Pranayama Exercises: How to Breathe in Yoga

Breathing in yoga is somewhat of an afterthought. Typically in a yoga class, the teacher repeatedly tells us to inhale and exhale through each posture, but then it’s quickly forgotten. 

Yoga classes involve movement, focus, balance, and complete presence. So it’s no wonder the breath takes a back seat. But here’s the secret yogi friends – the breath is where all of our power lies. In yoga and in life.

Pranayama 101: Breathing Techniques

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What is Pranayama?
 
Pranayama is a Sanskrit term that refers to breathing exercises in yoga. When the word is broken down it means:
  • Prana – the fundamental life force
  • Yama – to control

Put it all together and it translates to – controlling our life force! How cool is that. We can literally control our life by harnessing the breath. And this is the exactly what happens during a yoga practice.

When we are able to find stillness, breathe deeply into all four corners of the body, and quiet the mind – then and only then – can we turn inward to find the answers we seek.

Our breath gives us the ability to move with control and grace. It slows everything down and taps into our core being. Warrior 3 suddenly starts to click. Our forward folds become a little bit deeper. Our minds wander a little less. That is the breath working. It silences the constant mind chatter – allowing us to be present in our bodies and movements. It’s basically magic. And it’s free – yippee!

Pranayama 101: Breathing Techniques

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Pranayama exercises vary from creating heat or cooling the body and energizing or relaxing the mind. To further explain this practice, below are four popular breathing techniques that can be practiced at home, in a yoga studio, or wherever your heart desires! Notice how quickly your energy can be shifted from a simple, consistent pranayama practice.

For all Pranayama exercises, it’s best to follow the below guidelines:

  • Practice each breath to achieve the desired effect (increased energy, relaxation, etc.).
  • Practice on an empty stomach or well after eating.
  • Take in quality air by being selective about your practice space.
  • Understand the benefits of each breathing technique.

For yoga teachers, follow the below guidelines:

  • Provide the name, benefits, contraindications, what it involves, and when to do it.
  •  Demo & explain the technique then allow for any questions.
  •  Guide the students through the breath, lead several rounds, and then observe their actions.
  • Release the breath and instruct students to keep eyes closed – noticing the effects of the breath.
1. Dirgha Breath

This is a long, three part breath. It involves deep breathing both on the inhalation and exhalation. The mouth stays gently closed with all air entering and exiting through the nostrils. It can be performed either laying down or sitting up with a long spine.

How to Perform It:
  • Bring hands to the belly – inhale and expand the belly out, exhale bring bellybutton to spine.
  • Bring hands to lower ribs – inhale and expand the belly and ribcage, exhale releasing the ribs and bring  bellybutton to the spine.
  • Bring hands to collarbones – inhale and expand belly, ribs, then collarbones gently lift and shoulders broaden, exhale releasing the breath completely down the body and emptying out completely.
  • After integrating all three pieces of the Dhirga breath, release the hands to the knees or wherever comfortable. Continue the three part breath, filling each chamber of the body with the breath, and then releasing it back down through the same channels.

dhirga breath, three part breath, pranayama excercises

 
Suggested Practice:
  • 2 -3 minutes for beginners or 5 minutes + for seasoned practitioners.
  • Can be performed in all types of yoga classes, it’s beneficial for everyone.
  • Practice at the beginning of a class as a transition from a busy day.
  • Practice at the end of class to prepare for savasana.
  • Before meditation as a prep to quiet the mind.
 
Benefits:
  • Builds inner strength and courage
  • Can settle or stimulate the nervous system
  •  Aids in digestion – bowel movements, menstrual cramps
  • Builds heat, focus, and concentration
2. Nadi Shodhana –  Alternate Nostril Breath

This is an alternate nostril breathing technique that can be used to calm or energize the mind. It can be practiced with the assistance of a hand mudra or hands free – both will produce the same effects. For this tutorial, we will use the hand mudra.

Important Things to Note:

  • Always begin and end on the left nostril or left side. The left represents our feminine side which is nourishing, calming, and cooling.
  • Use the right hand to create the mudra – make a peace symbol, drop the two peace fingers, and keep the ring, pinky, and thumb extended.

