A woman doing a yoga pose in a meadow during sunset.

Inhale. Exhale.

When was the last time you took an inhale and an exhale involuntarily? This morning? Yesterday? Last week? Never? If never, no judgment here. Pranayama or controlled breathing was not my jam until 8-9 years ago when I started my yoga practice. I lived most of my life not knowing about conscious breathing, let alone practice it. Why would you think about it when it just happens, right? Time has changed me. Now, I teach my people different yoga breathing techniques in my classes as a Yoga Teacher.

What is Yoga Breathing?

Yoga breathing or Pranayama is an essential aspect of yoga. It is what differentiates yoga from gymnastics and other forms of exercise. It is the fourth limb in the 8 Limbs of Yoga as written in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. There are many types of yoga breathing, and I’m going to explore 9 of them with you in this article.

Why are Breathing Exercises Important in Yoga?

The very essence of yoga is the unification of the mind and spirit. Yoga is a Sanskrit word for “yoke” or “to unite.” What unites the mind and spirit? The breath. 

The breath is what connects us with the subtle energy within. Through breath, we can tap into different levels of consciousness. Furthermore, breath has biological effects on our physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.

Are you interested in Tech News?

In yoga, we aim to deepen and lengthen our breath. You see, most of us are not doing proper breathing because we don’t think about it. We mostly do chest breathing, which is fast and shallow. When this happens, the sympathetic part of the nervous system gets activated. It starts sending a signal to the brain that we are in danger. The brain then releases cortisol, or the stress hormone, that triggers the flight and fight response. This is great if we are really in trouble and we need the sudden burst of energy. But if we are not, this can lead to increased heart rate, anxiety levels and stress levels, and digestive issues.

When we control the breath by practicing deep breathing, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This signals to the brain that we are ok and safe. This makes the body calm down and relax. 

The 9 Types of Yoga Breathing Exercises

Dirga Pranayama

Dirga Pranayama, or Three-Part Breath, is most likely the first breathing technique you will encounter when you start your yoga practice. As the name suggests, there are three parts to this breathing exercise. This Pranayama will make use of your lungs to their fullest capacity by combining abdominal breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, and clavicular breathing.

Steps to Do the Dirga Pranayama

  1. Come to your most comfortable seated position. Relax your face and shoulders.
  2. Inhale through your nostrils and start filling your lungs with air as much as you can, starting from the belly, then the ribcage, and lastly, the chest.
  3. Exhale slowly, starting from the chest to your ribcage and finally, the belly. Do this for 5-10 minutes daily. 

When to Practice

Practice the Dirga Pranayama any time of the day. It is a good preparatory Pranayama for other types of yogic breathing exercises. You can do practice this with asanas from different yoga styles such as Hatha Yoga, Yin Yoga, Vinyasa Yoga, and Ashtanga Yoga.

Ujjayi Pranayama

Ujjayi Pranayama is the most commonly practiced breathing exercise in yoga, particularly Ashtanga and Vinyasa Yoga. It is also called Ocean Breath because the sound of the breath it produces is similar to the sound of the ocean. It is also commonly referred to as Victorious Breath, as the English word for Ujjayi is Victorious. You can do the Ujjayi breathing technique while sitting down, laying down on your mat, or as you move through yoga poses

Steps To Do the Ujjayi Breath

  1. Find your most comfortable position
  2. Slightly constrict the back of your throat.
  3. Breathe in and out through your nostrils while maintaining the constriction of your throat. Doing this will produce a soft hissing sound, almost like a snore.
  4. Continue doing this for 5-10 minutes.

When to Practice

You can practice Ujjayi Pranayama any time of the day, during your meditation, or when doing asana yoga practice. Many yoga books also say it is good to practice this when you have insomnia as it helps you sleep.

Nadi Shodhana or Alternate Nostril Breathing

This is a close look at a woman doing Nadi Shodhana or Alternate Nostril Breathing.

Nadi Shodhana is my favorite pranayama breathing exercise to practice when I have to do something that requires a lot of focus, like public speaking and writing. It helps in relaxing the body and reducing anxiety. It is said to help in balancing the two hemispheres of the brain. In traditional Indian knowledge, Nadi Shodhana is used to clear the Nadis, or channels in the body where the Prana or Life Force flow. 

Steps to Do Nadi Shodhana

  1. Sit in your most comfortable seated position. 
  2. Bring the point and middle fingers of your right hand in between your eyebrows. 
  3. Close your right nostril with your thumb. Inhale through the left nostril and exhale through the same nostril. Then open the right nostril.
  4. Close the left nostril with your ring finger. Inhale and exhale through the right nostril.
  5. Do five rounds on each nostril. This is the first set. Take a break by noticing the natural flow of your breath. Then continue doing four more sets of 5 rounds.

Tip: Breathe lightly. You know you are doing this Pranayama breathing technique correctly when you produce no sound as you breathe in and out.

When to Practice

You can do Alternate Nostril Breathing anytime during the day, before or after practicing asanas. Just practice this yogic breathing technique with an empty stomach.

Sheetali Pranayama

Sheetali, or the Cooling Breath, is another Pranayama that many beginners can easily do. It cools down the body, the emotions, and the mind. The term Sheetali came from the Sanskrit root word “sheet,” which means cold or frigid. 

Steps to Do Sheetali Pranayama

  1. If you do this before an asana practice, sit in a comfortable meditation position. In my yoga classes, we do this breathing technique in Savasana.
  2. Extend your tongue and fold the sides. If this is not possible, purse the lips making a circle as if you have a straw between your lips. Now inhale deeply, feeling the cooling sensation passing through your tongue. Then close the mouth, retain the breath, and exhale through your nostrils. This is one cycle.
  3. Do eight more cycles of this pranayama breathing exercise.

