The Approximate Yogi

Conquering life one breath at a time


Breath Basics, Part 2 –Pranayam

The main problem in the world is stress. It is not going to decrease –it is going to increase. If through pranayam the shock can be harnessed, the entire stress and disease can be eliminated. –Yogi Bhajan

In Part 1 (found here), I explored the breath, prana, and how to breathe deeply.

Now we’ll get into some pranayam (or pranayama) –breath exercises. A deeper definition of pranayama: using breathing techniques to control prana. You can use your breath as energy management through pranayam. B.K.S. Iyengar describes pranayam as a science, we study the breath’s action on the mind. It is “the bridge between the physical and the spiritual. Hence pranayama is the hub of yoga.” (in The Tree of Yoga)

As translated by Yogi Bhajan, Prana means life force, Pran is “first unit,” and ayama is expansion.

“With pranayama we expand the first unit, the seed energy. A slight change in this seed vibration can change our entire universe.” (Yogi Bhajan, in Aquarian Teacher)

I love this idea that just a slight change in our energy (through changing the breath) can create a really huge change. Using the breath can calm us down, or energize us. It can squelch fear, give us strength, give our mind focus. All of these things change our perspective and open up the universe for us.

Types of Pranayama and When to Use Each

Left Nostril Breathing

  • Take the thumb of the right hand and, pressing on the right nostril, block the airflow so that you are only breathing through your left nostril. Left hand is in gyan mudra (index finger touching thumb).
  • Continue long deep breaths through the left nostril
  • Benefits: calming, relaxing, cooling, cleansing, associated with empathy
  • When we breathe, one nostril is naturally more dominant than the other. These switch in cycles throughout the day. But by doing left or right nostril breathing you can consciously shift them if you desire one type of energy more than another for that moment.

Right Nostril Breathing

  • Take the thumb of the left hand and, pressing on the left nostril, block the airflow so that you are only breathing through your right nostril. Right hand is in gyan mudra.
  • Continue long deep breaths through the right nostril
  • Benefits: The right nostril is associated with sun energy, warming, nurturing. Use this breath to increase alertness and concentration.

Alternate nostril Breathing (“U Breathing”)

Pranayam in the morning

(Photo credit: Vikas Mishra)


  • Take the thumb of the right hand to close off the right nostril, inhale deeply.
  • Take the index finger or pinkie and close the left nostril, as you release the right nostril (making a “u” with your hand); exhale fully.
  • Keeping the left nostril closed, inhale through the right nostril.
  • Then block the right nostril and exhale through the left.
  • Continue alternating nostrils in this pattern.
  • Benefits: great for stress relief and headaches/migraines associate with stress. Good for sleeplessness and anxiety. Creates whole brain functioning by balancing hemispheres. Grounding. Creates deep sense of harmony, and integrates unwanted negative emotions.

Breath of Fire

  • A powerful breath done from the navel point and solar plexus.
  • Inhale, then draw the navel towards the spine as you forcefully exhale. An equally quick inhale will automatically come right after, as you relax the navel and diaphragm. Then keep repeating, keep those forceful exhales coming from the navel center. The inhales/exhales are equal in length, but you are really focusing on the exhale and the inhale just comes naturally.
  • Someone once described how to do breath of fire in this way, and it seems the best way to describe it: it’s like a bug went up your nose and you forcefully exhale to get it out. Then keep repeating.
  • Benefits –all kinds! It releases toxins from lungs, blood vessels and cells; increases lung capacity; strengthens nervous system to resist stress; repairs balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems; maintains a neutral state  of mind; boosts immune system
  • *Contraindications* You should not do breath of fire if you are in your first few days of menstruation or are pregnant.
  • Find a nice video tutorial of breath of fire here.

Cannon Breath

  • Breath of Fire done through the mouth.
  • Mouth forms an “o” shape –like a cannon
  • Benefits: cleanses and strengthens the parasympathetic nerves, adjusts digestion.

