pranayama

There's nothing more healing, uplifting, calming, and rejuvenating than taking a deep breath in...and a slower one out.

Learn the ancient practice of Pranayama and watch your Inner Healer awake.

Pranayama - Deep Breathing Techniques

Read Pranayama Important Points before beginning practice

The three main breathing techniques that we practice in our classes are:

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Pranayama Voice Instruction:

    Pranayama Session - 12 min

Guided Pranayama PracticeAmita Jain
00:00 / 12:32

Kapaalabhati (Skull Shining) Pranayama
 

Kapaalabhaati is referred to as "sarvaroga nivarini" by some yogis which literally means ‘(a practice) that can heal all types of ailments’. When practiced regularly under proper guidance it can bring about radiant health and provide other benefits at a more subtle level. A famous yogi from India, Baba Ramdev, who has shot to fame via his daily TV programs, calls it ‘the Sanjeevani’ which is an herb that can supposedly bring even a dead body back to life.  In the classical Hatha Yoga text "Hatha Yoga Pradeepika", Kapaalabhaati is described as one of the six cleansing kriyas (Shatkarma). However, because it involves manipulation of the breath and offers great benefits, it is widely practiced as a part of Pranayama techniques.

 

The Technique
 

Sit in any comfortable position with the spine erect. You can sit either cross-legged or in "vajrasana" (the diamond pose) or in any position that you feel comfortable in. If you have problem sitting on the floor, you can even sit in a chair, preferably with the spine erect and not resting against the back of the chair. Breathe normally for a few breaths. Then, exhale quickly and forcefully through both nostrils while simultaneously drawing the abdominal muscles inwards. The brisk exhalation will produce a "puffing" sound.  Allow the abdominal muscles to relax at the end of exhalation and let the inhalation happen automatically and passively before exhaling again.  

The rate of expulsion will vary from one individual to the next depending upon capacity.  On average, one can maintain a rate between 70 to 120 expulsions per minute (remember the normal breathing rate is 12 to 15 breaths per minute).

It is important to understand that you should not strain or become uncomfortable during the practice. If you begin to feel dizzy or uncomfortable in any way, it means that you are trying too hard or trying to breathe too forcefully. At this point stop the practice and sit quietly for some time before trying it again. Start with only 20-30 expulsions per round and try three rounds. Over a period of time, with practice, you can increase the number of breaths per round. A little rest can be taken in between the rounds according to your convenience.


Throughout the exercise, the chest should be kept still without expansion or contraction and the shoulders should remain steady and relaxed. Only the diaphragm is used for breathing and not the upper chest.
 

An Alternate Approach
 

Some of you might have some difficulty getting the technique right in the beginning. In that case, you can try this alternate approach. Put both your hands on your belly, just a little below the navel. Keep the belly soft. Now push your abdomen in with your hands and at the same time try to throw all the air out of the lungs in a forceful, brisk manner. At the end of the exhalation, allow the inhalation to happen passively. Repeat the pushing with the hands accompanied by expulsion of air and then passive inhalation. When this rhythm seems to become natural, you may try to remove the hands from the belly and continue with the practice.
 

Benefits
 
  • As mentioned above, Kapalabhati is traditionally considered one of the cleansing techniques in yoga. One of its main benefits comes in the form of movement of metabolic waste from all the tissues in the body toward the lungs where they are eliminated.

  • Kapaalabhaati helps clear mucus from the lungs. As air moves into the throat, it travels down the superior portion of the airway called the trachea. The walls of this single tubed airway consist of several layers, of which the innermost layer is lined with cilia cells. Cilia are microscopic, grass-like projections that continually beat and propel mucus that traps dust particles, bacteria and debris. This mucus is propelled by the cilia toward the pharynx where it is released by coughing or swallowing. Smoking inhibits and ultimately destroys cilia. When the cilia function, as described above, is lost, coughing is the only method of moving accumulated mucus out of the lungs. Because of the cleansing effect on the lungs, this practice is recommended for people who suffer from respiratory ailments like bronchitis, asthma, tuberculosis etc.

