Our minds are not naturally wired to be still. We tend to think constantly, oftentimes with intrusive thoughts that lead to anxiety and stress. Our minds are inclined to wander to many places and sometimes we get overwhelmed by where it takes us.
Constant thoughts take us away from the present and when not controlled, can lead to a difficult spiral. When this happens, it’s important to catch ourselves and come back to our bodies and into the present moment.
You may think that it’s not easy to do that, but our bodies have their own secret weapon to combat these thoughts - the power of our breath.
When we’re anxious, our breath becomes rapid and shallow. When we are unable to breathe deeply, it exacerbates the harmful effects of stress on our bodies and makes recovery more difficult. Our breath, mind, and body are so deeply connected.
Our state of mind affects the way we breathe and with mindfulness, our breath can influence our thoughts. Breathing consciously, slowly, and deeply delivers a message to our body to activate the parasympathetic nervous system to get us out of the fight-or-flight response and into the rest-and-digest response. In yoga, pranayama is the practice of focusing on the breath.
Apart from reminding us to shift away from our thoughts, breathwork is also an amazing ally for our body - whether we want to calm down, relax, or gather energy, there is a breathwork practice that can help.
Here are a few pranayama breathing techniques you can try so that you can come back to the present moment whenever you need to.
Nadi Shodhana or Alternate Nostril Breathing
Nadi Shodhana can have a significant impact on your body, mind, and nervous system. Its name comes from the words nadi which means “channel” and shodhana, meaning “purification.” This is a basic and powerful tool that many people can use as a simple and effective practice to clear the mind and bring about a state of calm.
Nadi Shodhana is said to reduce stress and anxiety, help balance hormones, enhance concentration, balance masculine and feminine energies, bring the left and right hemispheres of the brain into balance, clear the respiratory channels, calm the nervous system, and clear toxins.
How to do Nadi Shodhana
Step 1 - Sit comfortably with your spine erect. Find Vishnu Mudra by folding your index and middle finger towards the base of the thumb. Take a deep breath and exhale completely.
Step 2 - Block the right nostril with your thumb and inhale through the left nostril. Feel your breath travel along the left side of the body and pause briefly at the crown of the head. Release the thumb from the right nostril and block the left nostril with your ring and pinky fingers. Exhale through the right nostril.
Step 3 - Keeping your ring and pinky fingers on the left nostril, inhale through the right nostril. Allow your breath to travel along the right side of the body and pause briefly at the crown of the head. Release the ring and pinky fingers from the left nostril and cover the right nostril with your thumb. Exhale through the left nostril.
Step 4 - This completes one cycle of Nadi Shodhana. Repeat for 10-12 cycles.
Kapalabhati or Breath of Fire
The word Kapalabhati is derived from two Sanskrit words: kapāla, which means “skull,” and bhāti, meaning “shining, illuminating.” It is also called the breath of fire because it brings a surge of heat and energy to the body.
Kapalabhati cleanses the respiratory system, tones the abdominal muscles and diaphragm, enhances focus and concentration, improves digestion, clears toxins, purifies the blood by increasing oxygen in the body, and brings a boost of energy. It’s recommended to practice Kapalabhati on an empty stomach and before your yoga practice.
How to do Kapalabhati
Step 1 - Sit erect in a comfortable position with your hands on your lower belly.
Step 2 - Before you begin, take a deep cleansing breath through your nose and exhale through the mouth.
Step 3 - Take a deep inhale through the nose until your belly is filled around three quarters full.
Step 4 - Forcefully expel all of the air from your lungs while bringing your navel in toward your spine in a rapid motion. Your diaphragm should be the primary source of movement. Do not focus on your inhale, your lungs will take in air naturally as your belly expands.
Step 5 - Repeat the forceful exhale 10 times and allow your breath to return to normal.
Step 6 - Repeat this cycle 3 to 4 times.
Kumbhaka Pranayama or Breath Retention
Kumbhaka pranayama is a yogic breathing technique that involves holding or stopping the breath. Kumbhaka pranayama is the control of prana through breath retention. It is derived from the Sanskrit words kumbha, which means "pot" or "vessel," prana, which refers to life force energy, and ayama, which means "control."
Kumbhaka pranayama increases oxygen retention which helps blood circulation and purification. This boosts the immune system, enhances concentration, improves memory, and keeps the body and mind grounded, making it a perfect practice before meditation. Kumbhaka pranayama is classified according to when the breath is held.
The two most common types practiced by yogis are Antara Kumbhaka, which is when air is held after inhalation and Bahya Kumbhaka, wherein the breath is held after exhalation.
It’s important to note that beginners must be experienced in Antara Kumbhaka before practicing Bahya Kumbhaka.
How to do Antara Kumbhaka Pranayama
Step 1 - Sit in a comfortable meditation position with your back erect and head aligned. Place both hands on your knees. For beginners, Kumbhaka is practiced with the ratio of 1-1-2. This means that the amount of time you inhale is the same amount of time you hold your breath, then double that amount for the exhale. As you become more comfortable, you can increase this number as you see fit.
Step 2 - Take a few natural, conscious and cleansing breaths.
Step 3 - Take a slow deep breath for five seconds.
Step 4 - Tuck your chin into your chest in Jalandhara Badha. This temporarily holds the prana from going up. Hold your breath for five counts.
Step 5 - Exhale through both nostrils for ten seconds as you lift your head.
Step 6 - Repeat the cycle for ten minutes.
Harness the power of your breath
Whenever you find yourself overwhelmed and can’t seem to manage your anxieties, always remember to focus on your breath. By doing so, you are able to clear your mind and send a signal to your body that you are safe.
Life can take us to some pretty arduous situations, but it’s nothing we can’t meet calmly when we remember the power of coming home to our breath.
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