When to Practice

You can practice Sheetali pranayama any time of the day when you need to refresh. But it is beneficial after asana practices such as Ashtanga Yoga, Vinyasa Yoga, or Hot Yoga. This cools down the body and induces muscle relaxation. 

Sheetkari Pranayama

Sheetkari, also known as Hissing Breath, is a yogic breathing technique to cool down the body. It comes from Sanskrit words, “sheet,” which means coolness, and “kari,” which means arises. The effects of this Pranayama technique are similar to Sheetali. 

Steps to Do Sheetkari

  1. Find your most comfortable seated position. You can sit on top of a block or a meditation chair.
  2. Keep your face and shoulders relaxed. Bring your hands to your lap.
  3. Close your eyes and start bringing your awareness to the breath.
  4. Open your lips, bring the top and bottom teeth together, roll the tongue upwards. Inhale through the nostrils, filling your lungs with as much air as you can. Doing this will produce a hissing sound. 
  5. At an exhalation, close the lips and breath out through your nostrils.
  6. This is one cycle. Do this breathing exercise for at least five rounds.

When to Practice

Practice Sheetkari with or with other types of Pranayama and before or after your asana practice. Do not do this breathing technique when you have flu, cold, asthma, and other respiratory conditions. If your blood pressure is low, avoid doing it.

Simha Pranayama

If you need a good laugh (who doesn’t?), this is the yoga breathing exercise you should do. Simha Pranayama, also called Lion’s Breath, is a fun yogic breathing practice that stretches the whole face, jaw, and throat. It looks silly but will release tension and feel less stressed. Traditionally, yogis practice Lion’s Breath in Simhasana or Lion Pose. The knees open, ankles crossed, hands down on the floor with fingers pointed towards you. If you can’t access this pose, try the modified version below.

Steps to Do Simha Pranayama

  1. Sit on your heels with your knees on the mat. If this is too much for your knees, sit on a block or a stack of books. 
  2. Bring your hands on your knees and inhale through your nostrils.
  3. Stick your tongue out and exhale powerfully through your mouth, making the sound “ha” as you cross your eyes. 
  4. Do this for 4-6 cycles. 

When to Practice

Do this Pranayama practice when you need to lighten up. It’s also a good breathing technique to practice before singing, as it stimulates the vocal cords and stretches the throat, neck, and jaw.

Bhramari Pranayama

A close look at people practicing Bhramari Pranayama or the Bumblebee Breath.

Are you busy as a bee? If you are, you need to start practicing Bhramari Pranayama or the Bumblebee Breath. It is a calming yoga breathing technique that makes a slight humming sound, similar to bees’ buzz. This Pranayama is good for thyroid and sinus problems. Moreover, it’s good for relieving stress and tension. 

Steps to Do the Bhramari Pranayama

  1. Begin by sitting in your most comfortable seated position. You may sit directly on the mat or floor or use a block or meditation chair. 
  2. Relax your shoulders and your face. Start breathing in and out through the nose
  3. Now, gently press the cartilage of your ears with your pointer fingers. Inhale through your nose and exhale while making the buzzing sound. Do ten cycles or more of this Pranayama.

When to Practice

You can practice Bhramari Pranayama any time of the day. It is more beneficial to do when you are stressed, anxious, or angry. 

Bhastrika Pranayama

Yoga breathing exercises are not just for relaxation. If you’re feeling sluggish and tired, there’s a breathing exercise that will energize you. Also called Yogic Breath of Fire and Bellow’s Breath, Bhastrika pumps your heart rate while bringing more oxygen into the body. This clears the mind and boosts your energy. 

Steps to Do Bhastrika

  1. Sit tall and close your eyes. Do a few rounds of nostril breathing. 
  2. Make a fist with your thumbs under the other fingers. Bring your fists shoulder level. At an inhalation, raise your fists and open your palms at the top. 
  3. At an exhalation, bring the breath out through your nostrils forcefully and your fists shoulder level again. Do this for five repetitions and then take a rest. This is one
  4. Do three or more sets of five repetitions. 

When to Practice

Practice Bhastrika when you need a pick-me-up. But do it with caution, as it might make you feel dizzy. If you do, take longer breaks in between each set. Do not practice it if you are pregnant and if your stomach is still full. If you have hypertension, seizures, and epilepsy, practice this with a competent yoga teacher’s guidance. 

Kapalbhati Pranayama

Kapalbhati is a yogic breathing technique that is also called Skull Shining or Skull Cleaning. Traditionally, you practice Kapalbhati to clean your lungs, mind, and nasal passages. Before practicing this breathing exercise, familiarize yourself with abdominal breathing first. 

Steps to Do Kapalbhati

  1. Sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed. Start breathing in and out through your nostrils. 
  2. Ground your mind and gently awaken your Prana by practicing a few rounds of Dirgha Pranayama. 
  3. Inhale through your nose again and at an exhalation, expel the air out forcefully through your nose while simultaneously pulling the navel in towards your spine, contracting your abdominal muscles. Do this twenty to thirty times. This is one cycle. Gradually increase the number of times you expel the air out at an exhalation until you reach 100.
  4. Once done, allow the breath to come back to its natural rhythm. 

When to Practice

You can practice it any time of the day and with an empty stomach. Avoid doing it when you have your menstrual period and when you are pregnant. 

Note: Kapalbhati is an intermediate to advanced breathing exercise. My instructions above are for beginners. Keep focusing on the exhale and pumping your belly. If you feel dizzy, pause and take a few deep breaths. 

Practicing Pranayama helps in developing the mind, body, and spirit. The effects are instantaneous. But practicing it consistently helps in building the habit.