My Top 5 Favorite Pranayama (Breathing) Exercises

  • “As long as you’re breathing, there’s more right with you than wrong with you.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn
  • “If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be to learn to breathe correctly.” ~ Dr. Andrew Weil
  • “Many healings of other physical troubles have occurred in my clients after they started to integrate breathing practices into their lives. There is a simple but encompassing reason that may explain this. The human body is designed to discharge 70% of its toxins through breathing. Only a small percentage of toxins are discharged through sweat, defecation, and urination. If your breathing is not operating at peak efficiency, you are not ridding yourself of toxins properly.” ~ Dr. Gay Hendricks

My Top 5 Favorite Pranayama Breathing Exercises

I want to introduce you to a few breathing exercises that require no money, no equipment, no travel, no practitioner, no special talent, and very little time to perform. Research has proven that these exercises are beneficial in combatting stress, anxiety, and depression. Some of the exercises will relax you, and others will energize you. They all ground you in the present moment, strengthen your lungs, improve your mental clarity, and help your body to heal by engaging your parasympathetic nervous system.

Derived from two Sanskrit words, prana means “breath” or “life force” and ayama means “to extend” or “to draw out”. Pranayama is the yogic practice of learning to extend and control our breath. When we are able to control our breath, we are able to control our mind, our mood, and our energy.

When practicing pranayama, there are many different breathing exercises and techniques that can be implemented. The goal of each method is either going to be to lengthen or shorten the inhalation and exhalation, to suspend the breath, or to breathe in a certain rhythmic fashion. Here are my five favorite pranayama exercises:

  • Sama Vritti (Equal Breathing): Sama Vritti is the most basic form of pranayama. For this exercise, we regulate our breath in such a way that the length of our inhalation is the same length as our exhalation. Sit comfortably and breathe in through your nose as you count to four and then breathe out through your nose as you count to four. If this is easy, you can count to six or eight (or any other number, all that’s important is that the number is the same on the inhale and the exhale).
  • Deergha Swasam (Three Part Breathing): This practice causes us to use our full lung capacity with each breath. Lie down in a comfortable position and put one hand on your stomach and the other hand on your chest. Inhale through your nose and send all that air to your diaphragm. This will cause the hand that’s on your stomach to rise up toward the ceiling. Now breathe out through your nose and release all that air. Your hand will now sink down toward your spine. Continue breathing like this for a minute or two. When you’re ready to continue, breathe in and fill your diaphragm and then continue to inhale to also fill your chest with breath. This will cause the hand on your stomach to rise and then the hand on your chest to rise as well. To exhale, first release the breath from your chest and then release the breath from your diaphragm. Continue breathing in and out this way for a minute or two. The final addition is to add the upper component of our lungs. In order to do this, we breathe in to fill the diaphragm, then fill the chest, and keep breathing in until it feels like your shoulders are lifting up toward your ears. When you’re ready to exhale, first release the breath in your shoulders, then chest, then diaphragm. Continue breathing this will for a minute or two. This is three part breathing, also known as the complete yogic breath. It is good to practice in the evening and can even be paired with a restorative yoga pose such as Legs-Up-The-Wall (see above).
  • Ujjayi (Ocean Breath): To get a feel for the Ujjayi breath, we will start by inhaling through our nose and exhaling through our mouth as we make a “HHHAAA” sound. Do this a couple times. Now close your mouth, breathe in and out through your nose, but produce the same sound as you exhale (with a closed mouth). Constrict your throat upon each exhalation, letting the air pass along the back of your throat in such a way that your exhalation sounds similar to the sound we associate with Darth Vader. This is a very calming breath and is one that’s often recommended to be used when attending a yoga class.
  • Agni Prasana (Breath of Fire): This is a shallow and rapid breath that is quite invigorating and energizing. To begin, open your mouth, stick out your tongue, and pant like a dog for a few breaths. Now close your mouth but maintain that quick, strong inhalation and exhalation that causes your abdomen to rapidly move in and out. Inhalations and exhalations should be the same duration (no longer than a quick sniff). During this pranayama exercise, focus on your belly button; forcefully push it in toward the spine on each inhalation and forcefully push it away from the body on each exhalation. This is a great morning practice to kick off your day and is frequently used in the Kundalini tradition.
  • Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing): Nadi Shodhana requires the use of our right hand. Place your thumb on your right nostril, your index and middle finger in-between your eyebrows, and let your ring finger and pinky relax. Now plug your right nostril with your thumb and inhale through your left nostril. When you’re ready to exhale, block your left nostril with your ring/pinky, release your thumb, and exhale through your right nostril. Now, keeping your fingers just as they are, inhale through your right nostril. Plug your right nostril, release the left, and exhale through the left nostril. Inhale left again, then exhale right. It’s really as simple as that. Each nostril receives a full inhale and exhale before being plugged again. If you have a lot of sinus or nasal problems, you may want to consider using a neti pot before doing Alternate Nostril Breathing.
There are hundreds of other pranayama and breathing exercises, but these are five of my favorites. It is important to note that you shouldn’t feel lightheaded or uncomfortable during any of these exercises; if you do, stop immediately and return to your normal breath. Over time, you can increase your capacity to practice pranayama exercises until you’re comfortable doing these techniques for up to 15 minutes. In the beginning, however, something like Breath of Fire should probably only be practiced for a maximum of 60 seconds. As always, if you listen to your body, you’ll know what’s right for you. If you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to leave a comment below.
Take care,
Article: Zachary H. Avery
Photo: Hilectric
For a more in-depth explanation about how important our breath is,
watch this 13 minute clip that was recorded during a retreat I held last year:

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