Do you struggle to stay focused and present? Do you find yourself getting tired quickly? Or do you simply seek learning about a more meditative practices? If so, it’s time to learn about the types of pranayama and meet the fourth limb of yoga.
Pranayama is a vital tool for controlling the fluctuations of the mind, finding presence on the mat, and inner peace in the soul and there is more than one type of pranayama. In fact, there are many.
Pranayama connects us to the most vital energy within us, our breath. Practicing pranayama also teaches us how controlling this life force can regulate our energy, improve our mental well-being and deepen our spiritual connection.
But what exactly is pranayama, and why should you practice breathing techniques? Read on to discover everything you need to know about the different types of pranayama you can try today!
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The origin and meaning of pranayama
The Sanskrit term pranayama is a combination of two words; ‘Prana’ and ‘Ayama.’ ‘Prana’ means life force, as our breath keeps us alive. ‘Ayama’ translates to extending or stretching but can also mean controlling. Thus, “Pranayama” means lengthening or controlling the life force.
In simple terms, pranayama means actively breathing as you control or extend the inhale and exhale. However, how you do that depends on the specific technique, which we will explore in more detail below.
Pranayama does not necessarily mean slow, deep breathing that is a misconception. Sometimes, it can mean breathing forcefully and rapidly to produce specific effects.
Pranayama is an integral part of yoga practice, and in yogic philosophy, it is one of the eight limbs of yoga.
Types of pranayama and benefits
According to Swami Kuvalayananda, classical Hatha yoga has eight types of pranayama breathing techniques. However, in other lineages and modern-day yoga styles, various breathing techniques are related to yoga. For example, some sources believe there are around 15 types of pranayama in total.
The health benefits of pranayama will depend on the specific technique you do.
Some pranayamas are “cooling,” which have a calming effect on the parasympathetic nervous system and promote relaxation. Cooling pranayamas are good for destressing, reducing anxiety, clearing the mind, and preparing for sleep.
Other pranayamas are “heating” and have a stimulating and energizing effect on the body and mind. Heating pranayamas are good for boosting energy and enhancing focus.
Who should practice pranayama
Beginners can and should incorporate pranayama breathing techniques into their yoga classes. You can do them at the beginning of your asana session, during it, immediately after, or as a separate practice.
You do not need to have mastered the postures to learn the breathing techniques of yoga.
List of different styles of pranayama breathing
The eight main types of pranayama in yoga are:
1.Ujjayi Pranayama (Ocean Breath)
Ujjayi Pranayama is the most common and well-known type of pranayama.
Ujjayi is also oftentimes the first breathing technique practitioners learn in Hatha, Vinyasa, and Ashtanga yoga as it is performed during asana practice, not before or after it like most other types of pranayama.
Ujjayi is also known as ocean breath because you constrict your throat as you breathe, which creates the sound of ocean waves. With your mouth closed, on both the inhale and the exhale, you should slightly constrict the passage of air in the back of your throat, imagining that you are fogging up a pair of glasses. This should create a soft hissing sound.
During intense asana practice, such as Ashtanga, practicing Ujjayi can help regulate and conserve your energy, preventing fatigue.
2. Kapalabhati Pranayama (Skull Shining Breath)
Kapalabhati is sometimes referred to as the king of pranayama as it is the most powerful pranayama technique. It is heating, energizing, and cleansing, clearing the mind, lungs, and nasal passages. It also helps to tone the diaphragm and abdominal muscles.
In Kapalabhati pranayama, you exhale forcefully by rapidly contracting and releasing the abdomen. Contract and draw the navel inward when exhaling, then release on the inhale, which is passive, before contracting the abdomen again on the next forceful exhalation. Note that you should do Kapalbhati on an empty stomach,
3. Dirga Pranayama (Three Part Breath)
Dirga pranayama is known as the three-part breath, as you inhale and exhale in three parts. It is calming and grounding and helps you improve your breath control and awareness.
It involves breathing in ⅓ of your capacity to your belly and pausing here. Without releasing the breath, you breathe in another third to the ribcage, pause briefly, and then inhale your remaining breath to the top of the chest.
As you exhale, you first release ⅓ of the air to the chest, pause, release another third to the ribcage, pause, and then release the remaining air into the belly.
While most pranayama exercises are performed seated ( either in a cross-legged position or on the heels), it is best to practice Dirga lying down.
