Yoga involves your breath and controlling it. It’s not just a traditional practice, breathing techniques in Yoga have a distinctive physical and mental health benefit that translates into everyday life and athletic training as well.
Our breathing is automatic, we don’t have to think about it at all. Yet, unlike other automatic functions of our bodies, such as heartbeat or digestion, we can control our breathing to a certain degree. Many breathing techniques have a profound effect on the body and mind. Ancient Yogis knew that and developed breathing techniques, known as pranayama, that are an inherent part of Yoga practice but can be performed at any time. It’s no coincidence that many professional athletes use them for their many benefits.
The science of breathing
The main function of breathing is bringing oxygen into your body on the inhale, and expelling carbon dioxide, metabolic byproduct, on the exhale. Breathing is governed by the autonomic nervous system – that’s the part that works automatically and is in charge of all vital organs so they’re working regardless of our will. Autonomic nervous system has two parts, sympathetic – which stimulates your organs and fight-or-flight response, and parasympathetic – which has a relaxing effect and triggers rest-and-digest response.
Even though our lungs have a great capacity of up to 6 litres, our normal ‘autopilot’ breathing is quite shallow – exchanging about 500-750 ml of air (1). When you’re exercising or get stressed, your breathing rate goes up together with your heartbeat but your breathing doesn’t necessarily get deeper. However, you can do this consciously – using breathing techniques to deepen and lengthen your breath, controlling its speed, and working with your diaphragm.
Breathing is the only function of the autonomic nervous system we can influence with our will. Working with the breath can be very powerful because by doing that, we can stimulate the parasympathetic response that doesn’t just help us relax, it can significantly lower our levels of stress hormones, heart rate, and blood pressure, and it can improve our digestion (2, 3, 4). Some breathing techniques first stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, which is followed by the stimulation of the parasympathetic – making you more alert yet calm (5, 6).
Research also shows that regular yogic breathing practice helps to reduce oxidative stress and stress hormone levels in athletes (7) which can improve muscle recovery. Not only that, breathwork also increases lung capacity and function which offers significant advantage in almost any sport (8).
“There is a very direct relationship between breath rate, mood state, and autonomic nervous system state.”Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School
Yogic breathing techniques are called pranayama traditionally. This word consists of the components prana, which means energy or life force, yama, which means control, and there’s also ayama, which means expansion. So pranayama means expanding your energy through the control of breath. Who wouldn’t like to try?
Here are six basic techniques:
Square or Box breathing
This is a simple yet very effective technique with profound calming and grounding effects. US Navy SEALs use it as a part of their routine.
How to do it: Sit cross-legged, or you can kneel (sitting on your heels), or simply sit on a chair. Make sure your back is straight, shoulders relaxed, hands resting on your knees, close your eyes. Inhale for the count of 4, hold your breath for the count of 4, exhale for the count of 4, and hold your breath for the count of 4. Your breathing should be smooth and deep with no sudden expulsion of breath on the exhale. As you get more comfortable in the rhythm, increase the count to 5 or 6. Perform this for a few minutes and see how you feel afterwards.
Effects: Calming, diffusing tension, helping you focus
When to do it: Anytime you feel stressed, under pressure, or at the beginning of your yoga practice.
Alternate nostril breathing
One of the most powerful breathing techniques. It reduces stress, heart rate, blood pressure (9), and even lowers the levels of inflammatory molecules in the body (10). As if that wasn’t enough, it also improves your ability to focus on the task at hand (11) and your mental performance (12).
How to do it: Sit cross-legged, kneel (sit on your heels), or simply sit on a chair. Make sure your back is straight, shoulders relaxed, eyes closed. Rest your left hand on your left knee, and prepare your right hand – bend the forefinger and the middle finger towards the base of the thumb, so that your thumb, ring finger and little finger remain free – that’s the traditional way but you can also use your thumb and forefinger. Inhale and exhale fully a few times, then close your right nostril with your right thumb and inhale through the left, close the left nostril with your right ring finger, free the right nostril and exhale through it. Inhale through the right nostril, close it with your thumb, release the left nostril and exhale through it. That’s one cycle. Repeat 6-10 times. You can play with the counts – inhale and exhale for the same count, make your exhales longer (that has a more relaxing effect), or add breath retention after inhalation or exhalation.
Effects: Stress-busting, calming, balancing, aiding concentration and performance
When to do it: Before or after your yoga practice, when you feel stressed or before sleep.
Bhramari – humming bee breath
Simple yet very effective technique that instantly calms the mind, relieves agitation, frustration or anxiety. Research shows it not only induces theta waves in the brain that usually occur in meditation, it also produces gamma waves that are linked to pleasant states of mind (13). Bhramari reduces blood pressure and heart rate, illustrating its stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system (14).
