Breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth. Something so simple can completely realign your mind and body. This is the basic idea behind yogic Pranayama, AKA, yoga breathing exercises. Yoga is said to improve mindfulness, physiological states, mental health, and emotional regulation. This practice of yoga uses an understanding of the physical body, energy levels, and conscious breathing to relax the body and settle the mind.
It is easy to get caught up in the busyness of our everyday lives, but there are quick and simple ways to regain control of our body and mind. Here’s some background on Pranayama, which practices are the most helpful, and the importance of choosing the best yoga accessories for performing these exercises.
The History Behind Yogic Beliefs & Pranayama
Yoga in ancient India identified prana as a sort of universal energy which separates the living and dead. This energy is thought to flow through tons of small energy channels called ‘nadis’. Ancient yoga exercisers sought the power of breath to expand the prana of a person. Unique breathing practices were made to stabilize good health, good mindfulness, and increase life energy. These exercises were made to be conducive for meditation.
‘Prana’ references the universal life energy and ‘ayama’ refers to the ability to regulate or increase. The idea is to strengthen the connection between spirituality, body, and mind. Pranayama is the regulation of prana through breathing techniques.
Both the quantity and quality of prana effect the mind. Levels of prana determine states of mind and emotion. When prana is low and unstable, the mind feels emotions such as worry, angst, tension, and uncertainty. On the other hand, when prana is high and steady, the mind calms down, creating positive emotions and overall energy states.
How Will Pranayama Help Me?
There are many benefits of practicing healthy breathing. These techniques help both physical symptoms as well as mental. Pranayama is said to reduce stress and worries, improving states of anxiety and depression. It can improve focusing abilities which removes that foggy-headed feeling, aids in a stronger immune system by bringing steady oxygen into the body, boosts energy levels which allows for more positivity, and may even slow down the pace of aging. Independent studies have been done on the topic of Pranayama and Sudarshan Krya breathing that show many of these benefits.
When studying the mind and emotion, science has shown that mimicking facial expressions or smiling when in a negative state can actually improve the person’s emotions. Pranayama breathing exercises work in a very similar way. When you regulate your breathing in a healthy and stable manner, you gain control of your thoughts and emotions. This can be extremely powerful in changing negative feelings to positive ones, which in turn helps the physical body.
Before Starting Pranayama…
Prior to starting your breathing exercises, you will want to be aware of a few helpful tips. First, grab your best non-slip yoga mat, find a quiet spot, and make yourself comfortable. Being alone during Pranayama can be very beneficial, especially when trying to clear your thoughts and relax. Quiet is extremely important in both meditation and Pranayama, helping with mindfulness and slowing down your mind.
Know what to aim for. Pranayama encourages long, smooth breathing. This helps with control, focus, and steering the mind away from the busyness and chaos of daily life. Unfortunately, most of our breathing patterns throughout the day are short, tense, and unsteady. Pranayama will force you to focus on that breathing, and change it to a steadier, smoother breathing pattern.
Understand diaphragmatic breathing. This will be very important during Pranayama breathing. Using an extra-long yoga mat, lie flat on your back with your knees bent. Keep your feet about a hips distance apart, flat on the floor. Breathe normally, while keeping the palm of your hand on your lower abdomen. This targets the diaphragm, in which you should be breathing from (not breathing with your chest). as you inhale, you will feel the abdomen expanding, and as you exhale it will compress. Practice this until you feel comfortable with the body’s movements. During Pranayama, you will breathe this way without having to hold your abdomen.
Another important tip is knowing which yoga accessories you will need for effective Pranayama exercises. As we explore the ten best types of Pranayama, we will talk some more about yoga accessories, but here are a few basics to keep in mind. Eco-friendly yoga mats are a great choice when practicing pranayama or yoga in general. These practices connect the mind, body, and spirit, using natural remedies and strategies. Using environmentally friendly yoga accessories reinforces this natural initiative, while helping the planet. An outdoor yoga mat will be great for those who like to breathe in the fresh air. Choosing a quiet spot outdoors can be very relaxing for the mind. Meditation cushions are great for the indoors, and will be comforting during a Pranayama session. Finally, yoga bolster pillows! These are highly recommended for almost all Pranayama exercises. Remember—the goal is to relax both the mind and the body. These yoga accessories are sure to help the process!
The Best Types of Pranayama & the Tools You Will Need to Practice Them
Deep breathing will prepare you for many of the other pranayama exercises. This involves taking long, smooth breaths through both inhales and exhales. Focus on your breath through the diaphragm. Begin inhaling in counts (i.e. count in your head or use a timer/metronome to keep count). Then, exhale in the same amount of counts. For example, if you inhale for four seconds, exhale for four. Once you become comfortable with this type of breathing, you can increase the ratio of exhalations. This will bring you to the long exhale practice.
Deep breathing reduces heart rate in a calming way. Blood pressure is also reduced and more oxygen is able to enter the body through long breaths. These factors can decrease anxiety, agitation, and tension in the body. Being conscious of your breaths calms the nervous system, which in turn relaxes the mind and reduces cluttered thoughts and emotions. A meditation cushion is perfect for this type of breathing, since it allows for comfortable conscious breathing. You can also use a yoga bolster pillow to provide some additional support to the spine.