4. Bhramari Pranayama (Humming Bee Breath)
Bhramari Pranayama is known as the humming bee breath, as you make a humming sound as you exhale. It has a calming effect on the mind and nervous system and helps to manage anger, frustration, and anxiety.
Begin by placing your index fingers on your ears and pressing gently on the cartilage between your cheek and ear. Take a deep breath in, and then as you exhale completely, make a loud humming sound like a bee while continuing to press on the ear cartilage.
5. Sheetkari Pranayama (Hissing Breath)
Sheetkari is a cooling breath that helps to lower your body temperature, among other benefits such as reducing high blood pressure and calming the mind. The mouth should be closed with the upper and lower teeth touching. Bring your tongue to the roof of your mouth, then open your lips (keeping the teeth together) as you create a hissing sound.
Note that you should make this hissing sound on your inhale. After inhaling, close your lips and exhale deeply through the nose.
6. Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
Nadi Shodhana involves breathing in through one nostril and out through the other. Then you inhale through that same nostril before switching and breathing out through the other one, which concludes one round. You use your fingers of one hand to block off the other nostril, allowing you to direct the breath better.
This yogic breathing technique balances the left and right hemispheres of the brain, clears blockages in the energy channels (nadis), and calms the autonomic nervous system.
7. Surya Bhedana Pranayama (Right Nostril Breathing)
Surya Bhedana is similar to Nadi Shodhana but involves breathing in through the right nostril (only) and out through the left nostril (only) rather than alternating. While Nadi Shodhana balances the energies in the body, right nostril breathing evokes yang energy and warms the body.
8. Bhastrika Pranayama (Bellows Breath)
Bhastrika is another powerful and energizing pranayama practice where both the inhale and exhale are forceful. Unlike Kapalabhati, which engages the abdominal muscles, bellows breath involves the engagement of the lungs. However, the breath should come from your diaphragm, with the belly moving in and out as you exhale and the chest remaining still.
You can also include arm movements with this breathing technique to further increase the heating and energizing effects.
Types of pranayama for beginners
I recommend that beginners try Dirgha Pranayama (Three-Part Breath), Ujjayi (Ocean Breath), or Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing).
But, if you are new to pranayama breathing, the first breathing technique you should really also practice is your natural breath. I recommend this for two reasons:
- Most people rarely notice their normal breathing.
- We often breathe too fast or shallow without realizing it.
Therefore, by starting your pranayama journey by getting used to your natural breath, you’ll already reap two main benefits, increased self-awareness and more connection to the present moment.
By focusing on your natural breathing, you’ll also learn to consciously slow it down and deepen it, which assists in calming the mind, relaxing the body, and rebalancing the nervous system.
Two types of pranayama that are not suited for beginners
I do not recommend energizing and forceful pranayama breathing techniques like:
- Skull-shining breath or
These are more challenging and can result in lightheadedness for beginners.
The 3 phases of pranayama
Pranayama involves bringing concentration and awareness to your breathing, similar to yoga Nidra. According to ancient yogic teachings, there are three phases to practicing pranayama techniques. Following these stages help to keep the practice conscious and increases the benefits. This could also be referred to as the order of the pranayama breathing phases.
The three steps (or phases) of pranayama are:
- Puraka (the inhalation)
- Antara Kumbhaka (retention/ holding the breath)
- Rechaka (the exhalation)
Takeaway on types of pranayama
Including pranayama techniques in your yoga practice can enhance your focus and awareness of the present moment by calming the mind and reducing mental activity. Physically, breathing techniques can relax the muscles to help you go deeper in your yoga postures, while energetically, they clear blockages and prevent fatigue.
If you’re new to breathwork and wondering which types of pranayama techniques to learn first, I suggest becoming conscious of your normal breathing, focusing on lengthening and deepening it. Once comfortable with this, you can try some “easier” pranayama techniques like “right nostril breathing” or “ocean breath.”
FAQ about Pranayama
What is the most common type of pranayama?
The most common type of pranayama is Ujjayi Pranayama. Ujjayi pranayama is the oceanic type breath we use when practicing yoga.
What are the three key processes of pranayama?
The three phases of pranayama are 1. Puraka (the inhalation)
2. Antara Kumbhaka (retention/ holding the breath) 3. Rechaka (the exhalation)
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