Most people do not know how to breathe correctly. After all, they’re always breathing even without thinking about it. While your body breathes naturally throughout the day, chances are that you have not been inhaling and exhaling the right way. It’s possible that you have been taking short, shallow breaths all along.

If you continue breathing incorrectly over an extended period of time, you’re likely to experience feelings of stress, anxiety, and even depression. The solution to this problem is to become more conscious of your breath through focused yoga breathing exercises. Also called Pranayama, these techniques can keep you healthy and calm.

The word Pranayama comes from a combination of two words. Prana means “life force” or “vital energy” and Ayama means expansion or extension. So, Pranayama is the expansion or extension of prana dimension. Breathing techniques help activate and regulate your life force to go beyond your own limitations and achieve a higher level of awareness.
The literal meaning of Pranayama is “to extend the vital life force.” It is a very rich practice that has several breathing techniques with varying complexities. There are some that are so simple that even a child can perform them. However, others are best left to advanced practitioners.

Patanjali describesPranayama in Yoga Sutra as the process by which you’re able to break your unconscious pattern of breathing to make long, smooth, easeful breaths. For most people, their patterns are tense, erratic, and shallow. You often gasp after hearing bad news or when you’re afraid. This breathing pattern activates your sympathetic nervous system.

Any breathing technique that fosters long, smooth exhales is beneficial since it supports your parasympathetic nervous system if you do it correctly. Consequently, it activates the “relaxation response,” leading to reduced stress and anxiety. This improves your resilience even when challenges or adversities seem to increase.
Pranayama is a very crucial tool that can get you into a state of yoga (focused concentration). This leads to a clearer perception and a greater link with the Self plus a happier life. The practice of pranayama reduces all the mental noise that keeps you from connecting with your true Self. Such noises include agitation, self-doubt, and distractions.

3 Practices to Get You Started

While it’s recommended to practice Pranayama under an experienced instructor’s guidance, you can do simple techniques to transform your breath and state of mind. They include relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing, Sitkari (or Sitali) Pranayama, and subtle “extended exhale” breathing. Just ensure that you’re not pushing yourself beyond the limits and that you’re healthy.

Each of these exercises can support your parasympathetic nervous system, quiet the mind, and help bring you to a state of yoga. Practice these techniques regularly and, with time, you’ll be able to notice when you’re unintentionally breathing shallowly or holding your breath.

Practicing pranayama over extended periods of time can also help you associate your breathing patterns with your moods or mental states. This is called self-awareness and is only the first step towards shifting how you breathe through regular practice and creating a positive change in life.

Try each of these practices daily for just a week and you’ll notice the way they’ll affect your breath, body, and mind. This helps in figuring out the technique that’s suitable for you. The advantage of these practices is that you can perform them at almost any time of your day. Only avoid doing them immediately after a meal.

Relaxed, Diaphragmatic Breathing

This is a gentle introduction to diaphragmatic breathing that teaches you the way to breathe more consciously and fully. It is also called Basic Breath Awareness. You can try it at least once every day at the time of your choice.
Step by step instructions. Here are the steps to follow when performing Relaxed, Diaphragmatic Breathing:

•Comfortably lie on the back with the knees bent and the feet flat on the ground about hip-distance apart
•Place one palm on the abdomen and breathe freely for a few seconds, noticing your breath’s quality
•Whether the breath feels strained, tense, uneven, or shallow, do not judge it. Simply observe it
•Gradually commence adjusting your breath, making it as smooth and as relaxed as possible, introducing a moderate pause after each inhales and exhale.
•Notice your body’s movement after your breath has become comfortable and relaxed. Your abdomen expands naturally when you inhale and slightly contracts during exhalation.
•Gently try to expand your abdomen actively during inhalation and contract it during exhalation to support your diaphragm’s natural movement. You’ll experience the pleasure of achieving a full, relaxed breath.
•Continue doing the practice for between 6 to 12 breaths
Possible benefits. It quiets and calms your entire nervous system, thereby reducing stress and anxiety while improving self -awareness.

