Breath Focus with 6 Pranayama Techniques
Pranayama is a word to describe breathing exercises we do in our Yoga practice to bring conscious awareness to the breath. Here we outline 6 different pranayama techniques to support you in your own practice.
Yoga is so much more than the postures you practice. An essential part of yoga is pranayama which is all about the breath. Prana is our vital life force energy and pranayama describes breathing exercises that enhance the flow of this life force energy. The breath is involuntary and breathes itself but we can to a certain extent control how we breathe through our pranayama practice.
Pause to take a deep full breath now. Notice the breath travel through the nose, down the throat and all the way down to the belly. Feel the belly expand on your inhale and soften to relax back on your exhale.
We breathe 24/7, the breath breathes itself without any conscious effort on our part. You might notice how when you feel stressed or even alert with excitement you can hold the breath and when you feel really relaxed, perhaps when hugging a loved one, you might notice the breath deepen.
How we breathe directly affects how our body and mind experience life. There’s a lot to say about this but for today, I want to introduce you specifically to 6 different pranayama exercises, and how the breath can help us to be present, bringing focus to the mind.
Breath focus can help to reduce stress and calm the body. When we breathe deeply, and particularly when we extend the exhalation, our nervous system downregulates into the parasympathetic, also known as the “rest and digest” mode. This takes us out of our stress response and allows us to integrate our experiences, digest our food and be able to relax properly.
Here are 5 different pranayama techniques to support you in your practice:
This simple technique helps you to become conscious of the breath, anchoring you into the present moment. The hand placement can be a gesture of presence, letting yourself know that you are here and you are taking care of yourself.
Either lying down or seated, place one hand on the belly and one hand on the heart. Simply feel the breath. Notice the subtle movements that the breath creates between the belly and the chest.
Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breath)
This helps to calm the nervous system, strengthen the respiratory system, oxygenate the blood and it is said to balance the energy of the creative right hemisphere and logic left hemisphere of the brain.
In seated, with your right hand, place your forefinger and middle finger on the point between your eyebrows. Use your thumb to block the right nostril so you can inhale through your left nostril. At the peak of your inhale close your left nostril with your ring finger and unblock the right to exhale. Inhale right, then block the right and unblock the left to exhale left side. Inhale left then swap over and continue for about 10 full cycles. After, release the hands to your lap.
This is when there is a consciously held pause between breaths. Kumbha is the sanskrit word for clay pot which can also refer to the human torso in the sense of the body being a clay pot in which to hold prana. Asana bakes the clay pot of the body so that it can withstand the pouring in of prana (breath).
One way to explore this technique, is to inhale a third of your full inhale, pause the breath, inhale another third, pause, inhale your final third, pause then exhale in a slow, long, controlled breath out. Continue for a few rounds then allow the breath to return to normal.
Sitali Pranayama (Cooling Breath)
Breathwork can be used to cool the body down so this is a great one to do on a hot day or to downregulate after a heated strength building sequence.
Roll the tongue, or if you can’t roll the tongue then grit the teeth. Inhale through rolled tongue (or gritted teeth) and exhale through the nose with the mouth closed. Continue for around 7 rounds then let the breath return to natural.
This is a great way to let go of anything you need to get out of the body and it can also inject a bit of sillyness into your practice because yoga doesn’t have to be super serious all the time! This breath clears stagnant or stuck energy and helps you to embody the fierceness of a lion.
Inhale through the nose then stick your tongue out as far as it will go making a “ha” sound as you exhale out the mouth. Do about 4 rounds then allow the breath to return to natural
Ujayi Breath (Breath of the Victorious)
Ocean Breath concentrates and directs the breath, giving asana practice extra power and focus. It increases oxygen consumption. Practicing this breathing pattern also calms your body’s flight or flight response. Your body is telling you that it wants to get out of a pose as soon a possible, but with deep breathing you are saying in response that everything is OK and you can hold for longer.
To do this breath you can first try exhaling with the mouth open as though you’re fogging a mirror. Then close the mouth and use only the nose to breathe, still feeling this slight constriction in your throat on the exhale so that the breath is audible. Use this breath to carry you through your asana practice.
Remember, simply taking a moment to pause and breathe can help to calm the nervous system and bring the body into its natural state of rest and relaxation.