“Breath is the link between mind and body.” - Dan Brulé
Breathwork has been around for hundreds of years. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written some 2500 years ago, the practice of breath control or breath therapy is termed pranayama, and it is one of eight ‘limbs’ of Ashtanga or Classical Yoga.
Pranayama is a Sanskrit word derived from prana - meaning life force or breath - and ayama, which means stretching or restraining. Pranayama can thus be roughly translated to mean breath suspension or control. It is believed that controlling the breath determines the flow of energy and ‘life force’ throughout the body. In Hatha yoga texts and ancient Hindu scriptures like the Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali’s sutras, pranayama refers to the complete cessation of breathing. While there are some pranayama practices that involve stopping or holding the breath for extended periods of time, the majority of pranayama practised in modern times is focused on the control of the breath’s duration, flow and rhythm.
Breathwork or breath therapy is said to help with a number of things, including sharpening concentration and focus, reducing stress and anxiety, calming the body, improving or maintaining lung capacity, promoting cardiovascular health, boosting the mood, and preserving longevity. Breath exercises are often paired with holistic health practices such as meditation and mindfulness, and disciplines such as yoga, tai chi and qigong. There are a number of breathwork masters around the world, including our very own Dr Ela Manga – a South African medical doctor who incorporates breathwork into her practice - as well as Dan Brulé, a celebrated breathwork coach who has worked with celebrities, Navy Seals and, notably, world-renowned philanthropist, author and life coach Tony Robbins.
Breathwork is a popular and well-loved practice, and can be employed for a number of different uses due to its wide range of uniquely beneficial techniques.
Five Breathwork Techniques for Any Occasion
“Breath awareness and conscious breathing is the absolute foundation in the management of health, stress, and energy... Breathwork sessions will help you build a set of breathing techniques that can be applied in every aspect of your life.” - Dr Ela Manga
There is a wide range of different and uniquely beneficial types of pranayama, so there is an exercise for just about everything! This handy guide will walk you through five of the key techniques, each of which can be applied for a different purpose.
If you begin to feel dizzy or light-headed at any point during your practice, stop immediately and return to your normal breathing.
Dirga Swasam for Stress Management
Dirga Swasam is also known as ‘three-part breath’, referring to the movement of the breath through the chest, ribs and belly. It is a very simple and easy technique, and a great introduction to the practice of pranayama. Performing it for just 10 minutes each day will help you to maintain your composure and tackle the challenges that life throws at you.
- Begin in the savasana or ‘corpse’ pose – lying down with your feet relaxed and your palms facing up – for maximum relaxation. You can also perform this technique in a seated position if that is more comfortable for you.
- Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest, and take five slow, deep breaths, paying attention to how your breath moves through your body.
- You will notice that when you inhale, your belly will expand, followed by your ribcage and finally your chest. On your exhale, the flow will be reversed as the air is released, first from your chest or heart centre, then from the rib cage, and finally from the belly.
- If it feels comfortable for you, modify your breathing by breaking it into the three parts. On your inhale, breathe in until your belly is full, pause for a few seconds and then slowly draw in more breath to expand the ribcage before pausing again, and finally finishing your exhalation by bringing air into your chest. Exhale slowly, again separating the flow into its three parts by releasing the breath in increments to lower first the chest, then the ribcage, and finally the belly.
- Release your hands to the ground, palms facing up, and return to a smooth flow, letting the breath move naturally through these three parts. You can continue to practise for as long as you need in order to calm your mind and lower your heart rate.
- Once you feel still and relaxed, slowly bring feeling back to your body by first wiggling your fingers and toes, and eventually rising to a comfortable seated position. Take three deep breaths, raising your arms to the sky on your inhale and bringing your hands together at your heart on your exhale to welcome peace and calm to your day.
Ujjayi for Focus
Ujjayi breathing involves slightly constricting the throat as you breathe, and is sometimes referred to as ‘victorious’ or ‘ocean’ breath due to the sounds made while practising. This is a great technique to stimulate and energise the body in order to sharpen your focus and improve concentration.
