Pranayama is a key feature of any yoga practice. Prana, meaning life force, is a practice of controlled breathing that allows the mind to focus and the body to relax.
Here are 5 pranayama exercises to add to your yoga practice.
5 Pranayama Exercises
One of the most gentle pranayama exercises is belly breathing. Belly breathing is done by contracting the diaphragm to fill and improve the oxygen in the lungs. As the foundation of the yoga breathing exercises, belly breathing allows for fuller, stress-free breaths. Benefits include excelled rest, improved digestion, and the general strengthening of the lungs. It’s also fantastic for quickly relieving stress. The expression, “take 3 deep breaths,” captures the nature of belly breathing in calming the nervous system. Belly breathing is one of the best pranayama exercises for beginners.
- This breathing exercise can be done lying down, standing up or seated in a chair. Optional to place your hands on your belly for a physical reference point.
- Begin to slowly breathe in through the nose, feeling your belly expand outward, filling the deepest part of your lungs.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth, naturally contracting the belly.
- Repeat as much as feels good.
Ujjayi – Victorious Breath
You may have heard this commonly cued pranayama exercise in your yoga and meditation classes. This breathing practice is known as the breath of victory, and great for Kapha and Vata doshas. Ujjayi pranayama is energizing, warming, and detoxifying. It increases the amount of oxygen in the blood and lungs, builds internal heat (get moving Kapha!), improves blood pressure and helps yoga practitioners maintain rhythm while practicing yoga or meditation.
- Sit comfortably and relax the body. Close your eyes.
- Close your lips and start to breath in and out through your nose.
- Begin to lengthen and deepen your breaths while constricting the muscles in the back of your throat. (This will make an oceanic sound.)
- Focus on matching your inhales and exhales for maximum balance.
Note: If you’re having trouble grasping the throat constriction, try practicing with your mouth open first. Inhale through your nose and as you exhale through your mouth make the HAAAA sound, like you’re trying to fog up a mirror. Once you get comfortable doing this with your mouth open, then begin to practice inhaling and exhaling with your mouth shut.
Nadi Shodhana – Alternate Nostril Breathing
Nadi Shodhana, otherwise known as alternate nostril breathing, is an Ayurvedic favorite to balance the nervous system. This is one of the most powerful of the pranayama exercises, as it brings balance to the body, calms the mind, reduces anxiety and stress, lowers heart rate and improves attention and coordination. If you ever feel your Vata energy spike, practice this to ground yourself, relax, and regain your focus. Nadi Shodhana activates the nervous system to switch from a sympathetic state (fight or flight mode) to a parasympathetic state (rest and reset).
- Sit comfortably on the ground or a chair and lengthen your spine straight.
- Relax your left hand on your lap or your knee.
- Close your eyes and take a few cleansing breaths in and out through your nose, focusing on filling up the belly.
- With your right hand, bring your pointer finger and middle finger and gently rest them on your third eye, the space in between your eyebrows. The fingers you will actively use are your right hand thumb and ring finger.
- Using your right thumb, close your right nostril and exhale out all your stale air through the left nostril to prepare.
- Pause for a moment.
- Keeping your right thumb blocking your right nostril, inhale through your left nostril slowly and steadily.
- Close your left nostril with your right hand ring finger. Both nostrils are blocked.
- Release your thumb and exhale out your right nostril slowly and steadily.
- Pause for a moment.
- Inhale through the right nostril only.
- Block both nostrils shut.
- Release your ring finger and exhale out the left nostril.
- Pause for a moment.
- Repeat 10 cycles to allow your mind and body to calm and relax for sleep.
Steps 7-14 count as one complete cycle of alternate nostril breathing.
Focus on matching your inhales, pauses and exhales for the same length. Whether it’s 2 seconds or 10 seconds, stay consistent. For example, start with inhaling for 5 seconds, holding both nostrils shut for 5 seconds, exhaling 5 seconds. You can always increase or decrease your breath count.
Kapalbhati Pranayama – Breath of Fire
Kapalbhati pranayama is all about building the heat! This breathing exercise warms the body through contraction of the lower abdomen. It is helpful in reducing anxiety, sharpening focus, and aiding in constipation. You can start slow and work your way up with strength and speed.
If you ever feel sluggish, unmotivated or cloudy in the head, try this pranayama exercise to get your mind and body moving! Be sure to practice on an empty stomach for best results.
- Sit up tall and lengthen your spine. Create space between your navel and your heart.
- Start with gentle belly breathing. Close your eyes, place your hands on your belly and check in with the nature of your breath.
- Breathe in and out through your nose. Imagine your belly filling up with air like a balloon on the inhale, and softly use your abdominal muscles to push the air out during the exhale.
- Start to shorten your breath. Pumping your navel up and in on each exhale.
- Try to equalize the inhale and exhale in strength and length.
Sitali Pranayama – Cooling Breath
Use this breathing exercise after a heated conversation, following a spicy curry, or when you have a fever. Sitali, also known as the cooling breath, is great for reducing Pitta dosha qualities such as, hot, oily, sharp, and light-which can produce symptoms of inflammation, indigestion, rashes, acne, frustration, jealousy or anger.
Sitali is wonderful to practice near the end of your yoga practice to calm, cool and relax both your mind and body. Remember that this reduces your body temperature and to avoid practicing during cooler weather or if you have a constitution that runs cold, like Vata or Kapha.
- Sit comfortably and take a few cleansing breaths.
- Curl your tongue like a taco and extend it out of your mouth a little, inhale through the tunnel of the tongue (focus on the cooling properties in your mouth, throat and torso).
- Release the tongue, close your mouth and exhale out your nose.
- Repeat the above inhaling and exhaling for a few minutes, allowing the cooling effects to relax the mind and body.
**If you can not roll your tongue like a taco, try this for a similar effect:
- Connect your upper and lower teeth together while keeping your lips open wide.
- Press your tongue to the roof of your mouth right behind your front teeth and inhale through your open lips and closed teeth.
- Release the teeth and close your mouth as you exhale out your nose.
Enhance Your Pranayama Practice
In you’re looking to elevate your pranayama practice, consider consuming Chyawanprash. This ancient Ayurvedic superfood jam features organic and wild-crafted ingredients that are high in Pranik nutrients, which facilitate Prana absorption and flow. As a result, Chyawanprash serves as one of the best functional medicines for Prana replenishment. Some yogis also like to use Chyawanprash to elevate their practice and enhance body, mind, and spirit connection.
Reviewed by Clare Michalik, Ayurvedic Practitioner