The Cooling Breath (Sitkari/Sitali Pranayama)

The most common translation of Sitali Pranayama is “The Cooling Breath.” This is because it involves the act of drawing air across your tongue into your mouth, resulting in a calming and cooling effect on your nervous system. You can practice it twice every day or when the need (a stressful situation) arises.

Practicing Sitali requires you to be able to curl your tongue’s sides inward for it to appear like a straw. However, the ability to twist the tongue is not in everyone. It’s a genetic trait. If you’re unable to do so, an alternative called Sitkari Pranayama can provide you with the same effects.

Both Sitali and Sitkari are important in cooling down your body and mind. Just by performing 6 rounds of these exercises, you can alleviate thirst when water isn’t available. Sitali and Sitka are quite similar techniques. The only difference that exists between them is how to breathe. One involves the use of the tongue while the other the teeth.

Step by step instructions for Sitali Pranayama. Here are the steps to follow:

•Comfortably sit on the floor or on a chair with relaxed shoulders and a naturally erect spine
•Slightly lower your chin, curl your tongue lengthwise and jut it out of your mouth to a cozy distance
•Gently inhale through the “straw” that your curled tongue formed as you slowly lift the chin toward the ceiling. Go only as far as your neck is comfortable.
•When about to end the exhale, with the comfortably raised chin, retract your tongue and close your mouth
•Slowly exhale through your nostrils as you subtly lower the chin back to a more neutral position
•Repeat this exercise for about 8 to 10 breaths
Step by step instructions for Sitkari Pranayama. Here are the steps for performing this technique:
•Open your mouth slightly with the tongue just behind your teeth.
•Slowly inhale through the space that’s between your upper and lower teeth, permitting the incoming air to wash over the tongue as you lift the chin upwards toward the ceiling
•Towards the end of the inhale, close your mouth and exhale through your nostrils while slowly lowering the chin back to a neutral position
•Repeat this for about 8-12 breaths
Possible Benefits. Here are the benefits of both Sitkari and Sitali Pranayama:
•It improves focus
•The Cooling Breath also reduces anger, agitation, and anxiety.
•It pacifies excess heat when it’s in the system.
•Helpful in indigestion and fever
•Effective in relieving hyperacidity
•Controls high blood pressure
•Fights against insomnia
•Purifies the blood

The Extended Exhale

Also called the Long Exhale, this 1:2 breathing practice involves the gradual increase of exhalation until it reaches twice the length or period of the inhalation. This technique is good for relaxing your nervous system. You can practice the Long Exhale at any time of your day but avoid doing it very early in the morning unless you’re stressed or anxious.

Step by step instructions. Follow these steps to perform the Extended Exhale:

•Lie on the back with the knees bent and your feet flat on the ground, about hip-width apart.
•Place one palm on your abdomen
•Take some relaxed breaths, feeling your abdomen expand on inhalation and contract gently on exhalation
•With the palm on the abdomen, mentally count the time each exhalation and inhalation takes for several additional breaths. If your inhalation is longer than your exhalation, try to adjust them so they can have the same length as you progress through the breathing exercise
•After achieving equal inhalation and exhalation lengths, gradually increase the time you can take to exhale by at least a second by gently contracting your abdomen. Continue doing this as long as every breath feels relaxed and smooth.
•Making sure that you’re not experiencing any strain with the continuous increase of the exhalation period, keep going up until it’s double the inhalation length. Don’t go beyond this.

Possible benefits. The Extended Exhale can effectively reduce anxiety, sleep disturbances, and insomnia.
Beginner tips.

•Remember that even an exhalation that’s slightly longer than your inhalation is able to induce a calming effect. Therefore, be careful not to push yourself beyond your limits. If you do, it’s likely that you’ll activate your sympathetic nervous system (stress response). The result would be a feeling of agitation rather than the calming effect.
•If the breath feels short or uncomfortable, or you gasp on your next inhalation, then reduce to a ratio that’s more comfortable for 8-12 breaths. Then, end the practice session with about 6 or 8 natural and relaxed breaths.

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