Breathing techniques have been central to yoga practice for hundreds – if not thousands – of years. Whilst no one knows quite how old yoga is (estimates range anywhere from 12,000 to 2,500 years), ancient yogis knew about the power of the breath, and the many ways to work with it.
What is Pranayama?
The yogic word used to refer to breathing techniques is Pranayama. Prana means ‘life force energy’, a little like the word Qi in Chinese Medicine, and Yama means ‘control’ or ‘restraint’. In this sense, the word pranayama is all about controlling the way we breathe. Another way of translating the word is to read it as Prana, and A-Yama, whereby the letter ‘a’ placed before a word in Sanskrit means ‘not’. When translated in this way, Pranayama is no longer about controlling and restraining the breath, but about expanding and liberating it. If you want to learn more about pranayama, books like BKS Iyengar’s Light on Pranayama and The Little Book of Yoga Breathing are insightful and practical books to enhance your knowledge and practice.
Types of breathing techniques
There are breathing techniques to enhance focus and energy, elicit calmness, improve sleep, and to encourage the flow of subtle energy around the body. There are breathing techniques specifically suited to practicing at sunrise, before a meal, during meditation, and accompanied by visualisation. Yogis considered breathing through the nose to be extremely important, not only because the nostrils connect to two vital channels known as Ida Nadi connected to the left nostril, and Pingala Nadi to the right, but because of the multitude of benefits connected to nose-breathing.
Benefits of nose-breathing
- Enhancing oxygen saturation
- Balancing cognitive ability
- Enhancing energy levels
- Reducing anxiety
- Filtering allergens and bacteria, thus preventing illnesses and respiratory infections
- Maintaining a strong immune system
- Maintaining balanced digestion
Whilst some people are unable to breathe through the nose due to sinus issues, congestion, allergens, or nasal obstruction, many people simply mouth-breathe habitually. Habitual mouth-breathing could be due to stress, anxiety, congestion or over-exertion, but whatever the cause, it can all lead to more inflammation, more respiratory infections, decreased digestive power, fatigue, brain fog, poor oral health, and children who chronically mouth-breathe are likely to develop poor growth, weakened facial structure and crooked teeth. If you feel like you breathe through your mouth a lot, forget about fancy pranayama practices and focus on conscious nose-breathing first of all. Use a balm like Eve & Keel’s Breathe Balm to restore a sense of space in your airways and calm the body and mind, with ingredients like eucalyptus and spearmint. Once you’re able to breathe through the nose, it’s time to experiment and enhance your breath to change your prana and life-force energy.
Pingala Nadi & Surya Bhedana
Connected to the sun, vitality, energy, dynamism, fire, and a more masculine power, yogis focus on breathing through the right nostril when they want to stimulate the Pingala Nadi. Interestingly, there’s evidence to show that breathing through the right nostril isn’t just a ‘woo-woo’ yoga theory, but has real findings to back it up. In his book Breath, James Nestor recounts how breathing primarily through the right nostril increases circulation, body temperature, cortisol, blood pressure, and heart rate. All of these responses show that right nostril breathing stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (the ‘fight or flight’ side of the nervous system) putting the body into a state of alertness and readiness. Whilst we don’t want to be in this state all the time, it’s very useful if you need a boost of motivation and energy, or to balance lethargic, low states. Breathing through the right nostril also sends more blood to the left side of the brain and prefrontal cortex, associated with logical thinking, productivity, decision making, language and computing.
The specific yogic name for right nostril breathing is Surya Bhedana, or ‘sun-activating breath’. Breathing in this way can awaken our inner sunshine – that bright, powerful, warming and stimulating energy we might feel on days when the outside world is sunny too. This type of pranayama practice is perfect to do in the mornings, to help awaken the body and mind, and balance circadian rhythms. Along with tongue-scraping and journaling, I’d highly recommend it as one of the best things to help set a positive tone for the day.
For those times you’re in need of a little more inner sunshine, a boost of energy, some motivation or brain power, try practicing Surya Bhedana:
How to boost your energy using your breath
- Sit in a comfortable position, using a bolster or cushion to support a tall spine.
- With your right hand, practice Surya Mudra by using your thumb to press the ring finger into the palm.
- With your left hand, gently close your left nostril.
- Breathe in and out through the right nostril in an equal rhythm.
- To each inhale, add the mantra Om Suryaya Namah – a mantra to honour and invoke the energy of the sun, whilst visualising breathing in the golden vibrant rays of the sun.
- Repeat twelve rounds of breathing with the mantra, mudra and visualisation, then rest the hands and breathe normally through the nose until you are ready to finish the practice.
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