The other night, I couldn’t sleep. After tossing and turning for an hour, I decided to try some yoga, so I got up and went into my home studio to practice the bedtime routine on my Track Yoga app. It’s a short practice that always helps me get into a more restful state.
I was especially tuned in this time to a simple but effective part of the practice that’s not included in other “yoga for sleep” sequences I’ve tried. What I’m referring to is pranayama, or yogic breathing.
Yoga and The Breath
If you’re a seasoned yogi, you probably know about pranayama, but unless you go to a yoga studio where traditional forms of yoga are taught, you may not practice it much. Pranayama, or yogic breathing, is a truly powerful practice. You can achieve any one of a number of results with a few minutes of targeted yogic breathing. For example, pranayama can
- Calm the mind
- Energize the body
- Focus the mind
- Manage stress
Yogic Breathing Techniques
Following are five of the most common variations of pranayama practice.
Ujjayi Breath. This is the technique you probably do practice in your yoga classes—it’s the “ocean-sounding” or “Darth Vader” breath in which you breathe deeply with a slight constriction in your throat. The meditative quality of this breath helps to improve concentration.
Three-Part Breathing. This is a practice of slow, deep breathing that fully expands the lungs and detoxifies the body. As the name suggests, you do it by exhaling fully, then slowly inhaling in three parts: first into the belly, then the lower chest, then the upper chest. When the lungs are fully expanded, slowly release the breath, again in three parts.
Stress-relieving exhales. Yogic tradition tells us that making our exhales twice as long as our inhales can help us relax. Do this as slowly as you can. Try it when you’re feeling anxious or having trouble sleeping.
Balancing Breaths. There are several balancing breaths in yoga, all based on the idea that each nostril works with the opposite side of the brain. The right nostril controls the active energy of the left brain, while the left nostril controls the intuitive, abstract energy of the right brain. A very simple way to think of it is when you are “doing” you are using your left brain more; when you are “being,” your right brain is in control.
When you need to calm down, try breathing through your left nostril, and when you need to focus or get energized, breathe through the right. Of course you breathe through both nostrils most of the time, but you can use pranayama to balance the body by closing off one nostril and breathing through the other. You can also bring the entire body into balance with alternate nostril breathing, an exercise in which you breathe in and out through one nostril at a time while closing off the other.
Breath of Fire (also called kapalabhati). With this technique, you exhale rapidly and forcefully through the nose. Inhales will happen naturally. The technique is used to fire up and energize the body and mind.
What’s your experience with yogic breathing? Is there a technique you use often or one you’d like to try? Let us know in the comments below.