Thousands of years ago, yogis in India devised a system of conscious breathing techniques. They practiced them devoutly in order to bring themselves into higher states of consciousness. These breathing exercises are still being practiced by modern yogis today. Not only does working with the breath in a conscious manner allow us to tune into higher states of consciousness, it also has a profound effect on our overall health.
Through conscious breath work we can learn how to balance and relax the nervous system, which helps the body heal on all levels: body, mind and spirit. The beauty of conscious breath work is that it can be done anywhere. Unlike your physical yoga practice, which you do on your mat in a studio or at home, breath work may be done at home, in the office, while sitting in traffic, on the plane, while listening to a friend chat – wherever your life may take you. It’s a versatile practice that can help you expand your awareness during meditation, or simply help you switch into a more relaxed state of being when you’re stressed out. (Learn How to Release Anxiety Using Breath.)
The following are a handful of practices in which you can use your breath to alter your state of being.
The bumblebee breath (bhramari pranayama) is a playful way to work with your breath and is done sitting in a seated cross-legged position. It’s the perfect technique to practice when you need to withdrawal your senses from the stimulation of modern life. This withdrawal of the senses is called pratyahara. It is the fifth limb of Patanjali’s eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga found in the Yoga Sutras.
To practice the bumblebee breath, simply allow your eyes to close gently, place your index fingers on your forehead and the remaining fingers gently under your eyes with your thumbs on the tragus of your ears. Next, breathe in through your nose and breathe out through your mouth while humming like a bee. You’ll feel a vibration pulsate throughout your entire body as you do this. Inhale again through the nose and exhale, making the buzzing sound of a bee. Repeat as many times as you like. (Learn more about The Practice of Pranayama.)
Abdominal breathing is great for those of us just beginning to work with our breath because the technique is incredibly easy. It’s a versatile breathing technique because you can do it anywhere. Some people like to do it lying down but it can also be done seated, standing or even while walking. To practice the abdominal breath, also called a complete breath, place your hands on your lower belly and begin to take long, deep breaths into your abdominal cavity. Allow the belly to expand on your inhale and contract on your exhale. You can keep your eyes open or close your eyes as you continue to breath in this fashion. Do it as many times and as often as you like.
This one is also referred to as alternate nostril breathing. Nadi shodhana is a bit more complicated than the previous two techniques. Once you get the hang of it however, you’ll love it. It is one of the most beloved conscious breathing techniques in yoga. This one works well sitting in a cross-legged position.
Here’s how it’s done: With your right hand, cover your left nostril with your ring finger, while covering your right nostril with your thumb. Allow your pointer and pinky fingers to curl inward. You can then place your middle finger over your third eye if you like. Now, press the ring finger into the left nostril while inhaling through your right nostril. Make sure you take a deep inhalation, and pause for a moment. Then cover up your right nostril with your thumb and exhale completely through the left nostril. Pause at the bottom of the exhalation. Next, inhale through your left nostril, covering your right nostril with the thumb, and cover your left nostril with your ring finger while exhaling completely out of the right nostril. Pause again. Repeat this pattern for as long as you like. Anywhere from five to 15 minutes is ideal.
Alternate nostril breathing helps to balance the nervous system. It also helps you focus, so try practicing this one the next time before you need to work on a project for work or school.
'Let Go' Breath
This conscious breathing technique is super simple. All you need to do is inhale deeply as you think to yourself the word, “let.” Pause at the top of the inhalation. On your exhale think to yourself, “go.” Pause at the bottom of your exhalation. Repeat for as long as you like. Practice this one while doing just about anything and, if you really need to let go, allow yourself to rest in corpse pose, or savasana. Let go of any and all tension you’re holding in your body and imagine all worries floating gently away from your mind. (Learn more in The Freedom in Letting Go.)
Complete Yogic Breath
This is a great conscious breathing technique to do while you’re out walking the dog or taking a serene stroll. It’s also helpful when you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep. Simply take a deep inhalation and count to four as you do so. At the top of the inhalation, hold the breath for a count of four. Then exhale to a count of four.
This technique deeply relaxes the nervous system, so be sure to try this one the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed. (To help, here's How to Deal With Feeling Overwhelmed.)