Pranayama, or breath manipulation exercise, is a natural energy management system that was identified in many of the first ancient yogic texts including the Bhagavad Gita, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Pranayama has three aims: energizing, equalizing or relaxing. When you know how to nourish and work your prana, you can use it to help give you that extra boost you need at 3 p.m. or to help you get to sleep when your mind is racing at 3 a.m.
These effects of pranayama are not only in your head. A 2006 publication in Medical Hypotheses says that slow and deep breathing engages many physiological responses associated with the parasympathetic nervous system, or the “rest and digest” mode. Meanwhile, controlled fast and shallow breathing has long been found to increase both heart rate and blood pressure and can make you feel more alert.
Let’s practice engaging our natural energy management system through pranayama.
According to the International Journal of Yoga, the word kapalabhati is derived from two words: “kapala” meaning “skull” (and the organs inside it) and “bhati,” meaning “illuminating.” For this reason, this breathing practice is affectionately called the skull-shining breath.
+ Start in a comfortable seated position and inhale naturally, through the nose, to begin.
+ Forcefully exhale through the nose. Notice how the abdominal muscles contract on the exhale and how the body naturally brings air in without any effort.
+ Repeat for 50 to 100 rounds, focusing only on forceful exhales with passive inhales.
If you get dizzy, release the manipulation of the breath. Kapalabhati breathing is different from hyperventilation and should not make you feel anxious or dizzy.
This is also called alternate-nostril breathing. By alternating the breath through the nostrils, the left and right nadis, or energy channels, are balanced. This breath can help you feel very calm but not sleepy.
+ Start in a comfortable seated position.
+ Bring your right hand’s peace fingers to your third eye so your thumb is hovering above the right nostril and your ring finger is above the left nostril.
+ Release your air through both nostrils. Blocking the right nostril with the thumb, inhale for four to six counts.
+ Switching nostrils, release the thumb and block the left side with your ring finger.
+ Exhale for four to six counts out of the left nostril.
+ Inhale four to six counts through the left.
+ Switch sides and exhale from the right for four to six counts.
+ Repeat for five to ten minutes.
This breathing pattern, created by Dr. Andrew Weil, is sometimes called the Relaxing Breath. Dr. Weil himself refers to it as, “the natural tranquilizer of the nervous system.”
+ Sitting in a comfortable position, bring your tongue to the roof of your mouth, where your teeth meet the gum line.
+ Start with a sighing breath in through the nose and out through the mouth, keeping the tongue at the teeth. The exhale should make a “whoosh” sound.
+ Inhale through the nose for four counts.
+ Hold the breath for seven counts.
+ Exhale through the mouth for eight counts, making the “whoosh” noise.
+ Repeat for a total of four breaths in and out.
If the counts are difficult for you — for example, if you feel out of breath exhaling for eight counts — you may speed up the counting, but be sure to keep the ratio of 4-7-8.
Inside all of us is a powerful flow of energy, which can control activity levels in both our body and our mind. Using your pranayama to engage your natural energy management system is a powerful way to get to know your body and embrace your intuitive wisdom.
Photo by Fabio Comparelli.