The Different Types of Pranayama

Breath is the constant companion to our life journey — and yet, so often we take it for granted — unless you too are an anxious mess and struggle to fill your lungs with air when shit hits the fan — hey friend. You’re not alone. Breath control exercises known as Pranayama provide us a chance to delve into this mysterious power that governs all of existence – by uniting mind and breath through mindful practices. It’s an ancient tool found in many cultures around the world inviting humans everywhere on a journey of self-discovery and is often paired with yoga asanas to help get into a specific state of mind prior to a practice. I personally use various types of Pranayama early morning before my meditation practice to center myself in the present moment and clear my mind — it’s the best time of day, I find. But you do you. Some types of Pranayama are also really great to strengthen the abdominal muscles (more on that below). Pranayama techniques can be really powerful in calming the nervous system down, curbing negative emotions, and allowing more self-awareness.

Types of Pranayama

What is Pranayama? And the Types of Pranayama

Pranayama has been practiced for centuries and is an essential part of many people’s yoga practice. The word Pranayama comes from the Sanskrit words ‘Prana’ (life force or life energy) and ‘Ayama’ (regulation). And so, in the practice of Pranayama, we synchronize our breath with a certain pattern to cultivate this life-force energy in our body.

Pranayamas are the fourth of eight limbs of yoga from Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga Sutras. In these ancient texts, Patanjali refers to the effects that can be achieved through breathing exercises prior to Asana practice. They serve to attain a state called citta vrtti nirodhah, which means the cessation of activities of the mind. Citta literally means “that which has become; that which is imprinted, that which is laid out” and includes thoughts, concepts, values, experiences, and emotions. The more movement, or vrttis, the cloudier the lens and the more rigid our view of the world. The stilling of the vrttis (vrtti nirodhah) improves our ability to understand things in and around us better and more fully with a clear mind. Only when all imprints of the ego have been overcome and silence returns is perception no longer clouded. Ain’t that amazing how a simple breathing exercise can affect our mind, mental health, overall health, and entire body? I certainly think so anyway 🙂 Pranayama yoga is also mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a classic fifteenth-century Sanskrit manual on Haṭha Yoga.

Anyway, back to our Pranayama exercises and respiratory system. There are many different types of Pranayamas each with its own unique health benefits. Let’s dive deep and break down some of my favorite and most used types of Pranayamas! Please note, I’ve mentioned a few times that certain Pranayama types should be avoided if you suffer from high blood pressure, but on the opposite side, regular Pranayama practice as well as deep breathing exercises can help if you suffer from low blood pressure!

Kapalabhati Pranayama

Kapalabhati (different spelling: Kapalbhati Pranayama) means ‘skull shining breath’, literally translated as ‘shining forehead’. This type of Pranayama is beneficial for clearing sinus congestion, detoxifying the lungs, improving digestion, and calming the mind. It is performed by taking quick breaths in through the nose followed by a forceful exhale through the nose, or pumping. This type of breathing should be done for 1-3 minutes at a time with each inhale and exhale taking about half a second each. At the top of each round, I like to alternate holding my breath on full lungs, and then on empty lungs on the next one, activating the bandhas. Please avoid Kapalabhati or consult your doctor if you suffer from high blood pressure. Make sure you’re sitting in a comfortable seated position for this intense yogic breathing technique as some people get a bit dizzy.

Ujjayi Breathing

Likely the most well-known form of yogic breathing, Ujjayi means ‘victorious breath’ and is often referred to as ‘ocean breath’. It is a powerful relaxation technique that helps soothe anxiety and stress levels. To practice Ujjayi Pranayama, close your eyes and take long deep breaths in through both nostrils then slowly exhale out through both nostrils while making an ocean sound like ‘haaaaaa’ on each exhale. It might help to picture yourself first making fog into a mirror with your mouth open, then closing the mouth and repeating the same action at the back of the throat. Keep doing this for five minutes or until you feel relaxed. This is the breath that accompanies most yoga practices. It’s both extremely powerful and relaxing. I love it and use it often outside of yoga in my daily life (at the dentist for example, haha).

Sama Vritti

breathing in yoga

Sama Vritti, or ‘square box breathing’, is an ancient Pranayama technique that brings harmony and balance to both the body and mind. By equalizing inhalations with exhalations over four steps of equal duration (in, hold, out, hold), we can easily find profound relaxation — a perfect remedy for times of stress when our minds feel foggy or disconnected from our bodies and we only have a short period of time to unwind. Releasing tension while connecting deeply within allows us to experience soul-nourishing ease in its simplest form. Sama Vritti is the perfect pick-me-up when you’re feeling anxious or need to refocus your attention real quick.

Bhastrika Pranayama

Give your body a natural boost with Bhastrika Pranayama! This yogic breath of fire is an invigorating process involving rapid inhalation and exhalation that encourages increased oxygen flow throughout the body. Unlike physical exercise, this breathing technique increases oxygen levels even when the heart rate isn’t pumping quickly — so no extra strain on your system but all its energizing effects! Try it next time you need to reignite your energy reserves.

To get started with Bhastrika, begin by settling into a comfortable position such as Vajrasana or Sukhasana where your spine remains erect for optimal diaphragmatic movement. Make fists with both hands then raise them up next to your shoulders before deeply inhaling – open those fists wide! Exhale slightly forcefully while bringing arms back down towards their original starting positions keeping tight fists throughout each repetition of 20 breaths. Take reasonable breaks in between rounds allowing yourself time to rest your palms on your thighs before continuing two more cycles, reaping all its rejuvenating benefits. To be avoided in case of high blood pressure.