  • The force of the exhalations in Kapaalabhaati acts further on debris-filled mucus in the lungs and trachea. This additional force works with the cilia and helps move the mucus more readily up the airway against gravity. Coughing after Kapaalabhaati helps in releasing these impurities. In addition to removing mucus, Kapaalabhaati also helps expel more carbon dioxide and other waste gases from the cells and lungs compared to normal breathing. The powerful exhalation also helps increase the flow of blood in the lung tissues as well as throughout the body.

  • Improves the health of the lungs, bronchial system and the associated organs. It helps in curing the diseases of the lungs like asthma and bronchitis.

  • The energetic expulsions in Kapalabhati help increase cardiovascular activity and increasing the heart rate. This helps in improving the health of the heart muscles and tissues.

  • The rapid and forceful movement of the abdominal muscles in Kapaalabhaati gives a massage to the internal organs. With each vigorous exhalation, the abdominal walls draw inwards applying pressure on internal organs, including the lungs, pancreas, intestines, the gall bladder etc. This pressure helps increase the circulation of blood flow into and out of abdominal organs. This massage also sends a direct pressure into the digestive system helping move remaining food and fecal matter through the intestines and colon. Kapaalabhaati helps in reducing the incidence of constipation. With this increased circulation of blood and material in the internal organs comes a release of toxins as well.

  • At a subtler level, it impacts the Navel Center (Manipura Chakra) and helps in countering some of the negative propensities associated with this chakra – jealousy, shame, fear, disgust, delusion, and sadness.

  • Literally, the word kapaalabhaati means ‘skull shining’ (kapaala = skull; bhaati = shining/polishing). Regular practice is supposed to clear and calm the mind and over a period of time, one develops a healthy natural glow on the face.

  • It also brings about the state of ‘pratyahara’ (sense withdrawal) which prepares the mind for meditation.

Contraindications
 

People with the following conditions should not practice kapaalabhaati – cardiac problems, nasal congestion, severe cold, severe headache, abdominal ulcers, hernia. People with high blood pressure should either refrain from it or practice a milder version of the technique. Pregnant women and those who have had recent abdominal surgery should also refrain from this practice. One cautionary note – practice kapaalabhaati on an empty stomach, preferably in the morning. However, if your schedule only allows you to practice it during the day/evening, then you should give a gap of at least 2.5 hours after eating a meal.

 

Nadi Shodhana / Alternate Nostril Breathing
 

Stage 1
 
  1. Sit in any comfortable sitting posture with the spine erect, eyes closed and shoulders relaxed.

  2. Make the Vishnu Mudra (shown in the picture to the right) with the right hand – make a soft fist, lift the thumb and the last two fingers up, keeping the middle two fingers at the base of the thumb. During the practice using this mudra, the thumb is used to close the right nostril whereas the ring finger is used to close the left nostril.

  3. With the left hand, make the Chin Mudra – join the tips of the index finger and the thumb, keeping the rest of the fingers open and relaxed. Keep the hand on the left knee, palm facing up.

  4. Use the right thumb to close the right nostril. To get started, exhale through the left.

  5. Begin the first round by inhaling through the left nostril.

  6. At the end of inhalation, close the left nostril with the ring finger and open the right. Then exhale through the right nostril.

  7. Inhale now through the left. At the end of inhalation, close the right nostril with the thumb again and exhale through the left.

  8. This completes one cycle of breathing. Continue for about 6-7 similar cycles. Make sure to use deep and soft Ujjayi breaths for each inhalation and exhalation.
     

Stage 2
 

Once you become comfortable with the basic breathing pattern for naadi shuddhi, you can introduce a count into your breathing. You can use a mental count of ‘OM 1’, ‘OM 2’ etc, each being approximately one second, to determine the duration of inhalation and exhalation. The effort in this breathing technique is to make the duration of exhalation longer than that of inhalation. Over a period of time, with practice, you want to achieve a ratio of 1:2 between inhalation and exhalation. So, for example, if your count for inhalation is 5 seconds, then try to extend the exhalation to up to 10 seconds. As your practice deepens, you may be able to extend the duration of each breath, maintaining the same 1:2 ratio. Try to build up your capacity to a count of 10:20 – 10 seconds of inhalation and 20 seconds of exhalation.

