I am a firm believer that our ability to breathe is a superpower. The fact that, by choosing to breathe a certain way, we can change our body and mind state is amazing… no wonder the breath is one of yoga’s big tools!
In yoga, we use different kinds of breathing techniques to perform different postures and get different benefits: we don’t breathe the same way to get energy and stamina than to calm down and relax. The pairing of a yoga posture and the right kind of breath is both a science and art: it takes some technique and lots of practice. As a yoga teacher, I always tell my students that I can see someone’s yoga level by the quality of their breath, rather than the quality of their postures. After all, yoga without breath is just gymnastics: nothing wrong with it, but completely different universe.
In yoga, we call breathing “Pranayama”. In Sanskrit, “Prana” means “life force” and “yama” means “to control”, so Pranayama means to control the breath. When you work on your breath in yoga you are deliberately changing the way you breathe to help you get specific physical, mental and spiritual benefits.
“Let’s review 4 basic types of breathing, so we can incorporate them into our yoga practice when appropriate”
- Ujjayi Pranayama to Energize
Ujjayi Pranayama, or warrior’s breath, is an energizing kind of breath where the air goes in and out through your nose. You slightly constrict the air passage at your throat, producing an oceanic sound as you breathe. Ujjayi Breath is performed while you engage your abs and draw your navel in: so your chest expands and contracts as you breathe, but your belly stays contracted.
We use Ujjayi Pranayama to build heat and energy: in vinyasa flows, Ashtanga, and in the more yang parts of any yoga practice.
- Dirga Pranayama to Relax
Dirga Pranayama, or complete breath, is a calming breath where the air goes in and out through your nose. You start by letting your belly relax completely: as you inhale, you fill up your belly first; then, you fill up the lower part of your chest; and, finally, you fill up the upper chest. Once you’re completely full, you start exhaling by releasing your upper chest, then your lower chest and, finally, you contract your abdomen and gently pull your navel in.
Dirga Pranayama helps your nervous system calm down. We use it in the relaxation parts of the yoga practice, especially towards the end.
- Kapalabhatti Pranayama to Cleanse
Kapalabhatti Pranayama, also known as “the skull shining breath”, is a cleansing breath where the air goes in and out through the same passage, either all nose (more heating effect), or all mouth (more cooling effect).
It is a short, quick style of breathing, where the focus is on the exhalation, which is short and forceful. You are trying to push the air out of your belly as fast as possible by contracting your abs. Once you force the breath out, simply let the inhalation happen naturally.
While Ujjayi and Dirga can be performed for big parts of your yoga practice, Kapalabhatti is normally performed for a short period of time. This kind of breath is like a pose in itself: you kneel or sit on the mat with your legs crossed, you straighten your spine, relax your belly, take an inhalation and quickly contract your abs like someone’s punching you at the navel; followed by a quick inhalation and another quick exhalation, and so on.
In Kapalabhatti, breathing through the nose will have a more heating effect (normally performed at the beginning of a yoga practice), while breathing through the mouth will cool you down (normally practiced at the end of the practice).
- Nadi Shodana Pranayama to Balance
Nadi Shodana, or alternate nostril breathing, is a calming and balancing breath, where the air goes in and out through alternate nostrils. This kind of breathing helps balance both sides of the brain, the different yin and yang energies in the body, as well as the masculine and feminine energies.
The goal of this breathing exercise is to breathe through one nostril at a time. With your right hand, lightly press the tips of your index and middle finger on your forehead (between the eyebrows), the tip of your ring finger on the left nostril, and the tip of your thumb on your right nostril. Close the left nostril with your ring finger and exhale through the right nostril. Then breathe in through the right nostril, close it with your thumb, and exhale through the left nostril. Continue to alternate sides for a while, at least 10 breaths per side.
Like Kapalabhatti, Nadi Shodana is a breathing exercise that’s treated as a posture in itself. Kneel on the mat or sit with your legs crossed; straighten your spine and close your eyes. Set up your mudra on the right hand and start breathing, count to 6 in each inhale and exhale.
We use Nadi Shodana to clear our mind before or after an active practice, or simply to transition into the final relaxation or meditation.
Now you know these 4 breathing techniques, it’s time to explore! Start your yoga practice with Ujjai breathing to energize and get you flowing, and switch to Dirga Pranayama as you stretch on the floor. As you gear towards the end of your session, practice some Kapalabhatti to detoxify and seal the practice with some Nadi Shodana. For final relaxation, choose Dirga Pranayama for your Savasana, to calm your nervous system and sink into a deep and rejuvenating relaxation.
Have questions or feedback? Find me at @soniaribascoach and share!