, regular, soft and subtle breath; without change to intensity or speed, respecting at all times our natural breathing impulse. Regulation does not imply control or blocking, but accompanying. That is why we must first learn to listen and get to know our breath: it’s rhythm, volume and frequency before, during and after the practice.
But it doesn’t end here, there are as many techniques as there are postures and these have been adapted to Western practitioners, their rhythms and biases. Like yoga postures, these types of breathing have a specific purpose of their own, but with the same purpose of changing our mental state.
As we advance in the practice of pranayama, our lung capacity will gradually increase and the quality of breathing will improve. This change will be holistic and natural.
We have seen how pranayama techniques help us change or modify our state of mind. Although some do it more than others, any technique practiced with awareness and leaving a time of silence and observation afterwards brings us closer to this state of attention, focus and fulfillment, the state of yoga. In summary the major techniques of pranayama are: surya bhedana, ujjayi, sitkari, sitali, bhastrika, bhramari, murcha and plavini, plus kaphalabhati, nadi shodhana and chandra bhedana.
Enjoy your practice yogis!
Teacher of Hatha Yoga and Pranayama
Yoga para la calma mental