This practice works to increase exhalation so that it is twice as long as your inhalation. This also calms the nervous system which helps with sleep problems, anxiety, and insomnia. To practice this, lay in the diaphragmatic breathing position, flat on the floor with knees bent. While breathing, note how many seconds each inhale and exhale lasts for. Consciously try to extend your exhalations by contracting your abdomen for a second longer than the last. Make sure to only aim for a 1 to 2 ratio—for example, if your inhale is two seconds, only exhale for four. If your inhale is 5 seconds, only exhale for ten. For this exercise try using a large yoga mat for space and comfort. High quality yoga mats will offer sturdy cushioning for floor positions.
Brahmari aka ‘Bee Breath’
This breathing technique is especially helpful for those feeling anxiety. This exercise refers to the humming of a bee, which can be soothing for a busy mind. The goal is to extend exhalation without feeling tension or strain. This technique involves sitting upright, eyes closed, inhaling through the nostrils, and humming the letter ‘m’ as you exhale. This can be done for as long as it takes to soothe the anxiety.
Most people will want to find a quiet space, alone, to complete this exercise, due to its humming features. Whether you are at home or on the go, you can use a meditation cushion for this exercise. This is a space conscious yoga accessory that is perfect for a variety of locations.
Kapalabhati aka ‘Light Skull Breathing’
Kapalabhati is known for its detoxifying characteristics. This is said to detox the body (i.e. sinuses and respiratory system) and clean out the energy channels. It may also improve a person’s intuition. Increasing oxygen flow through Kapalabhati allows for higher focus and an increase in energy levels. To do this, sit upright, deeply inhale through your nostrils, contract your abdomen to release the breath in a quick burst. Immediately after, beginning inhaling again, and repeat these steps for a minute. Depending on experience, you can speed up each step and repeat for multiple minutes. An outdoor yoga mat is great for this exercise. Since you are aiming to cleanse and detox, practicing outside can offer fresh air into the lungs.
Bhastrika aka Bellows Breathing
Bellows breath helps to increase your energy levels or prana. This is an ideal exercise for those who want to lose weight, since regular practice can help improve your digestive system and increase metabolism. Bhastrika is the most effective when done early in the morning, when you’re feeling sluggish or tired, and right before a workout. To do this, focus on strong and powerful inhalations and exhalations. Sit up straight and pay close attention to moving only the belly (or diaphragm) while avoiding moving your shoulders, neck, and head. You can use a regular yoga mat for this exercise.
Nadi Shodhana aka ‘Channel-Cleaning’
Commonly referred to as alternate nostril breathing, Nadi Shodhana aims to purify energy channels in the mind and body. This increases oxygen levels, reduces stress, clears the respiratory system, balances hormones, and increases focus which clears a hectic mind. Sit crossed-legged on a thick yoga mat or meditation cushion to support your spine. Keep your body long and tall as you place the tip of your right index finger and middle finger at the base of the thumb. After inhaling, close your right nostril with your right thumb. Exhale softly but completely through your left nostril. Then, inhale through the left nostril, and use your right ring and pinky finger to close your left nostril while you exhale through your right nostril. Once more, use your right thumb to close the right nostril and release your breath through the left nostril. This is considered one round of the exercise, which you can repeat several times.
Sitali/Sitkari aka Cooling Breath
Feeling a bit hot headed? Cooling breathing is designed to reduce anger, irritation, and other anxieties. While sitting in a relaxed position, with your chin slightly, downward curl your tongue inwards to create a straw appearance and hold it outside of your mouth comfortably. As you inhale through your tongue, steadily lift your chin upwards and close your mouth. When exhaling, slowly lower your chin and breath out through your nostrils until you’re back in the original position. Repeat this up to twelve times. If you cannot roll your tongue, place it right behind your teeth and follow the same steps. This is considered Sitkari. You will feel a cooling air in through your mouth across your tongue, which is said to calm the nervous system. For this decompressing exercise, try using a yoga bolster pillow for added comfort.
Also known as the victorious breath, Ujjayi offers a long and smooth breathing technique. This is meant to be both relaxing and energizing. In a cross-legged, sitting position, pretend you are breathing through a straw. This is a delicate but focused practice, that should make you feel slight restriction in your throat. Gently inhale and exhale against that feeling, while listening to the sound this makes. It should sound soothing, like the ocean’s waves. You can use an extra thick yoga mat to relax during this exercise.
Surya Bhedan aka Right Nostril Breathing
Surya means the sun and bheda refers to awakening. This exercise purifies the energy channels in the body. By holding alternate nostrils, inhale through your right nostril and exhale through your left. This helps to increase energy levels in your body, warms the body, activates the sympathetic nervous system, and helps in balancing acidity and mucus in the body. This simple yet beneficial exercise can be practiced on a meditation cushion for extra comfort.
Viloma Breathing aka Interrupted Breathing
This is a unique breathing exercise, designed to help prepare the body for deep breathing, localized control over air flow, and helps increase breath capacity. To start, close your eyes and imagine that your body is made up of stairs or a ladder. Your pelvis is the bottom while your throat is the top. When you inhale, do so in steps, rather than smoothly and completely. Picture the prana increasing as you complete each step up the body. When you reach your throat, and lungs feel full, gently and smoothly exhale. After a few rounds of this, do the same with your exhales. Start at the top of your throat and chest, until you have completely released all of your air at the bottom of the ladder. Lastly, inhale and exhale in steps. Since this practice involves concentration, choose a quiet place to exercise. Using a sturdy cork yoga mat may be helpful to focus during this type of breathing.