- Begin in a comfortable seated position.
- Close your eyes and let your shoulders relax and fall away from your ears. Focus on releasing any tension in your face and body.
- Breathing through your mouth, inhale deeply and exhale slowly for five breaths.
- On your exhales, begin to constrict the back of your throat slightly so that you are restricting the passage of air. Try to imagine that you are fogging up a pair of glasses.
- When you feel comfortable with this, maintain the throat constriction through your inhalation as well as your exhalation – you should be producing an audible hissing sound (think Darth Vader!).
- Once you have mastered this, close your mouth and continue to constrict the throat as you breathe through your nose. Repeat for 10 breaths, with intent focus on the rhythm and sound of your breathing.
- With your eyes still closed, slowly return to your normal breathing until you feel calm and steady. Open your eyes and rise to meet the challenges of the day.
Kapalabhati for Energy
‘Kapalabhati’ can be loosely translated to mean ‘shining skull’ in Sanskrit, and involves short, powerful exhalations and passive inhalations that are naturally triggered by the expansion of your lungs and abdomen. This is an intense practice that brings energy and stimulation to the brain and body, and some practitioners believe that it can assist in the detoxification process.
- Begin in a comfortable seated position with your back straight and your eyes closed, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.
- Place one hand on your stomach and inhale deeply. When you exhale, focus on contracting your abdominal muscles and pulling your belly button towards your spine (you will be able to feel the movement of your muscles with you hand).
- After your exhale, allow your abdominal muscles to relax and your lungs to fill with air. Try not to focus on breathing in, but rather allow the movement of the muscles to control your inhalation.
- Continue with this movement, contracting your muscles as you exhale, and releasing them on the inhale. The more powerful the exhale, the more passive your inhalation will be. You are aiming to produce short, forceful breaths with a pattern similar to that of a dog panting.
- Once you have mastered this technique, repeat for 10 breaths and then allow your breathing to slowly return to normal. Focus on releasing any tension in the body, and pay attention to how each muscle feels.
- When you are ready, repeat your kapalbhati breathing for another 10 breaths.
- Arise renewed, refreshed and energised.
Nadi Shodhana for a Mood Boost
This is one of the most well-known forms of pranayama, and is sometimes referred to as ‘alternate nostril breathing’. It’s a fantastic practice for days when you are feeling the blues, as it forces you to focus on your breath, your body and the movement of your fingers.
- Begin in a comfortable seated position with your eyes closed.
- Raise your right hand, and use your thumb to close your right nostril as you inhale deeply through the left nostril. Hold here for a few seconds.
- While you are holding your inhalation, remove your thumb and use your ring and pinkie fingers to block your left nostril. Exhale slowly through the right nostril.
- Keeping your left nostril closed, inhale deeply through the right nostril. Hold, unblock the left nostril, and close the right nostril with your thumb. Exhale slowly.
- Repeat for 10 breaths.
- Release both nostrils and take five deep breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.
- Repeat your nadi shodana for 10 more breaths, this time using your left hand.
Bhramari for Crisis Management
Also known as the ‘humming bee breath’, this pranayama technique is perfect for moments of peak stress, anxiety, sensory overload and anxiety attacks. It’s a calming practice that calls for you to cover your eyes and block your ears, allowing you to shut out external stressors and focus purely on your breath.
- Sit in a comfortable position on a chair or the floor.
- Close your eyes and take three deep breaths.
- Use your thumbs to block your ears by pressing down on the tragus. Place your index fingers just above your brow bone, and allow your other fingers to cover your eyes, with your middle fingers pressing very gently against the sides of your nose.
- Keeping your mouth closed, take a deep breath through the nose and exhale slowly while making a humming sound with your throat (it should sound like a bee buzzing).
- Repeat for at least five breaths, and continue for as long as you need in order to steady your breath, calm your heart rate, and quiet your mind.