In the journey of Yoga, Pranayama is an important hub. It is also a busy hub. Some people have marked this hub as their destination. For some, it is a transit. Some may linger for quite some time, some run through quickly. Some miss their next carrier and have to wait longer. And, some enjoy the experience here, and some want to move away quickly.
Several originations from the East and West have Pranayama as their transit. It does not matter which particular religion, era, or when they used Pranayama as a tool for spiritual seeking. It might not have been called Pranayama, but it involves breathing. Also, it involves the connectivity that the breath brings between the mind and body. Pranayama belongs to everyone who uses breathing as a key to open the doors to higher spiritual experiences.
It could be a singer from Thanjavur who uses breathing techniques to bring out the extraordinary notes or a marathon runner in Boston who uses eﬃcient breathing techniques to accomplish their goal. Pranayama is a collection of regulated breathing practices that can potentially impact the mind and body.
These pranayama exercises were developed, organized, and disseminated by seekers from various traditions including the saints from ancient India that in Tamil called the Siddhars (or Sithars). They have a prominent role in the development of Pranayama, as well as in other Yoga techniques.
The Sithars are said to have learned the techniques from Nandhi, sometimes also referred to as Lord Siva, in a specific academic lineage that started from four of the Janaka Saints: Sivayoga Mamuni, Patanjali, Vyakramar, and Thirumoolar.
From these eight Saints subsequent lineages branched out, and the eighteen Sithars who made significant contributions to the understanding of Siddhanta, Vedhanta, and Yoga philosophies are considered unique in their expressive, cryptic, and enriched poems. Several of the Sithar poems are still in palm-leaf manuscript forms, in secluded pockets of the knowledge base, or in the first printed editions of certain religious organizations (called Aadheenams), or only in the Tamil language.
This makes it diﬃcult to understand and interpret the breadth and depth of the wisdom within that philosophical system. However, several Pranayama techniques from the Sithar traditions have made it into public use today. At least some of the widely used Pranayama techniques, for example, the Anuloma Viloma have been researched using modern biological tools so the biological mechanism is getting clear.
And, that’s what we are going to discuss today in this article, the top five pranayama techniques or exercises.
Table of Contents
A Yogi’s Guide to Breathing: Top Five Pranayama Exercises
Source: Wellness With Joann
1. Pranayama Exercise #1: Dheerga Swasam (Deep Breathing)
- Move the breath
- Deep and tall
- Move the mind with it
- Until you reach a point
- They do not move anymore
Pranayama Exercise #1: How-To
This exercise is done by breathing in and out through both nostrils simultaneously. Begin by slowly exhaling from the upper chest, then the lower ribs, and then the tummy/abdomen. Once you have completely exhaled to your maximum ability, start slowly breathing in.
First, breathe in into the abdominal area. The tummy should bulge out when you breathe in; make sure that the tummy is not tucking inwards. Continue to breathe in moving up, pulling up the lower ribs and then the upper chest.
Once your chest area is filled in, breathe in a bit more up to the collar bone. Once you have inhaled to your maximum capacity, start breathing out from the upper chest, and then move down to relax the lower ribs, and finally the tummy. The key places to watch during both inhalation and exhalation are:
- The upper chest
- The lower ribs
- The tummy
We normally take about 12–18 breaths per minute. This changes according to our activity, age, and several other factors. Whatever may be your number at the beginning, try to slow it down as you breathe in and out. The number of breaths can become typically less than seven breaths per minute when you perform this exercise.
Make sure you do not focus on the number alone, especially when you start Pranayama for the first time. You have to first get comfortable with watching the breathing and understanding the normal speed of your breathing, and then from there, you try to regulate or slow it down with this exercise.
Another key aspect of this breathing exercise is combining the mind with breathing. As our mind is a wanderer, it is a challenge to focus on one thing. Breathing is an excellent internal process that can be utilized to bring focus to the mind. Let your mind follow the breathing as you perform this exercise.
For instance, you can bring your focus your attention, or awareness to the three areas of activity, namely, the upper chest, the lower ribs, and the tummy. Just watch those places sequentially, and continuously as you inhale and exhale. It is normal for your thoughts to move out to something else. But without condemning your mind, bring the focus back to the breathing process and how it moves. With constant practice, you will be able to follow the breathing with your mind.
Pranayama Exercise #1: How Long
You can do this exercise for any length of time as long as you are comfortable with it. If you are breathing fast during this exercise, you may not be able to continue it, and you may want to take a break. It is perfectly all right to take a break whenever you feel it necessary.
Your ability to feel physically and mentally comfortable during this exercise is important. Typically anywhere between 5–15 minutes is good for this exercise. In my experience, this is one of the first exercises I learned because this is basic and important for people to understand their length of breath, and also the movement of their mind.
Look for your progression by potentially reducing the number of breaths that you take in a given minute. You will be surprised that you could be taking as low as two breaths a minute. Also, watch how your mind can easily be tamed by watching the breathing.
