Twelve Days of Yoga: On the 6th Day

“On the 6th day of yoga, my guru gave to me…

6 heavy breathers
5 minute peace

4 flying crows
3 om’ing om oms
2 turtle poses
and a Hanuman in a coconut tree.

The process of breathing defines the essence of our being.  As you know breathing is an involuntary and voluntary process.  The power of the breath lies in the voluntary process in which yogis call pranayama, the practice of controlling and manipulating the breath also known as prana or life force.

How many ways can you breathe?  Each pranayama technique is used to target different areas in the body or create a calming or energizing effect.  Here’s some:

1.  ujjyai — this is the breath most commonly used in vinyasa based classes, also called victorious breath.  Breathe through the nose  and air is concentrated in the upper chest and throat.  Most teachers compare this breath to the sound of Darth Vader.  I prefer to compare it to a deep oceanic sound, similar to the sound of a shell when placed to your ear.  Practice it by narrowing the air passages in your throat.  It’s a similar action required to talk in a loud whisper.   Ujjayi breathing gives precise control of the flow of air in and out of the body.  The inhale and exhale are of equal length with no tension in the face or gasping of air.  Use this during yoga practice to warm up and energize the body.  It’s also used to relax the body.

2.  Kapalabhati — shining skull breath used for cleansing and to energize.  It’s a rapid abdominal breath.  Breath is short, rapid, and strong with air exiting the nostrils.  The belly acts as a pump to create pressure and force the air from the nasal passages.  The exhale is forced out and the inhale naturally occurs. Kapala means “skull,” and bhati means “that which brings lightness.” Kapalabhati is a good thing to do when we feel heavy or foggy in the head and sinuses.

3.  Bhastrika — bellows breath.  It is similar to kapalabhati where the air is expelled forcefully, except both the inhale and the exhale are controlled in short, rapid and strong cycles.  Practicing this technique helps increase circulation, clear the nasal passages, and clarity of mind.

4. Shitali — cooling breath.  Stick the tongue out and curl the sides to touch each other.  The lips are closed around the tongue in a circular shape.  Breathe deeply and smoothly through the hole made by the tongue.

5. Sitkari — teeth hissing.  Similar to shitali except the teeth are involved.  Press the tip of the tongue against the front of the teeth and the sides of the tongue line the sides of the mouth. Inhale through the teeth, a cool hissing sound is produced. Close the mouth after the inhale and exhale thru the nose.

6. Bhramari — bee breath. Inhale through the nose and while exhaling make a hummmmmmmm humming noise until your exhale is complete.  Pause and notice the vibration and repeat.  This technique is said to be one of the most healing breaths to practice as it calms the mind, reduces stress, cerebral tensions, anger, anxiety, insomnia; blood pressure is also lowered.

7. Nadi Shodhan — alternate nostril breath.  Close the right nostril with the right thumb.  Inhale slowly through the left nostril.   After complete inhalation, close the left nostril with the ring finger of the right hand. Open the right nostril, exhale slowly. After complete exhalation, again inhale through the right nostril. Close the right nostril by pressing it with the right thumb. After opening the left nostril, breathe out slowly. This process is one round of nadi shodhan.  Improves breathing capacity, strengthens lungs, develops body balance and clarity of mind, purifies the nervous system, and calms mental turbulence.

8.  Kumbhaka — breath retention.  There’s a saying, “God” lives in the space between breaths.  So to find “God” you must be still.  In this practice, there is an inhale retention and an exhale retention.  Inhale and fill your lungs.  Pause (antar kumbhaka).  Sit and see how it feels.  Hold until you naturally want to exhale.  After you exhale, pause (bahir kumbhaka). It’s not about how long you can hold (that would be ego breathing) but what you find in the stillness.  Most people find that holding breath in is easier as we think we have more air to draw in but the breath out can be a little scary as we feel like we’re running out and will suffocate, but it’s extremely liberating as we rest in stillness.

These are just a few ways to breathe.  Make sure you know what you are doing and practice with a teacher who can guide you safely.  

If all else fails, just breathe in and breathe out with conscious control.  🙂

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