Breathing techniques (also known as pranayama in traditional texts) have been around for thousands of years. The breath is such a powerful tool because it can be both automatic and controlled. See “Pranayama: What is it and why should you include it in your daily practice?” to find out more about the ancient of controlling the breath.

The breath can be extremely useful at calming the mind, with the exhale having links to the parasympathetic nervous system, that is, your ‘rest and digest’ or relaxation response. This means it can drastically lower your stress and anxiety levels, which is great for anyone with a busy lifestyle (so basically everyone!).

Many breathing techniques exist but I don’t want to bog you down with too much information so I am going to describe my three favourites that are simple, safe and easy to practice (yet powerful and extremely beneficial to your daily life).

1) Alternate nostril breathing

Alternate nostril breathing (also known as anulom vilom or nadi shodana depending on whether you include holding the breath) is a great technique for calming an anxious mind, increasing breath capacity and is said to release energy blockages. The act of switching from one nostril to the other can also increase attention span and balance the use of the left and right side of our brains.

The process is relatively simple:

  1. Sit in a comfortable seated position, either in a chair or on the floor. If necessary, sit on a cushion to ensure your hip creases are above your knees.
  2. Ensure your spine is erect and the shoulders are soft and released.
  3. Your left hand will remain on your left leg. Raise your right hand and place the two fingers next to the thumb in the space between your eyebrows, as pictured above, or fold them down if that feels more comfortable. You will use your thumb to close your right nostril and your ring finger or pinky to close your left nostril.
  4. Gently closing your right nostril with your thumb, take a slow and long inhale in through your left nostril, without strain. Then close your left nostril and slowly breathe out through your right nostril. Breathe in through the right nostril and then breathe out through the left nostril. That completes one round.
  5. Continue for six to nine rounds ensuring that you alternate the nostrils and you don’t stress or strain your breath.
  6. As you get familiar with the practice, you might like to bring a count to the breath, for example. breathing in for four counts and breathing out for six or eight counts. You could even insert a hold in between the inhale and exhale where you retain the breath in for a few counts (never to the point of strain).
  7. Once you have finished your rounds, release your right hand to your right leg and spend a few breaths remaining sensitive to any changes to the breath or the way that you feel.

Always consult a qualified teacher for further guidance, especially when experimenting with longer counts and adding breath retentions.

Three part breath

Three part breath (or Dirga Pranayama) is one of my favourites because it is a great way to build the breath from the bottom up so that you can start to work on diaphragmatic breathing; which brings so many health benefits! Again, it is very calming for the mind and nervous system and is just a fabulous act of self care. I like to add a gentle pause after each section so that you can really stay present to how it feels in the body, but feel free to skip that part if it doesn’t feel appropriate.

Again, this pranayama technique is easy to do:

  1. Sit in a comfortable seated position, either in a chair or on the floor. If necessary, sit on a cushion to ensure your hip creases are above your knees.
  2. Ensure your spine is erect and the shoulders are soft and released.
  3. Take a moment to notice your breath. Notice its rhythm and pace. Observe whether it is deep or shallow. Does your natural breath move into your belly or your chest, or both?
  4. Place your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your belly, ensuring your shoulders stay relaxed.
  5. Begin by taking three breaths only into your belly. The hand on your chest should remain still. This can take time so don’t fret if this is challenging, that is normal.
  6. Then take three breaths only into your lower chest. Again, this may not feel natural, but see if you can isolate the breath into that area.
  7. Finally, take three breaths into your upper chest and collarbones. Notice how it feels to expand that area with your breath.
  8. Now we are going to combine those three and slowly breath in, feel the belly expand, the lower chest expand, upper chest, collarbones expand and throat fills up. Exhale and follow that journey back down; throat, upper chest, lower chest, belly empty.
  9. Repeat for six to nine rounds.
  10. Release from the control of the breath and allow yourself to observe the natural and spontaneous breath, remaining sensitive to any changes to your breath, bodily sensations or feelings.

Please ensure that you never strain your breath and stop if it makes you feel dizzy or lightheaded.

3) Bumble bee breath

A favourite of anyone I teach it to, bumble bee breath (or Brahmari) is a fantastic way to pull your attention inward and release the stresses of the day. It is quite stimulating though so try not to practice it right before bed or you might have trouble sleeping. A really great technique if you are looking for a quick meditation. The natural humming sounds have a potent calming affect and can reduce anxiety, frustration and agitation.

To practice bumble bee breath:

  1. Sit in a comfortable seated position, either in a chair or on the floor. If necessary, sit on a cushion to ensure your hip creases are above your knees.
  2. Ensure your spine is erect and the shoulders are soft and released.
  3. Close your eyes, if that feels comfortable, and take a few breaths, noticing your breath in your nostrils but also noting your thoughts and the activity of the mind.
  4. Raise your index fingers to your ears. Ensure your upper teeth and lower teeth are not touching and relax your jaw.
  5. Take a long, slow breath in and then close your ears with your index fingers and make a low pitched humming sound as you exhale. Try to make the exhale long and rhythmic without any strain. Notice the vibrations that the humming sound create in your head and especially in your forehead.
  6. Inhale slowly and then repeat the humming sound on the exhale.
  7. Repeat for six to nine rounds.
  8. When you are finished, release your hands back to your legs, return to a natural breathing cycle and try to remain with the feeling of vibration in your head; using them to keep you here, in this present moment.

Summary

So, as you can see, the pranayama techniques that I chose are simple, safe for most people but will provide you with a plethora of amazing benefits. Try them out and see which one you like the most and then try to practice it, just for a few minutes each day. Let me know how it goes!

Please note that you may have a condition that affects your ability to safely practice pranayama techniques so please do not take the above as medical advice and seek the advice of a professional if you have any doubts.

About the author:

Kirsty is a yoga and meditation teacher who currently hosts our Monday to Wednesday retreats. She is known for her soothing voice and knack for sharing the teachings of yoga and meditation in a way that is accessible to all.

A long battle with anxiety led Kirsty to the practice and it completely transformed her way of life. She realised that her actions affected not just her, but all of the world: its people, its animals, its mountain, rivers and seas. That is when she committed to the life-long journey towards wholeness that, with the help of yoga, she continues today. To Kirsty, yoga is a path to self-exploration, conscious awareness, and compassion.

Find out more about Kirsty on her Instagram and Facebook pages.

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