Written by John Immel, Asheville, NC
Pranayama are yogic breathing exercises that help build prana, restoring vitality and energy. Pranayama oxygenates the blood, strengthens metabolism, cleanses the lymphatic system, and clears the mind. There are many types of pranayama, but here are some of the main ones, after a cautionary note.
A Word of Caution About Pranayama
With so much information available on breathing techniques, it can be difficult to know which kinds of breathing practices are helpful, and which are not. Some pranayamas can actually be harmful, including those which are too rapid, as well as those with breath retention. Excessively rapid breathing can lead to hyperventilation. Instead, belly breathing is a gentle practice and the perfect way to work with your breath.
On a physical level, your appetite for breathing is connected to your deepest instinct to live. Breath retention, can disconnect you from that instinct. This can be observed as a suppression of natural urges from an Ayurvedic perspective. Breath retention can detach a person from their natural impulse to breathe the source of life itself - oxygen. Ayurveda encourages a cautious outlook on any practice that may suppress natural urges, especially the breath, as this can weaken other healthy instincts as well.
While belly breathing balances Vata dosha and calms the nervous system, suppression of natural urges in other breathing exercises can have the opposite effect. In these cases, if a Vata aggravation occurs, one may experience feelings of anxiety and confusion. Excessive attention to the breath can lead a person to an excess of clear quality, an imbalance of ether element, and a sense that one is disconnected from reality. Belly breathing is a gentle, grounded way to get the benefits of yoga's breathing techniques, without the side effect of increased ether element.
Those with circulatory and respiratory conditions, impaired diaphragm or any major health concerns should refrain from practicing belly breathing until they have clarification from their health care provider. Check with your medical doctor before starting making and changes to your health and wellness routine. For best results, practice with a qualified expert.
It is best to practice pranayama under a licensed professional. Remember to be gentle with yourself. If you feel your muscles getting sore or any discomfort, you've done enough for the day. Be cautious with pranayama if you've had abdominal surgery.
Types of Pranayama
Bhastrika Pranayam: Bellows Breath
- Breathe in deeply through your nostrils. First, feel the diaphragm move down, allowing the lungs to expand and forcing the abdomen out; then feel your chest expand with your collar bones rising last.
- Breath out quickly through your nostrils. Feel the collar bones dropping, chest deflating, and abdomen shrinking as the lungs collapse. This process of exhaling should be much faster than the process of inhaling -- almost like a rapid deflation.
- Repeat the process. When correctly done, your chest will expand when you breathe in and deflate when you breathe out. Continue doing this for 5 minutes.
- With practice, speed up your breathing. Beginners should always start slowly to avoid hyperventilating, but over time, it will be possible to turn this into a rapid breathing technique.
Kapalbhati Pranayam: Shining Forehead Breath
- Inhale through your nostrils normally until your lungs are full. Keep your inhalation slow but unforced. First, feel the diaphragm move down, allowing the lungs to expand and forcing the abdomen out; then feel your chest expand with your collar bones rising last.
- Exhale through both nostrils forcefully. This places the emphasis of the breath on the exhale rather than the (natural) inhale. Assist your exhalation by pulling in your stomach muscles to expel air. Exhaling should take much less time than it took to inhale.
"Forced" exhalation means that the contraction of your stomach muscles helps push the air out of your body. It does not mean that the exhalation should be uncomfortable for you in any way.
- Practice 3 rounds of 25. Rest in between each round.
Anulom Vilom Pranayam: Alternate Nostril Breath
- Close your eyes. Focus your attention on your breathing.
- Close the right nostril with the right thumb. Simply press the thumb against your nostril to block it.
- Inhale slowly through the left nostril. Fill your lungs with air. First, feel the diaphragm move down, allowing the lungs to expand and forcing the abdomen out; then feel your chest expand with your collar bones rising last.
- Remove your thumb from your right nostril. Keep your right hand by your nose and your lungs full of air.
- Use your ring and middle finger to close your left nostril. Most people find it easier to continue using the same hand to block either nostril, but you're welcome to switch hands depending on which nostril you're blocking.
You can also switch if your arm gets tired.
- Exhale slowly and completely with the right nostril. Feel the collar bones dropping, chest deflating, and abdomen shrinking as the lungs collapse. When you've finished exhaling, keep your left nostril closed.
- Inhale through the right nostril. Fill your lungs.
- Close the right nostril and open the left.
- Breathe out slowly through the left nostril. This process is one round of Anulom Vilom Pranayam.
- Continue for 15 minutes. You may take a minute's rest after every five minutes of exercise.
Bahya Pranayam: External Breath
- Inhale deeply through your nose. First, feel the diaphragm move down, allowing the lungs to expand and forcing the abdomen out; then feel your chest expand with your collar bones rising last.
- Exhale forcefully. Use your stomach and diaphragm to push the air from your body. "Forced" exhalation means that the contraction of your stomach muscles helps push the air out of your body. It does not mean that the exhalation should be uncomfortable for you in any way.
- Touch your chin to your chest and suck in your stomach completely. The goal is to leave a hollow below your ribcage, making it look like the front muscle wall of your abdomen is pressed against the back. Hold this position -- and your breath -- for as long as is comfortable.
- Lift your chin and breathe in slowly. Allow your lungs to completely fill with air.
- Repeat 3 to 5 times.
Bhramari Pranayam: Bee Breath
- Close your eyes. Focus on your breathing.
- Place your thumbs in your ears, your index fingers above your eyebrows, and your remaining along the sides of your nose. Keep each pinky finger near a nostril.
- Breath in deeply through the nose. First, feel the diaphragm move down, allowing the lungs to expand and forcing the abdomen out; then feel your chest expand with your collar bones rising last.
- Use your pinkies to partially close each nostril. Keep your lungs filled.
- Breathe out through the nose while humming. Note that the humming sound should originate in your throat, not as a result of your partially-blocked nostrils.
- Repeat three times.
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About the Author
John Immel, the founder of Joyful Belly, teaches people how to have a
healthy diet and lifestyle with Ayurveda.
His approach to Ayurveda exudes a certain ease, which many find enjoyable and insightful.
John also directs Joyful Belly's School of Ayurveda
, which specializes in digestive tract pathology & Ayurvedic nutrition.
John and his wife Natalie recently published Explore Your Hunger: A Guide to Hunger, Appetite & Food
John's interest in Ayurveda and digestive tract pathology was inspired by a complex digestive disorder acquired from years of international travel, including his public service work in South Asia.
John's commitment to the detailed study of digestive disorders reflects his zeal to get down to the roots of the problem. His hope and belief in the capacity of each & every client to improve their quality of life is nothing short of a personal passion.
John's creativity in the kitchen and delight in cooking for others comes from his family oriented upbringing.
In addition to his certification in Ayurveda, John holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Harvard University.
John enjoys sharing Ayurveda within the context of his Catholic roots,
and finds Ayurveda gives him an opportunity to participate in the healing mission of the Church.
Jesus expressed God's love by feeding and healing the sick.
That kindness is the fundamental ministry of Ayurveda as well.
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