2. Pranayama Exercise #2: Pranava Pranayama (Om Chanting)
- One letter is the beginning and end
- It starts and ends with the same sound
- And, it is the background of all the sounds
- It connects us all with the One
Pranayama Exercise #2: How-To
Begin by breathing in through your nose. Slowly inhale by filling the tummy, then moving upwards to fill the lower ribs and upper chest. Once you are filled, open your mouth and start saying the O, as in hOme. As you keep exhaling, continue with the pronunciation of O. And, when you are somewhere in the middle of the exhalation, start closing the lips to make the sound Mmmm…
It is a very simple chant; however, there are several details to be aware of. Let us consider a few key points during the chanting of Om.
When you begin, never begin with A. Some people chant Om as A… U… M. This is wrong. Aum is part of another chant called Navakkari from Thirumanthiram. When you start with the letter O, the sound should hit the soft palate. Imagine that the sound rises upwards from the throat, hits the roof of your mouth, and vibrates this entire area.
The second letter M can be started at three diﬀerent timings. One, at the very end of the breath. In this way, you will say a very long O up to the end of your breath, and then you will close your lips by saying M for the last few seconds.
In the second variation, you will start saying M somewhere in the middle of your exhalation time. This will have a slightly longer M chanting duration than the previous variation. And the third way of chanting OM is by a very short O and then a long M sound.
You can choose any way of chanting the OM. It can vary as you move into the chanting, and it is totally fine if it takes its form. Once you breathe out completely with the M sound, start breathing in again for the next chant.
Make sure that you perform the inhalation through the nose, and exhalation is done by way of chanting. You will notice that during the sound of O, you will breathe out through the mouth, and during the sound of M, you will breathe out through the nose naturally.
Pranayama Exercise #2: How Long
This chanting can be done for any length of time as long as you are comfortable. Generally, keep the chanting for a minimum of three rounds. It can be continued for 5–15 minutes. Sometimes a long O sound and a short M sound will be a good way to stimulate yourself.
And, on the other hand, the short O sound, and a long M sound could be a way to calm yourself down. Any method of chanting OM is a good way to regulate the breath, as well as a way to create sound vibrations in the pharyngeal area. I do OM chanting at the beginning and end of most of my mindful breathing practice.
I provide an alternative ‘Humming’ if people are not too comfortable chanting OM as someone might think that it is a religious chant. OM chanting can be done both in the morning and evening or anytime during the day.
Tips and Variations
Think of the soft palate throughout all phases of the chant. You will find that focusing on this area is important in your progression through Pranayama practice, and connecting it with the elevation of your consciousness. This is also a good way to stimulate salivation. Also, controlling the mind is an added benet of this exercise. Om chanting can be a chant used for Udgeeth.
3. Pranayama Exercise #3: Anuloma Viloma Pranayama (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
- Go with the ow
- Breathe against the ow
- One balances the other
- Every side is unique
- And, make the life glow longer
Pranayama Exercise #3: How-To
Hold the fingers of your hands. Close one nostril with the thumb. If you use the right hand, the thumb will close your right nostril and vice versa. Breathe in through the other nostril. At the end of inhalation close the left nostril with the little finger and ring finger together and exhale by opening the right.
Once the exhalation is complete start breathing into the right nostril to continue the next cycle. Essentially you will be inhaling through one nostril and exhaling through the other. You switch the nostril only when you are at the end of inhalation.
Do not switch the fingers at the end of exhalation. Continue the exercise as slow as possible so the breathing is long and deep. As you practice, let the mind travel up and down with breathing.
Pranayama Exercise #3: How Long
The Alternate Nostril Breathing can be practiced anywhere between 5– 25 minutes. As a general rule, 10 minutes at any given session will be helpful. This exercise can either be combined with other Pranayama exercises or it can be practiced in isolation. This can be practiced 2–3 times (morning, noon, evening) a day.
Tips for Practice
Keep a constant watch on the nasal cycle. Try to see how you feel during left or right nostril dominant conditions.
This may inspire you to do the exercise while watching how the sensations vary. This is because the nasal cycle switches the nostril dominance from one side to the other about every 2–3 hours depending upon the time of the day, and the day of the week.
Having a properly alternating nasal cycle is important for good health. The Alternate Nostril Breathing exercise helps to maintain the nasal cycle.
Source: Sadhguru On
4. Pranayama Exercise #4: Viloma Pranayama (Stepped Alternate Nostril Breathing)
- Small steps to the top
- Descend in harmony
- Reassure that at will
- You can control your breath
- Because you are the Master
Pranayama Exercise #4: How-To
This exercise is very similar to the Alternate Nostril Breathing exercise (Exercise #3). However, during this exercise one nostril is used for inhalation and exhalation in a diﬀerent way. In the word Viloma, the letter “Vi” means the opposite.
We are going to go against the natural flow of the breath. In this exercise, there are 2 types of breathing, one for each nostril. The 2 types of breathing are:
- Long inhalation/exhalation in one smooth action.
- Inhalation/Exhalation is broken into several parts.
