Just breathe: Yogic breathing practices for a balanced body and mind

A woman practices the Nadi Shodhana Pranayama breathing technique using her thumb and ring and pinkie finger to alternate breathing.

Take a deep breath.

Now, how did that make you feel?

Whether trying to finish a stack of work before five or getting your newborn to stop wailing at 2 in the morning, a deep breath in can go a long way; and yogis are proving it.

Harnessing the wondrous benefits of breathing, ancient yogis came up with a few core exercises that form the basis of asanas (poses) and many other types of yoga we practise today.

The simple yet remarkably effective breathing techniques are best known in the yogi world as pranayama, “prana” meaning “life energy” in Sanskrit and “yama” meaning “control.”

Your breath, or prana, is regarded as your life force in yogic philosophy.

Through pranayama exercises, you learn how to channel this life force in different ways to help calm, ground and energise your body, mind and soul.

There are a bunch of different breathing techniques that you can learn at a relaxing yoga retreat or in the comfort of your home, right now if you have a moment!

Regardless of whether you’re a newbie or pranayama pro, these basic breathing techniques will help you maintain balance and bolster your physical, mental and spiritual health.

So, find a comfy spot on your yoga mat, take a deep breath in and let’s get started!

How many breathing techniques are there in yoga?

For centuries, yoga has incorporated various breathing exercises that focus on deep rhythmic patterns with the potential to positively influence your body and mind.

There are 10 core breathing techniques in pranayama. These include:

  1. Dirga Pranayama (Three-Part breath)
  2. Ujjayi Pranayama (Ocean breath)
  3. Brahmari Pranayama (Humming breath)
  4. Shitali Pranayama (Cooling breath)
  5. Sitkari Pranayama (Hissing breath)
  6. Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril breathing)
  7. Kapalabhati Pranayama (Skull Shining breath)
  8. Bhastrika Pranayama (Bellows breath)
  9. Surya Bhedana Pranayama (Solar breath)
  10. Chandra Bhedana Pranayama (Lunar breath)

Although each of these is beneficial, we’ll be focusing on 4 transformative techniques you can easily master at home or on your next yoga retreat.

Two women sit in easy pose practising yogic breathing exercises.

What are the 4 types of breathing techniques?

1. Ujjayi Pranayama 

Ujjayi pranayama, also known as ocean breath or victorious breath, is the most common breathing technique in yoga.

It’s a very calming, energising and incredibly easy form of yogic breathwork, so you’ll most likely already have come across it in a beginner’s class.

Ujjayi exercises help you focus and synchronise your breath with the flow of yoga postures or asanas.

The Sanskrit origins of the word refer to the notion of releasing oneself from bondage and conquering restrictions. The idea is that this breathwork frees the spirit and strengthens the physical body.

2. Bhastrika Pranayama 

Bhastrika breath is a powerful belly breathing technique, great for when you need a burst of energy before an early class or morning meeting!

By repeatedly pumping your abdominal area with deep breaths, the exercise energises your system and even has the potential to enhance metabolic function.

It’s also a great option for clearing brain fog and making you feel less sluggish.

3. Kapalabhati Pranayama 

Kapalbhati breathwork is exertive and active, but more toned down than Bhastrika.

It’s a fast-paced, energising style of yogic breathwork designed to dial-up energy levels and get you pumped for practice.

In Sanskrit, “kapal” refers to the forehead and “bhati” means “shining.” According to historic yogic texts, this form of yogic breathwork aims to generate radiance that shines from the face.

Kapalbhati is often used during Kundalini yoga classes where it has become known as the breath of fire or skull shining breath due to its extreme energising and heating properties.

4. Nadi Shodhana Pranayama 

Nadi shodhana pranayama is intended to purify the body and remove energetic blockages.

Nadi” is the Sanskrit word for “channel” and “shodhana” means, “to purify.”

It balances the mind and the body by pushing prana through the system, much like a psychic spring-cleaning exercise.

A woman lies on a pillow in child's pose while practising pranayama breathing techniques.

How do you do yogic breathing exercises?

How hard can breathing really be?

We do it every day without even trying, right?

While breathing might be a basic human behaviour, yogic breathing exercises are a bit different.

You’ll have to master breath control, breath retention and deep inhalations and exhalations all while balancing on one leg, or none at all!

To make sure you’re harnessing this vital energy and making the most out of your yoga practice, follow these simple steps.

Ujjayi Pranayama

The most important thing to remember in Ujjayi breathing is that you inhale and exhale through your nose only.

So, strictly no mouth breathers. 

Step 1

Take in a gentle breath through the nose and exhale slowly through the nostrils again in your own time.

Step 2

Next, try to concentrate on your breathing and clear your mind.

Be sure to keep your mouth closed and jaw relaxed during the practice.

Step 3

Inhale through the nose again, and as you do, constrict your throat a little so that the air makes a hissing sound.

With yogic breathing, you can never make enough noise, so don’t hold back!

Step 4

During inhalations, focus on channelling air down through your nasal passages, into your lungs, and down into the abdominal area.

Step 5

Repeat the cycle of inhalations and exhalations, making sure they are of equal duration.