I will introduce more advanced stages of naadi shuddhi involving breath retention and ‘bandhas’ in a subsequent post.
 

Benefits
 
  • As mentioned above, naadi shuddhi helps cleanse the naadi system so prana can flow freely and energize the whole system.

  • Deep, slow breathing brings in increased supply of fresh oxygen into the system. More oxygen means more pure, oxygenated blood going to every cell of the body. This also means that more of carbon dioxide and toxins are eliminated from the body.

  • Deep breathing helps calm the nerves which can help with the management of  anxiety and stress.

  • Deep, alternating breathing is also now recommended for managing high blood pressure

  • Alternate breathing brings about a balance in the system – balancing the dualities like hot/cold, good/bad, honor/dishonor etc. This also helps balance the two sides of the brain – the analytical and the emotional, thus developing a more balanced personality.

  • In the Kundalini system of yoga, balancing the breath between the two nostrils implies balancing the Ida and Pingala naadis. When these two naadis are balanced, then the prana (vital energy) can flow through the central channel of energy called "sushumna naadi" thus clearing the passage for the rising of the Kundalini Shakti.

     

Contraindications
 

None! This is an excellent practice for everyone.  If you can breathe, you can practice deep, three-part breathing and derive all the benefits mentioned above.

 

Complete ​Yogic Breathing or Three Part Breath

The Technique

  • Sit in any comfortable cross-legged posture, keeping the spine upright, eyes closed, and arms and shoulders relaxed.

  • Start with an inhalation bringing the awareness to the abdomen. Stretch the arms straight and bring the hands at knee level, slightly in front of the knees. Consciously make a gentle effort to push the diaphragm down so the belly can fill up like a balloon.

  • Continue deep inhalation and shift the awareness to the chest area. Expand the chest and the ribcage, filling the middle part of the lungs with air. At the same time move the arms upwards, synchronizing with the breath and bring the hands at the level of the chest.

  • Continue the inhalation and bring the awareness to the clavicle area lifting the collar bones upward. Along with the breath, move the hands upward and bring them in line with the shoulders.

  • At the end of inhalation, take a momentary pause and begin the exhalation cycle proceeding in the reverse direction.

  • Bring the awareness to the clavicle area and soften the collar bones.

  • Shift the awareness to the chest area and soften the ribcage. At the same time, lower the arms in line with the chest.

  • Continue to exhale and bring the awareness to the abdomen area. Allow the navel to be drawn in toward the spine as you approach the end of exhalation. Synchronize the movement of the arm with the downward moving breath. At the end of exhalation, bring the hands back in line with the knees.

  • That completes one breathing cycle. At the end of the exhalation, take a momentary pause and begin the next breathing cycle.

  • Continue for about 4-6 breathing cycles. At the end of the last cycle, keep the eyes closed and relax for a few breaths.

     

Benefits
 
  • In this deep, three-part breathing, we engage the entire capacity of the lungs in the breathing cycle. It is estimated that we may be able to bring in as much as seven times more oxygen into the system than in normal, shallow breathing.

  • More oxygen implies that more oxygenated blood is available for circulation to all the cells of the body.

  • At the cells, due to the gas exchange, we are able to get rid of more carbon dioxide from the system.

  • Thus, deep breathing brings in more prana (life force), energy and vitality with each inhalation while providing deeper cleansing and purification with each exhalation.

  • Deep breathing calms the nerves down and reduces stress levels. We have all heard the term, "take a deep breath!" when one is agitated or angry.

  • Deep breathing has been used to reduce blood pressure levels and calm the nervous system.

  • Deep breathing brings all of the internal systems into correct balance.

  • Conscious deep breathing calms our mind and brings us back into the present moment.

     

Contraindications
 

None! This is an excellent practice for everyone.  If you can breathe, you can practice deep, three-part breathing and derive all the benefits mentioned above.

 
 
 
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