Pranayama Breath Control: The Key to Maximizing Your Energy

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Yoga is an ancient practice that can take many different forms. From devotion, to physical movement, to the quest for knowledge, yoga is as unique as all of its various practitioners. Breath control has been and continues to be a large part of yoga. It is believed that breath control not only enhances clarity but, helps to restore the body’s natural flow of energy. In yoga there are more forms of breath control than you might imagine. The word pranayama can be broken down into two smaller words. The first word, “prana”, is the name for the life force or energy that flows through the body. The second half of pranayama is “ayama” which means extension or control. Alternately, the Sanskrit word “pra” also means before, or “to breathe”. This article will explore some of its forms, such as Samavrtti, Ujjayi, Kumbhaka, Anuloma Viloma, Kapalabhati, and Sithali. Although their names might sound complicated these breathing techniques are easy to practice and have varying degrees of mastery – much like yoga itself.

Samavrtti: The first type of breath control is the most normal and well known to every person that walks this Earth. Samavrtti in Sanskrit means “same action”. This is a steady even breath where the inhale matches or is equal to the exhale in duration. This is a slow and steady breath, the breath of relaxation. To begin practicing this form of breath control, inhale for four counts and then exhale for four counts. This action is believed to calm the mind and create a sense of balance.

Ujjayi: The next form of breath control is the most commonly practiced in yoga. Ujjayi breath means “victorious breath” in Sanskrit and is sometimes called the “ocean breath.” Ujjayi breath is an audible breath. This is formed by partially closing the epiglottal passage or slightly closing the throat. Much like Samavrtti, this breath is even. To practice Ujjayi close your mouth and breath in slowly and continuously for four counts. Exhale in the same manner, keeping the breath in through the nose. This form of breath control is said to help tone the internal organs, increase body health, improve concentration, and more.

Kumbhaka: This is the practice of holding one’s breath, which is where this form draws its name. Kumbhaka in Sanskrit means “to retain the breath”. Continuing to build on the pranayama previously described, begin with Ujjayi. Once you have established a comfortable rhythm, hold your breath for four to eight counts in between every four breaths. In the beginning your Kumbhaka or retention should start off shorter. As you become more practiced in this art, begin increasing the retention. Also one may begin to reduce the number of breaths in between the retentions. Kumbhaka is believed to strengthen the diaphragm, restore energy and cleanse the respiratory system.

Anuloma Viloma: This form of pranayama might look a bit funny to us Western practitioners of yoga but it is quite beneficial. Anuloma Viloma means Alternate Nostril Breathing in Sanskrit. Much like its name implies, practitioners use their right hand to alternate closing your different nostrils. The first step to learning how to practice this form of breath control is the Vishnu Mudra or hand position with the index and middle fingers curled. Lightly press your right thumb on the outside of the right nostril and inhale only through your left nostril. Keep your mouth closed. Close your left nostril with your ring finger and hold your breath momentarily. Release your thumb and exhale through the right nostril. Repeat the process inhaling through the right nostril. Start slowly with a low number of cycles and then progress from there. This form of breath control is believed to promote the flow of energy, as well as lower the heart rate and relieve stress.

Kapalabhati: Also known as “The Shining Skull,” this type of pranayama is a little bit different from those we have previously explored. Kapalabhati incorporates a rhythmic action by pumping your abdominal muscles on the exhales. Loosen up your abdominal muscles before beginning this practice. To begin, fill your lungs and then push all of the air out in a quick thrust. Inhalation automatically follows, creating this rhythm of breathing. Upon the exhale you have completed one cycle. When starting this practice begin with a low number of cycles or repetitions such as 10. Continue to build from there working up towards four rounds of twenty cycles of breath. This pranayama is thought to strengthen the diaphragm, restore energy and cleanse the respiratory system.

