When practicing yoga, it’s easy to get caught up trying to nail each posture, but postures and movement are just one component of yoga. Yoga breathing techniques, or pranayama (prana means “life force” and yama means “control”), is also an essential element of yoga that enhances and deepens your practice.
“Yoga without breath isn’t really yoga,” says Reiki master and certified yoga and meditation teacher Nina Endrst. “The breath is the foundation of the entire practice. Marrying movement and breath is what makes yoga such a special and powerful experience. Using the breath as our guide draws us back to the body and the current moment.”
“Using the breath as our guide draws us back to the body and the current moment.” —Nina Endrst, yoga and meditation teacher
Still, yoga breathing techniques and exercises are often met with resistance, which Endrst believes is because it makes many feel vulnerable since it is often an unfamiliar practice. “We have trouble sitting that close to ourselves sometimes, but that is when deep healing and connection take place,” she says.
Whether you’re on the mat or out in the real world, living life, yoga breathing techniques are great tools to have at your disposal for whenever you need to clear and calm your mind and body. So are you ready to experience the magic of breathing for yourself? Here are five yoga breathing techniques to try, the benefits of each, plus tips on how to incorporate them into your own asana practice.
5 yoga breathing techniques
1. Breath awareness
This yoga breathing technique is about becoming aware of your breath. How does it sound and feel? Is it moving? Where do you feel the breath in your body? “Sometimes, simply noticing what is happening with your breath is enough to create a major shift,” Endrst says. “Bringing attention to our breathing patterns, whether on or off the mat, is incredibly soothing for the nervous system.”
2. Lion’s breath
Lion’s breath is a powerful yoga breathing technique that quickly helps you get out of your own mind and drop into your body, as well as relax the muscles in your face and jaw where we tend to hold a lot of tension. Plus, it’s fun to practice.
Here’s how to do it: “Close your eyes and take a full, deep inhale through the nose,” Endrst says. “On the exhale, open the mouth wide and stick out the tongue. Empty completely, making a ‘ha’ sound.” Repeat for a few rounds.
3. Breath extension
Feeling anxious? Try the breath extension technique to move stagnant energy in the body. Start by inhaling for four to five counts through the nose. Hold for four counts. Then exhale deeply through the mouth while making a sound. “Let the sound come through, no matter how weird or uncomfortable it is,” Endrst says. “Sound is a healthy and healing vibrational tool.”
4. Sitali breath
“Sitali breath is an excellent breathwork technique for cooling down the body and calming yourself down if you’re feeling anxious, angry, or emotionally charged,” says Susy Markoe Schieffelin, a sound healer, Reiki master, and yoga and meditation teacher.
To practice it, form an O shape with your lips and stick your tongue out, curling the sides up. If you can’t do this, no worries. Instead, lightly clench your teeth together. Then inhale slowly and deeply through the mouth, as if you’re sipping from a straw. Next, bring in your tongue, close your mouth, and exhale through your nose. Schieffelin recommends repeating for three to five minutes, until you feel calm.
5. Breath of fire
If you’ve practiced kundalini yoga before, you’ll likely be familiar with this foundational breathing technique, which Schieffelin describes as more energizing than a cup of coffee. Begin breath of fire by sitting in a cross-legged position, with palms facing up. Touch the tips of your thumb and pointer finger together. Take a few deep, belly breaths here. Then breathe in and out, powerfully through your nose, ensuring your belly pumps in and out as you do this. “The inhale should be effortless. Focus on pushing the exhale out from your lower belly,” Schieffelin says.
Continue to breathe this way for one to three minutes at a rhythmic pace, but don’t go too quickly. If you start to feel light-headed, slow down the breath. Once finished, go back to long belly breaths as you sit quietly and let the energy of the practice integrate.
How to use yoga breathing techniques in your asana practice
As previously mentioned, breath awareness is essential during asana (posture) practice. “Often, in asana practice, you will be guided to link breath directly to the asana,” Schieffelin says. “Each movement will be tied to an inhale or an exhale. It is natural for your mind to wander during asana, so linking the breath to your practice will help you to stay present and connected to the moment.”
Typically, Endrst says, you’ll inhale while expanding, lengthening, reaching, or opening the body. And then exhaling when twisting, releasing, or grounding. Breathing in this way during asana, she adds, “unites the mind, body, and soul.”
In addition to all the benefits to glean from yoga breathing techniques, practicing yoga, in general, facilitates a holistic sense of well-being. Physically, Schieffelin says, yoga keeps the body fit and healthy, improves flexibility, increases strength, boosts metabolism, reduces inflammation, improves heart health, and more. Mentally speaking, yoga can quiet the mind, reduce stress and anxiety, and alleviate certain symptoms associated with depression. And spiritually, the modality can connect you to something greater and help you cultivate a sense of purpose. All in all, Schieffelin says, “yoga connects the mind, body, and spirit and brings us into union with our true self.”