Kumbhaka Pranayama

Kumbhaka Pranayama means breath retention or pauses in breathing. This type of Pranayama helps to build up lung capacity which in turn helps us stay calm even when stressed out. It can also help improve concentration as it involves holding your breath while focusing on your breathing process — upping your focus naturally! To perform Kumbhaka Pranayama, you need to sit comfortably in any cross-legged position and take deep breaths through your nose, hold it for three seconds or more, then slowly release it back out through your nose. Repeat this cycle ten times or until you feel relaxed. This Pranayama is the perfect companion to freediving training and can also be performed with a metronome, where you increase the retention a bit more each time. A great mind game 😉

Nadi Shodhana or Anuloma Vyloma (aka. Alternate Nostril Breathing)

Nadi Shodhana Pranayama or Anulom Vilom (or Viloma Pranayama) is an ancient practice that helps bring balance and harmony within the body. Coming from Sanskrit, Nadi translates as “channel” while Shodhana means “purification”. The technique works by cleansing three main channels in our mind-body organism — Pingala infused with masculine energy on the right side, Ida imbued with feminine power on the left side, and Sushumna at the center — allowing Prana (the life force) to flow more freely throughout us.

Begin by raising your right hand in the air and performing what is known as a “Nasagra/Vishnu” mudra, although this isn’t mandatory. Close off the right nostril with the right thumb, and slowly inhale from the left nostril for four seconds; now close the left nostril with the pinky finger and ring finger and hold for four seconds. Release the right nostril and exhale for four seconds; then close, and hold. Now repeat the same thing, inhaling from the right side first, and do as many cycles as possible. I personally find Nadi Shodhana very challenging because my nasal passages are never fully clear at the same time and breathing ends up feeling really hard.

Bhramari Pranayama

The practice of Pranayama known as “Brahma”, derived from the Sanskrit word for bee, is a simple yet powerful way to reduce stress and anxiety while promoting mental clarity. This technique produces a low-pitched humming sound that resonates deeply within our bodies – much like the buzzing of bees! The vibration created by this hum has an incredibly calming effect on both body and mind allowing us to better cope with difficult emotions or insomnia. As if that weren’t enough benefit: it can actually help regenerate tissues in your body! It’s especially helpful during labor for pregnant women who will find comfort through deep meditative states. I’ve resorted to using Bhramari Pranayama in anxiety-inducing situations and it’s helped me a lot.

Dirga Pranayama

Three-Part Breath (Dirga Pranayama) has the power to ground and center us in our physical bodies. Why not use this calming exercise as a gateway into your yoga practice? When you first hop onto your mat, take several deep breaths with Dirga Pranayama – it will help ease out any stress or worry from the day before making way for an undistracted session of self-care.

Feel free to rest on your back with your legs outstretched or if that doesn’t feel right, bend those knees up toward you. Whatever feels more comfortable is key — just make sure you’re fully relaxed when doing so as this will help maximize the means of breathing through your body. Take a minute to observe your natural breath. Don’t get caught up in any thoughts that may pass by, just notice them and keep breathing. Now start deep-belly breathing; on the inhale fill yourself with air like you’re filling up a balloon, then let it all out when exhaling through your nose while drawing the navel back towards the spine for an extra squeeze of air out – cycle this five times.

Next, take a deep breath in and let it fill your belly, rib cage, up to the collarbone — expanding around what we call the heart center. On each exhale feel yourself release — first from the chest sinking back down then letting go of air in ribs sliding together before finally dipping into that lower part with the navel moving closer to the spine as you slowly ease out all three parts without interruption. Try for ten cycles.

Sheetali Pranayama

Sheetali Pranayama or Shitali Pranayama, also known as Cooling Breath, is a refreshing way to bring peace and tranquility into your life. It invokes a powerful evaporative cooling mechanism on inhalation which soothes the body from the deepest tissues through its calming energy. For best results, practice it on an empty stomach whilst sitting comfortably either cross-legged or with elevated hips. Stick your tongue out and curl up like a tube. Take a deep breath through this “tube” situation – let the air fill up your lungs, and back out through the curled-up tongue. Repeat as much as needed, there are no contraindications here.

Benefits of Pranayama

A regular practice of Pranayama breathing techniques can have many benefits such as reducing stress levels, improving mindfulness, enhancing concentration, calming the mind and the subtle energy channels, strengthening respiratory muscles and lung function, helping with certain cardiovascular diseases, etc… Breathing is an essential yet, often overlooked connection between our mental and physical state. Mindful yogic breathwork not only gives us insight into the places of tension within ourselves but can also be a powerful tool to soften them. Whether you are new or experienced in the practice of yoga, learning how to use your breath as part of your practice will help unlock hidden potentials that lie within each one of us – both strong and fragile alike!

With research into yogic breathing and Pranayama types yielding more than a thousand studies, it’s clear that Pranayama offers multiple beneficial effects for the health-conscious. From improved mental clarity to increased physical wellness and cognitive functions, these ancient practices can be instrumental in attaining holistic well-being – but only if researched and executed properly!

While there are various types of Pranayama out there, the ones above are some of the most popular ones among yogis today since they offer a wide range of benefits with minimal effort involved! So why not try one today? And if you’re a yoga teacher looking to add some new elements to your classes then don’t forget to include these three wonderful types of Pranayamas into your curriculum! Namaste! 🙏🏼