 
How to Perform It:
  • Bring the right hand mudra to the nostrils and gently place the thumb on the right nostril – the ring finger will be used for the left nostril.
  • Using the thumb, close off the right nostril and inhale through the left nostril.
  • Remove the thumb and close off the left nostril with the ring finger as you exhale through the right.
  • Inhale through the right, close it off with the thumb, and exhale on the left.
  • Continue to alternate from side to side, letting the mind come to a single pointed focus.
  • End the breathing technique by exhaling through the left nostril.

Pranayama 101: Breathing Techniques nadi shodhana breath

 
Suggested Practice:
  •  2 – 4 minutes for a beginner, 5 – 10 minutes is great, 15 – 20 minutes is total bliss.
  • Can be used in all types of yoga classes, it’s beneficial for everyone.
  • Practice at the beginning of a class as a transition from a busy day.
  • Before or after savasana.
  • Before meditation as a prep to quiet the mind.
 
Benefits:
  • Reduces stress and settles the nervous system
  • Beautiful prep for meditation
  • Balances the left and right hemispheres
  • Helps with one pointed focus and concentration
 
3. Ujjayi – Victorious Breath

This is a warming breath that creates an audible sound. It involves the constricting of the back of the throat which creates a noise similar to “Darth Vader” or the action of fogging up a window. It’s commonly used in Ashtanga classes but has become widely popular in hot yoga and vinyasa flow classes too.

How to Prep:
  • Bring hand in front of mouth and envision your hand is a window.
  • Like children do, we want to fog the window and draw fun shapes and letters on it.
  • Exhale onto your hand and pretend to fog the window. Pay special attention the noise that is created.
 
How to Perform It:
  • Keep the mouth shut and practice creating that same noise. Inhale and exhale while constricting the back of the throat to deepen the volume and intensity.
  • Use this breath to move deeper into postures, aid in balance, create heat in the body,  and focus throughout the yoga practice.

*Side note: This breath is hard to capture via a photo, sorry! Instead, you get a quote photo with yours truly!

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Pranayama 101: Breathing Techniques

 
Suggested Practice:
  • Can be practiced at any time of the day but be mindful of overheating the body.
  • Can be used as prep for meditation.
 
Benefits:
  • Can be settling, smoothing, and soothing for the nervous system
  • The sound helps unite body & mind
  • Creates heat and warms the body for physical practice
 
4. Sitali Breath

The Sitali breath is the perfect cure for hot yoga classes. And with the raging popularity of sweaty classes, this is a necessity! I will warn you – it’s a weird one, weirder than all the ones up above. But, it’s incredibly effective. If ever you’re in a hot yoga class and  the room is becoming fuzzy or you just can’t fathom when it will end  – this is your savior! The breath can be performed standing, kneeling with the feet tucked underneath, or seated on the ground.

How to Perform It:
  • Stick your tongue out and curl it into a circular shape, like you did as a child (or at least I did)!
  • Inhale through the funny tongue shape.
  • Close the mouth and bring the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth.
  • Exhale out of the nostrils.
  • Do this for a few rounds until the body has regulated it’s temperatures and regained composure.

*If unable to curl the tongue, slightly separate the lips and teeth and place the tongue lightly in between the teeth – still allowing air to flow through on the inhalation breath. Continue to do the rest as instructed above.

shitali breath, cooling breath, pranayama

I know this photo is weird. Please refrain from giggling at me!

 
Suggested Practice:
  • Can be practiced at any time and by anyone.
  • Works best when used in conjunction with a heated activity.
  • Do 3 – 5 rounds to experience a cooling sensations.
 
Benefits:
  • Cools the nervous system
  • Can cool the entire body – physical, mental, spiritual

Pranayama exercises are a beautiful tool to help aid us on our yoga journey, please use them!

There’s a boatload of information up above, don’t let it be overwhelming. Choose one breath that will serve you and your yoga practice. Slowly integrate that breath more and more until it becomes familiar. Or – choose a breath to do in the morning upon waking up and one in the evening to quiet the mind. There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to breathing!

Do you practice pranayama exercises already? What are your favorite breaths? Which one do you love and which one do you shy away from?

Please comment below with any and everything!

Hey! I’m Allie.

I’m a self-growth student, freedom-seeker, yoga teacher and the founder of a tight-knit online yoga community: the Body Mind Soul Studio. I’m here to teach you how to transform your life on-and-off-the-mat with a holistic yoga practice.

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The Yoga Reset Guide is my FREE 7-step journey to deepen your practice and recenter your body, mind and soul. Self-paced, no equipment necessary, perfect for beginners AND veteran yogis.