The breath is intricately tied to life. From the moment you enter this world, the breath is your vital energy. Why? It’s the only voluntary and involuntary bodily function that is tied to your emotional, physical and mental state—and this is especially important in yoga. Pranayama, the practice of controlling the breath, is the energy that we need to keep us alive and it’s an integral part of yoga—perhaps more so than asanas. From Sanskrit, prana translates to "life force" and yama means to "control it."
I wish I’d known more about the power of breath and the importance of pranayama when I first started my practice. Oftentimes, I found myself rushing through asanas—wanting to push my physical limits or increase my flexibility (something that I was used to doing in dance and athletics). My breath was left behind. Because of this, my breathing and asanas weren’t linked, and my practice plateaued because of this. One day, my instructor called me out for holding my breath and gently whispered: “Just breathe.” These simple words resonated with me in that moment, and I finally began to slow down and pay more attention to my breath. Breathing was something I had to re-learn, and it took patience and practice.
Here we'll explore more about the benefits of pranayama, how you can incorporate it into your yoga practice, and the common exercises and breathing techniques to help you get started.
Begin With the Breath
Breathing in yoga is a little different from the natural breath because you must be conscious of it at all times. This is what pranayama is all about. For anyone beginning yoga, I would recommend focusing on the breath before incorporating asanas so you can get the most out of your practice. After all, your breath tells a story—and you must pay attention before delving deeper. There’s a lot to learn!
(More on how and why Conscious Breathing Will Boost Your Yoga Practice.)
Basic breath-awareness exercises are a good place to start. Slow down for a few moments and notice the pattern of your natural breath. Keep the following questions in the back of your mind:
How deep is it?
How does it sound?
Can you control it?
Where does your mind wander when you breathe?
Being mindful of your breath is the first step when incorporating pranayama. Drawing consciousness to your breath will help create a clear and open mind to start pranayama, and then you’ll begin to see the benefits.
Types of Pranayama
Pranayama’s benefits are numerous when practiced alongside yoga, and some yogis even consider pranayama the most important part of the practice. Some benefits of pranayama include calming an active mind, clearing blocked chakras, increasing energy, and creating harmony between the mind, body and spirit.
(In addition to the breath, here are more ways on How to Balance Your Chakras Instantly.)
Like asanas, types of pranayama are numerous. If you’re new to it, you may be wondering how you can get started. Here are three common breathing techniques to help you get started.
Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath)
One of the most common types of pranayama, ujjayi, should be both long and smooth, creating feelings of relaxation and energy simultaneously. Also known as oceanic breath in English, this type of pranayama takes some time to perfect, and you’ll know when it is because it should sound soothing—like the waves of an ocean, or Darth Vader’s infamous inhalations and exhalations.
To perform ujjayi, start seated. Inhale. Gently resist the air on the inhale at the back of the throat. On the exhale, push the breath out. It should not feel forced.
Bhastrika Pranayama (Bellows Breath)
We’ve all experienced fatigue, but how can we resist it? The next time you’re looking for a jolt of energy, try bhastrika and notice if you feel more invigorated. Because this is an energizing breath, it is recommended to do first thing in the morning.
To perform bhastrika, sit up tall and take some breaths through your nose, expanding your belly. Exhale forcefully through your nose, then inhale at one breath per second.
Bhramari Pranayama (Bee Breath)
If your mind is racing, bhramari might just be for you. If you haven’t already guessed from its name, the exhalation in this pranayama resembles the buzzing sound of a bee and can help de-stress, calm the nerves, and rid the body and mind of accumulated anxiety and tension.
Start in a seated position with your eyes closed. Place your index fingers on the cartilage between your cheeks and ears. As you exhale, gently press on this point while making a high-pitched buzzing sound. Continue for five cycles.
The Power of Pranayama
Incorporating the breath in such a conscious manner may seem strange at first, but the benefits of pranayama for the mind, body and soul are too powerful to ignore. If you’re hesitant about getting started, listen to the sound of the breath around you the next time you’re in a yoga class. Start to breathe consciously and mindfully. With a little practice, and by incorporating some of the techniques above, you’ll be a pranayama pro in no time.