Lion Breath


(Photo credit: iam_photography)


  • Extend tongue out and down towards the chin
  • Breathe powerfully, feeling the breath move out over your tongue, without any rasping (sometimes done with Breath of Fire, or at the end of a pose/meditation)
  • Benefits: felt in the upper chest and throat, great for the throat chakra (that’s the one for communication, self expression), and thyroid. Cleanses out toxins. Even any toxic thinking –roar it out like a lion!

Sitali Pranayam

  • Curl the tongue into a “u” shape, with my speech therapy students I call this “taco tongue”
  • Inhale through the curled tongue.
  • Exhale through the nose
  • The tongue may taste bitter at first. This is a sign of detoxification
  • Benefits: powerful cooling and relaxing effect on the body, while maintaining alertness. Known to reduce fevers and aid in digestion. Good to calm a fiery temper!

A note on Suspending the Breath

Often the breath is suspended or held in, either after inhaling fully or exhaling. This should be done without tension. The throat, mouth, chest, shoulders are not holding on.

B.K.S. Iyengar describes breath suspension or retention beautifully: “One does not simply hold the breath by physical retention, but holds on to the very self, which was raised up and elated through the inhalation.”

Suspending on the inhale: Inhale to the lungs’ full capacity. Upper ribs are lifted, chin is tucked (neck lock), shoulders, throat, and face are relaxed. You are not holding on to the breath in tension, but simply allowing it to be suspended in the lungs. You become still and calm. Sometimes if you sip in a bit more air when you feel that urge to exhale, you can suspend a little longer.

**If you have high blood pressure you should avoid suspending the breath in, as it can temporarily raise the blood pressure.**

Suspending on the exhale: Exhale all air out of the lungs. Draw the belly button towards the spine, lift the diaphragm, compress the upper chest, tuck chin. Become still and calm. Exhale a bit more air to lengthen time of suspension.

Suspending the breath helps integrate the body systems, helps assimilate the energy just created in your pranayama (and asana). It takes us to that point of zero –shuniya. Shuniya is a deep stillness, into which you can plant a seed –bij –to create a new rhythm or pattern of being. In shuniya the Kundalini flows.” (Yogi Bhajan)

Put it into practice

Why not try a couple of these that resonate with you. Are there certain times of the day they would be more beneficial? Starting with 3 minutes of a pranayama practice is enough to get into a rhythm with it and begin to experience its benefits. Then you can build up to longer times.

Basic Breath Series (found here) or Pranayam Energizer Series (found here) are a couple nice pranayam meditation sequences to feel out and experience some of these breath techniques.

Happy Breathing! 🙂

Ooh, and that reminds me, when doing pranayama –feel happy, even smile, don’t furrow that brow, which we sometimes have a tendency to do. Relax into concentration, let it come to you.

Resources: The Aquarian Teacher: Level One Instructor Textbook, by Yogi Bhajan;

The Tree of Yoga, by B.K.S. Iyengar



Breath Basics, Part 1 – That One. Deep. Breath.

I found myself thinking a lot about my breath this week. Every once in a while I experience some shortness of breath for a period of time, whether it’s from tiredness, or humidity, or the little bit of childhood asthma that sneaks back. And when I do experience this, it makes me realize how precious the breath is and what a beautiful tool it is.

I like to start all of my yoga classes by just bringing attention to the breath, watching as we lengthen it into full long deep breathing. It is amazing that sometimes we can go an entire day without taking that one deep breath.

There is something beautiful about deep breathing. This morning as I entered the school where I work, the co-worker behind me heard me take that one deep breath, and commented, “Wow, that was a big sigh.” It’s the end of the school year, and we’re all feeling that pull of summer and desire to be outdoors instead of in school, especially the kids, making it all the more challenging. So, yes, I needed that deep breath to enter into my work world for the day.

And throughout the day I find myself often taking these deep breaths. Sometimes, it is to calm myself in moments of stress. But I do it when I’m already feeling calm as well. I love the sigh, which is a deep breath in itself. I find myself making little sighs of contentment just as often as my deep stress relieving breaths (or more often, hopefully!). It feels good –breathing deeply maybe allows me to experience the moment a little more deeply. Breathing in that beautiful prana of a beautiful moment is bliss.