This is explained below for easy understanding. Check which nostril is owing more freely when compared to the other one. Let us keep this as the “open or active” nostril. The other nostril which has a less open flow is called the “closed or Inactive” nostril. For both inhalation and exhalation through the open/active nostril, perform normal inhalation and exhalation in one smooth action.
For example, if you are doing an inhalation through this nostril, inhale as one smooth action, filling up the tummy, the lower ribs, and upper chest areas. Breathing in and out in this nostril will resemble that of Alternate Nostril Breathing.
Regarding the other closed/inactive nostril, both the inhalation and exhalation through this nostril will be a little harder than through the other nostril. Breathing in and out through this nostril is done as small steps. In other words, the one smooth inhalation or exhalation is done in several steps. As you breathe in, perform the inhalation in several small fractions.
Imagine how you would go up the stairs. It is one flight of stairs containing numerous steps. Every step is controlled by your ability to control your breathing. You control the inhalation or exhalation in a stepwise manner. Both the inhalation and exhalation through the closed/inactive nostril are done in a stepwise manner.
The sequence of the whole exercise is explained below: (in this example, the right nostril is open/active, and the left nostril is closed/inactive).
- Close the right nostril with the thumb. Start breathing in through the left nostril as going up the stairs in several steps. Breathe in all the way you could. Actually, at the top of the stairs, you will be able to add a few more steps of inhalation.
- Close the left nostril, and open the right nostril. Now start breathing out through the right nostril as one smooth exhalation (no steps here). Breathe out completely.
- Begin inhalation through the right nostril as one smooth continuous ow so you could fill yourself as much as you could.
- Close the right nostril with the thumb and open the left nostril and start breathing out of the left nostril as going down the stairs in several steps. Breathe out completely by going down the steps and adding a few more steps as you descend. All these four steps form one full cycle.
- Go to step 1 to begin the next cycle.
Pranayama Exercise #4: How Long
You could do this exercise at least three times a day (before breakfast, before lunch, and before dinner), each time for about 5–15 minutes. As this exercise is meant to be activating an otherwise dormant nostril it might be better to do this exercise every time the nostril switches (about 2–3 hours intervals). However, there is no specific restriction on when to do this exercise.
As this exercise provides an opportunity to understand the nasal cycle, and also to activate the nostril that is not active at any point, this is a good way to stimulate both the opposing sides of the nasal systems. In addition, breathing muscles-nerves coordination is improved when we practice this exercise.
Therefore it will be a good practice to improve the communication between the voluntary ability to control the breath and the muscle groups involved in actual breathing.
This exercise could also provide signals to the upper respiratory tract on the nostril dominance, and therefore could activate another signaling to the brain. Keeping these in mind, performing this exercise whenever you would like to achieve control of mind and breath would be beneficial.
Source: Geethanjali – Yoga
5. Pranayama Exercise #5: Chandra Nadi Pranayama (Left Nostril Breathing)
- Calm and quiet
- The breath goes to left
- Like the full moon
- Shining mind is a boon
Pranayama Exercise #5: How-To
Chandra Nadi is also called Ida Nadi or the moon, and that is activated by breathing through the left nostril. It has a cooling eﬀect on the emotional and physical aspects of the system. To activate the Chandra Nadi one has to pay attention to certain things.
For instance, there may be situations, or conditions in which one could activate it (example, when feeling anxious, being highly agitated, warmed up, hot external temperature, etc.), and in circumstances when you do not want to activate it (when you are already feeling lethargic and unmotivated, as when the temperature is already cold, or during the times of colds/infections).
The way to perform Chandra Nadi Pranayama is quite simple. Close the right nostril (remember, you want to activate the left nostril, so you need to close the right nostril).
Start by slowly breathing in, engaging the abdomen, lower ribs, and upper chest moving upwards. Once you fill yourself to your maximum ability, start exhaling through the same nostril (left nostril) slowly, by relaxing the upper chest, lower ribs, and abdomen.
Breathe in and out slowly by aligning the mind with breathing. With every breath in and out, make sure you can extend the inhale and exhale to your maximum ability.
Pranayama Exercise #5: How Long
You could do this exercise whenever you would like to relax. You can do this practice until you feel calm. The timing could be as short as 5 minutes. The maximum you can do this exercise is fifteen minutes. Also, it is good to watch the temperature outside and see if you have any cold symptoms.
When it is very cold (like in winter) or during times of cold infections, it is better to avoid this Pranayama. Extended periods of the same practice are also not recommended.
Tips and Variations
Do the exercise as slowly as possible, which will provide instantaneous relaxation. Follow the breathing with the mind so that the mindfulness is also improved.
Focus your attention on the nasopharyngeal region (or the roof of the mouth or the soft palate) so your mindfulness of every inhalation and exhalation is improved. You could do this exercise either as a single smooth ow for inhalation and exhalation or as stepwise breathing in and out.
When you perform the exercise in a stepwise method, both inhalation and exhalation can be divided into several small steps. Always allow your creativity to find alternative ways of practicing, and allow yourself to experience new things that are not mentioned in this article!
Related: Breathing Techniques for Anxiety