The breathing part of yoga is one of the most difficult aspects to get, and yet it’s the key to fully relaxing and allowing your body to heal from the daily damage of everyday life that takes its toll on us.
In hatha yoga, breathing is known as pranayama. Prana is life force, and yama has to do with control or channeling. So pranayama is about controlling the breath in order to channel life force through the body. This may sound a little “woo woo” if you’re not used to yoga yet. But the science behind it is that when we intentionally and mindfully breathe in this fashion while stretching and contracting our muscles and holding our bodies in specific poses, we essentially oxygenate those muscles and organs by the power of our own breathing.
Entire classes are devoted to teaching yoga practitioners different breathing techniques designed to produce different states of being within the body.
The most commonly known yoga breathing technique is called ujjaiy breathing. This is probably the very first technique you will learn if you’re just starting out with yoga. In this method of breathing, we train our body to breathe through the diaphragm which allows for more deep, full breaths.
To master ujjaiy breathing, begin by taking breath in through a closed throat, making a soft snoring sound. (Once you become more accustomed to breathing in this fashion, you will not have to make the actual sound in order to achieve the same effect.)
Most people who take yoga classes will use ujjaiy or snore breathing, throughout the class, unless otherwise instructed. This is the best breathing to return your body to a relaxed state and kick on the parasympathetic nervous system which will help you relax more fully.
Ujjaiy breathing instructs your adrenal glands to stop producing the stress hormone cortisol which accumulates when we are in a state of nervous arousal or “fight or flight.” There does not literally have to be a fight or flight situation for this to occur. The stress of daily modern life can easily put us in this aroused nervous state, which explains why so many people have trouble falling asleep at night.
Another reason why ujjaiy breathing is so effective is that it helps us breathe out so we can breathe in. When we are nervous or stressed, we tend to be on high alert even if we don’t know it. Our breathing and heart rate speeds up. The breaths we take become quick and shallow. Yoga breathing can help us re-learn how to breathe deep, full breaths.
Believe it or not, this starts with fully emptying the lungs. We can’t fully inhale if we aren’t giving a full exhale. Snore breathing techniques can remind us to fully release every last drop of air in our lungs, so that we’ll be able to take a full, deep and cleansing breath in. With routine practice, you can train your body to breathe its way to a relaxed and calming state. This will do amazing things for your overall health, mood, appearance and outlook on life.
Another type of pranayama or yoga breath control is called fire breathing, breath of fire, or bhastrika. This is a good breathing exercise to do to when you need to expel energy or release intense emotions such as anger.
In fire breathing, we forcibly and powerfully exhale deep and fast. Then we rapidly take air in through the nostrils, in a noisy whoosh of air. If you’re just learning to fire-breathe, you can take the first few breaths slowly to get a feel for this very different breathing sensation. Once you get the technique down, you can speed up the inhales and exhales to something like heavy panting.
Fire breathing gets the blood flowing and increases the heart rate. We may naturally revert to fire breathing during more challenging workouts that require greater physical exertion and a quick burst of oxygen.
In lion breathing, we use the breath to cool the body down with a heavy, long “pant” from the throat. It’s an ideal breathing technique to try at the end of a long, sweaty workout. Or, if you’d like to bring blood circulating to the neck and throat and up to the brain, this is a great breathing exercise to try after you’ve been looking at a computer screen or smart phone for too long.
To lion breathe, do a long, forced exhale as though you’re trying to fog up a window. Finish the exhale by sticking your tongue out, the way a lion might if he or she were yawning. Breathing several times in this manner will help you cool down your body and return your heart rate and blood pressure to normal.