Sithali: Our final form of pranayama for this article, sithali, is roughly translated as “The cooling breath.” This form differs from other types of pranayama as the inhale is drawn through the mouth. Begin by curling your tongue and then slightly stick it out. Draw your breath in through your curled tongue, retain the breath closing your mouth and exhale through your nose. Repeat this process anywhere between five to ten cycles. This type of prana energy is believed to cool the body while providing a feeling of wellness.

**Contraindications: Some pranayama techniques such as breath retention or sharp, forceful breathing may not be safe during pregnancy.

**References: Much of this information comes from the wonderful resource of “Anatomy of Yoga” by Dr. Abigail Ellsworth



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Pranayama Benefits and Techniques

Practitioners of traditional Indian medicine (Ayurveda) tell us that the human body is made up of five separate elements (earth, water, fire, wind and space), three separate humors (called dosas) and our consciousness.

The earth element, according to the yoga scholar Françoise Wang-Toutain et al., forms the solid components of our body, and space forms the internal cavities through which all of the other elements flow. Fire and water are propelled by wind. Wind, in this instance, refers not only to our gross breath, but also to the basal energetic forces that govern all of our bodily functions.

The traditional name for these energetic winds is “vayu”. Said to be ten in total, these vayus are sub-units of a “master” wind (pranavayu) that joins our mind together with elements from our mother and father at the moment of our conception.

As we continue to develop in the womb, the pranavayu sub-divides itself into five primary and five subsidiary winds. These winds then provide the energy for essential bodily functions such as circulation, elimination, assimilation, respiration and locomotion.

When the vayus function efficiently, the body enjoys good physical health and mental clarity. When the winds become imbalanced or the channels through which they flow become damaged and sickness, disease and ill health arise.

Wang-Toutain et al. states that control of the breathing process (pranayama) provides one of the most direct methods to expand the life force and balance the vayus. Because of this, traditional Hatha Yoga practices rely heavily on pranayama practices for greater health and vitality.

Benefits of Pranayama

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a seminal text on pranayama practices, mentions a number of benefits that can arise as the energy winds are drawn into balance. These benefits include a “glowing countenance”, weight reduction, improved digestive capabilities, and a reduction in symptoms from a number of diseases.

Modern researchers have found that the benefits of yoga and pranayama practices include improvements in mood, increased energy, stress and anxiety reduction, better neurological functioning, and improved physical health.

A caveat: It’s important to note that the pranayama practices included in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika are typically done as part of a holistic regimen that also includes a number of additional purification techniques, dietary shifts and herbal remedies. If you wish to include pranayama practices as part of a healing regimen, it’s always best to practice these exercises under the guidance of a trained Ayurvedic specialist.

Pranayama Techniques for Home Practice

If you wish to practice pranayama techniques for yourself, it’s always important to begin slowly. Many traditional pranayama exercises utilize breath retention exercises in order circulate energy through the body. When overdone, these exercises can strain the lungs and create further imbalances in the energy system, so it’s always important to do them slowly, gently and according to your capacity.

*Please note that breath retention practices are contraindicated for expectant mothers.

How Should I Sit When Practicing?

Swami Svatmarama recommends the full lotus pose for pranayama practitioners. While the lotus provides one of the best supportive bases for those who can do it, the posture is notoriously challenging if your hip muscles are tight or you are simply not used to sitting on the floor for extended periods of time.

Because of this, you should feel free to sit in any seated posture that will allow you to keep your spine straight. If you are most comfortable sitting in a chair, feel free to use one.

Pranayama Exercises

The first exercise in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is an alternate nostril breath with a breath retention at the end of every inhale. If you’ve never done pranayama before, this can be pretty challenging.

Because of this, I’ve included two simple exercises that can be used to prepare for the breath retention practice included in the Pradipika. If you’ve never done pranayama before, practice the following two exercises daily for at least two weeks each before going on to the third.