Prana (or praana) –a really lovely word. But what is it? I would describe it as the subtle life energy within the breath. And I’ll let Yogi Bhajan describe it better with these quotes:

“Breath awareness begins with recognizing the breath as both the gross physical breath, as well as the subtle life force of the body and mind called prana.”

“The tie between us and God is the ray of light called Prana. That’s why the human is called Pranee –the one who lives by the Grace of Prana.” (in The Aquarian Teacher).

Pink Breath-of-Heaven

breath-of-heaven flower

How to breathe deeply: 

Pouring Water

Pouring Water (Photo credit: theowl84)

Filling our lungs completely for that deep breath is like pouring water into a glass –start from the bottom up. First, inhale and feel your abdomen expand as air fills your lower lungs, don’t be afraid of your stomach relaxing and pushing out. Then the air moves to your middle and upper lungs, expanding your chest. This is an outward motion, you shouldn’t feel the need to tighten or move your shoulders up, it is only your chest that is expanding and moving outward.

That is the inhale. You can hold the breath for a moment and fully experience that prana circulating throughout your lungs and body.

Exhale in the opposite way, as if pouring that full glass of water out, starting from the top down. Your upper chest collapses, compressing back inward. Then middle chest and lungs. Then lower chest, letting your abdomen push up and back against your spine so that every bit of breath escapes.

During yoga, deep breathing is done in and out of the nose (unless otherwise specified). But throughout the day, sometimes it’s nice to take a couple breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth, even letting out a little sigh.

Breathing deep into the day:

I think the reason I take many deep breaths a day as an unconscious practice is that when I first really started thinking about the breath and exploring it, I made it a conscious practice. I didn’t always breathe deeply, that’s why those moments when I feel that shallow breathing creep back in remind me of how good I feel when I do breathe deep.

When I first began, I had to consciously, throughout the day, reminded myself to breathe deep. I did this as I sat in the car, while I watched TV, lay in bed, read a book, until it became more of a habit. It takes a while, but before you know it you have lengthened your breath without consciously thinking about it any more.

More wise words on the breath from Yogi Bhajan:

“A Kundalini Yogi examines and breaks the habit to ignore the breath. Think of the breath in broader terms than simply respiration. Consider that the breath and its movements are connected to the movements of all the emotions and thoughts.”

Now it makes sense why focusing on the breath is so important. Also:

Benefits of deep breathing (adapted from The Aquarian Teacher):

  • Stress relief – by breaking the cycle of shallow, upper-chest breathing, replacing it with proper deep breathing, we release tension, and support strong nerves. Thus decreasing susceptibility to more stress.
  • Reduce illness –this occurs naturally when we decrease stress and tension in our bodies.
  • Emotional balance –proper deep breathing increases our sensitivity to our emotional states, allowing us to better recognize and deal with them in the moment. Relieving the tension we hold in our muscles allows us to let go of emotional trauma.
  • Vitality and feeling of connection –when we release emotional trauma and stress tension we free up prana to be used for its true purpose –giving us vitality. With this increased vitality, we have strong physical bodies and feel emotionally secure. This leads to a deep sense of connection.

Following the breath as a meditation:

One of the most basic of meditations is breath meditation. You simply watch yourself breathing in and out, moving your attention to each breath. And when your mind wanders, move it back to the breath again, and again, and again. You can place your focus on the nostrils as air first enters your body, or watch it on its journey into your nasal cavity, then throat, then lower and upper chest and out again.

Here is a meditation from Yogi Bhajan on breath awareness:

Stephen Levine also has a great breath awareness meditation in his book A Gradual Awakening. This is the book that helped me first begin to explore the breath.

Ok, so I had a lot more to say about the breath than I realized, and haven’t even touched upon what I had initially intended with this post! But this feels long enough for today. So stay tuned for Part 2, where we’ll explore different types of yogic breathing (pranayam) for different purposes and benefits, including breath of fire, alternate nostril breathing, and others. Any suggestions for other breathing techniques you’d like to explore?

you can't help but take a nice deep breath when you see this

on my walk today –can’t help but take a nice deep breath when you see something like this

Resources: A Gradual Awakening, by Stephen Levine;

The Aquarian Teacher: Level One Teacher’s Manual, by Yogi Bhajan