The duration may lengthen and become more drawn out, or speed up during the practice; it’s completely up to you or your yoga teacher.

Bhastrika Pranayama

Step 1

Sit up nice and tall with a straight back and relaxed shoulders and facial muscles.

Step 2

Inhale slowly, taking air deeply in through your lungs and down into your belly.

Step 3

Expand your diaphragm and rib cage with the intake of air.

Step 4

Exhale forcefully and inhale deeply through your nose at a rapid rate to create a deep roaring sound.

Releasing all your stress and pent up anger is incredibly freeing, so try not to hold back here!

Kapalbhati Pranayama

Kapalbhati is quite an abdominal workout!

It is very energising and can leave you feeling a little dizzy and lightheaded, so practice with caution.

Step 1

Sit comfortably on your yoga mat in the usual cross-legged position with your core slightly engaged.

Step 2

Breathe in slowly and exhale quickly while working your lower abdominal muscles. The time ratio between inhalation and exhalation is generally 4:1.

Step 3

Inhale through both nostrils and as you do, send the air down into your abdominal area so that it expands outward.

Step 4

Quickly contract the abdominal muscles to release the air as you exhale. So, it’s slow in, fast out.

The contraction of your abdominal muscles is what pushes the air out fast. Be sure to stay relaxed while you inhale and only contract the abdomen when you exhale.

Don’t overdo the contractions. Stick to 50 to 75% engagement of the core.

Step 5

Be sure not to move your head and shoulders during the session, keep this area relaxed and passive, but not flopping around.

If you get dizzy, take a break or lie down in child’s pose or the foetal position to recover.

Nadi Shodhana Pranayama

Step 1

Sit in a comfortable seated position with your legs crossed. Take a deep breath in through the mouth and slowly exhale through the nose.

Step 2

Keep your spine erect, shoulders down and relax and turn up the corners of your mouth into a subtle Mona Lisa-style smile.

Step 3

The left-hand goes onto the left knee palm up.

Step 4

Place the tips of both the index and middle fingers of your right hand between your eyebrows, and the ring and little fingers onto your left nostril.

The thumb of your right-hand goes on your right nostril.

Step 5

The ring finger and little finger push to close and open the left nostril and the right thumb does the same for your right nostril.

Step 6

Close your right nostril with your thumb and slowly exhale through your left nostril.

Step 7

Once you’ve exhaled fully, inhale into the left nostril with your thumb still closing your right nostril.

To exhale, you close your left nostril with the ring and pinky finger, relax your thumb and exhale out of the right nostril.

Step 8

Now you breathe in through the right nostril, then close it off with your thumb and exhale through the left nostril.

Take turns inhaling and exhaling through alternate nostrils for a few rounds. It’s important to remember that you inhale into the same nostril you just exhaled from.

Does it sound a bit complicated?

Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it!

It’s best to try this technique with a yoga instructor to get into the groove and gain full benefit from the practice, which there are plenty of!

A woman breathes in deeply while practising Bhastrika Pranayama or humming breath in easy pose.

What are the benefits of yogic breathing techniques?

The benefits of breathing extend so much further than relaxation.

Regular practice of these exercises can impact the body and mind in several remarkable ways, with the power to reduce stress, improve mental focus, strengthen lung capacity and boost the immune system.

Each breathing technique offers several unique benefits.

Ujjayi Pranayama

Ujjayi breath helps you become calmer and more concentrated and focused.

During Vinyasa flow or Ashtanga yoga classes, Ujjayi breathwork is great for building endurance and helping to regulate your body temperature.

Ujjayi breath is also great for improving and strengthening overall lung function.

Bhastrika Pranayama

Bhastrika breath is a great way to heat up and energise your system.

It can be quite full-on, so is not recommended for people who suffer from conditions such as hernias, chronic high blood pressure or heart issues. 

This is a method for morning or mid-afternoon slumps to counteract lethargy.

It’s also not something you should do close to bedtime as it’s pretty energising and may make you more alert than you’d like.

Kapalbhati Pranayama

As with most yogic breathwork, Kapalbhati improves lung function and blood circulation.

What distinguishes it from other pranayama techniques, is its highly energising qualities which give your abdominal muscles a solid workout.

As with Bhastrika, Khapalbati is not suitable for those with hernias, hypertension or heart disease. Asthmatics should also take care not to overdo it.

Nadi Shodhana Pranayama

Nadi shodhana sends oxygen coursing through your system, helping to release and rid it of toxins.

It has both a calming and energising effect and brings the body into balance.

This deep breathing technique requires some concentration. As you switch from right nostril breathing to the left, it also helps calm and centres the mind.

It’s particularly good at helping reduce acute stress and panic attacks.

Two beginners research how to practise yogic breathing exercises.

Yoga breathing exercises like these are well worth learning, especially as an alternative means to energise or destress.

Once you have mastered the basics, you can incorporate these pranayama breathing techniques into your asanas, meditation routine, or even with a guided instructor on a breathwork retreat.

Not sure where to start looking for your next breathwork retreat?

Try Basubu!

With all the yoga experiences you can imagine right at your fingertips, Basubu makes booking a retreat a breath of fresh air.