How to do it: Sit cross-legged, or you can kneel (sitting on your heels), or simply sit on a chair. Make sure your back is straight, shoulders relaxed, close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths first. Then, lift your hands and place your thumbs on the little cartilage at the entrance to your ear canal (‘shutting your ears’), and rest the other fingers over your eyebrows, eyes and cheekbones. Alternatively, just use your index fingers to shut your ears. This will help block out any sound or light disturbances. Take a deep breath in, and as you breathe out, make a loud humming sound – like a bee – in your throat. Breathe in again, and repeat 5 times.
Effects: Relieves agitation, anxiety, helps to calm the mind, may even relieve headaches.
When to do it: Whenever you need during the day or as a part of your yoga practice.
Victorious breath (Ujjayi)
Ujjayi (pronounced oo-jai) is usually translated as ‘victorious breath’ due to its effects, or ‘ocean breathing’ because of the sound it produces. It can be used on its own or you can breathe like that throughout your Yoga practice because it helps to synchronize breath with movements. Thanks to the additional audible quality of the breath it will be easier to detect when your breathing isn’t synchronized with movement anymore or if your breathing is becoming too laboured and you need to slow down. In some challenging parts of your practice, you may not be able to breathe like this but resume it as soon as you can. Ujjayi has a balancing effect on your cardiorespiratory system, helps to release stress and irritation, builds internal body heat, increases your mindfulness, and focus.
How to do it: Breathe in normally through your nose, close your mouth, and then on an exhale, constrict your throat as if you wanted to sigh but with your mouth shut. Keep your throat like that and carry on breathing in and out through your nose, producing this ‘ocean’ sound, keeping your breaths long and deep.
Effects: Relieves tension, builds energy and heat, helps you focus
When to do it: When you feel agitated or nervous, when you practice yoga, or even during your workout (it depends how intense your training is but ujjayi can help increase oxygen levels in your blood and your body awareness).
Breath of fire (Kapalabhati)
An energizing yet calming breathing technique that reduces stress (9). It’s a fast breathing exercise that first stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, making you more alert, while also stimulating the parasympathetic system, leading to a more relaxed state later and deeper focus (5, 6).
How to do it: Sit cross-legged, or you can kneel (sitting on your heels), or simply sit on a chair. Make sure your back is straight, shoulders relaxed, hands resting on your knees, close your eyes. Take a few deep belly breaths first. Then start the actual kapalabhati – contract your belly to force a sharp and quick exhalation through the nose, and immediately relax your belly to inhale automatically. The technique is based on quick pumping of your belly, and the quality of the exhale should be as if you’re blowing something that just flew in out of your nose. Count the number of pumpings – start with 30, and then increase by 10 for each round, doing 3 rounds altogether. After each round, inhale and exhale deeply, then inhale and hold your breath for up to 30 seconds.
Effects: Energizing, calming
When to do it: In the morning when you want to get energized for the day ahead or at the start of your yoga practice. (Note: Pregnant women should not do this technique.)
This fun breathing technique is a great tension buster. It can be performed in almost any yoga pose and helps to relieve stress, frustration and irritation.
How to do it: Inhale deeply through your nose, exhale strongly through the mouth, making a “haaa” sound. When you’re exhaling, open your mouth wide and stick your tongue as far out as possible towards your chin. At the same time turn your eyes towards the middle of the forehead or the tip of your nose – yep, you’ll look a bit mad doing that but it’s part of the process! Release your face and return back to normal on an inhale. Repeat 4-6 times.
Effects: Relieves stress, tension, and anger.
When to do it: Whenever you feel like you need it or during your Yoga practice – for example in downward facing dog or at the beginning or end of your practice.
Create a breathing routine
There are distinctive benefits to yogic breathing techniques but you don’t have to do them all. Experiment with their effects and see what suits you. They are all beneficial, help you relax, decrease your stress levels, help you breathe deeper and better during your training, and improve your focus.
It’s a good idea to make some of these techniques a part of your routine. It can be something you do after waking up or before going to sleep. Or you can start or finish your Yoga practice with one of them. Try integrating ujjayi breath into your practice to synchronize movement and breath. And when you’re feeling frustrated or anxious during the day, try Square or Alternate nostril breathing to calm down.
Breathing techniques are nothing mysterious, they are a great tool to better health and performance, supported by science. Many Olympic level athletes, such as Michael Phelps – the most decorated Olympian of all time – use them as a part of their daily routine so give them a go!