Sama Vrtti Pranayam (the Breath of Equal Duration)

Regular practice of this pranayama technique will help you to develop the ability to control the duration of your breath without force or strain. Benefits of this pranayama include stress reduction, increased energy, a deeper lung capacity and heightened ability to concentrate.

  • Find your way to a comfortable seated position.
  • Direct all of your awareness to your inhale and exhale.
  • Make your inhale and exhale equal by inhaling to a count of five, four, three, two one, and exhale to the same count.
  • With practice, increase the duration of each inhale and exhale until you can breath in and out to a slow count of ten.
  • Practice a minimum of seven repetitions or as many as you are comfortable with.

Nadi Shodanam Version 1 (Energy Channel Cleansing Breath)

  • Take attention to your right hand. Place the tip of the index and middle finger on the space between your eyebrows.
  • Use your thumb to block your right nostril, and inhale fully through the left.
  • Block your left nostril with your thumb, and exhale fully out the right.
  • Reverse the process. Breathe in through the right side, and out through the left.

This cycle completes one full round.

Note: As you breath in and out, attempt to make your inhales and your exhales approximately equal in length, just as you did in Sama Vrtti Pranayama. Mentally count the length of the breath, and expand the count as the breath becomes easier.

Begin with seven full rounds of this breathing pattern. As it becomes easier, work up to more in accordance to your capacity.

Nadi Shodanam Version 2 (the Alternate Nostril Breath)

After a few weeks of practice, you may find that you’re ready to begin Nadi Shodanam. This powerful practice is the first breathing exercise mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

The breathing pattern in this form of Nadi Shodonam is identical to what you’ve already learned with one notable exception: in this practice, the breath is retained at the top of every inhale.

Holding your breath draws prana (life force) into your body and allows the energy to circulate more fully through your system. With time, this process can help to balance your energy winds and repair damage to the energy channels through which your prana flows.

Swami Svatmarama writes that this pranayama has the potential to fully purify the body’s energy channels when practiced four times per day for three months.

To practice:

  • Bring your attention to your right hand. Place the tip of your index and middle finger on the space between your eyebrows.
  • Use your thumb to block your right nostril, and inhale fully through the left.
  • Hold your breath at the top of your inhale for as long as is comfortable
  • Block your left nostril with your thumb, and exhale fully out the right.
  • Reverse the process. Breathe in through the right side, hold your breath at the top and breathe out through the left.

Once you’ve grown accustomed to the breath, practice making your inhale, retention, and exhale equal in length.

Kapalabhatti Pranayam

Kapalabhatti Pranayam (the skull-shining breath) is one of six additional cleansing practices mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Benefits of this exercises include increased energy and heightened mental clarity.

In this practice, exhales are short and active and inhales are passive. Inhales occur as a result of forcing the breath out in short, quick bursts through the nostrils (sort of like the breath that you use to blow out a birthday candle, only through the nose instead).

To begin:

  1. Find a comfortable seated position.
  2. To begin the first round of kapalabhatti, inhale deeply through your nose, and then exhale half of your air.
  3. Once your lungs have emptied approximately halfway, squeeze the muscles of your belly down and in to press air out through your nose in a quick burst. Relax your belly and let the lungs effortlessly fill to halfway again.
  4. Repeat according to capacity, building up to three rounds of fifty repetitions.

Note: Becoming comfortable with Kapalabhatti pranayama can take some practice, so go slowly at first. The slower tempo will allow you better feel the active nature of the exhale and the passive nature of the inhale. Pay attention to any feelings of dizziness or breathlessness and stop the exercise for the day if they arise.

One Fluid Practice

At first, it’s best to practice each of these exercises one at a time. For example, you might consider practicing Sama Vrtti Pranayama for a few weeks before beginning Nadi Shodanam version 1. Once you’ve got it down, practice both exercises in one session.

When you’re ready to progress, add the next practice in the cycle until you are able to do all of the breathing exercises together as one full sequence. As you practice, rest as much as necessary and avoid force or strain.

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