How to Use Pranayama to Teach Yoga: 7 Techniques & Corresponding Poses to Teach
When I first did Breath of Fire, I was in a hot yoga room and felt literally like I was made of fire. So I stopped. I didn't do it. It can be overwhelming or at least that's what I felt.
I recognized how I felt after that class, and I felt great.
When I went back, I did the Breath of Fire, and after the class, I felt absolutely wonderful. Even better than the class before. You might be able to attribute this to the magical effects of yoga, and the fact that it just keeps getting better. And that's definitely true. But I knew it was the kapalabhati, breath of fire. I released something. Something I didn't need. My first big pranayama romance.
Prana means life force, which is the breath. Yama means control. So pranayama is any type of breath control, used on or off the mat to uplift your life force. No wonder I felt fantastic after my first taste. Pranayama is also a limb of yoga, which is more than just the physical practice, which is called asana, which is also a limb of yoga. More on that later.
So I became a believer in pranayama. And upon further research and practice, I really came to know how breath play and control could uplift someone, and now as a teacher, when it feels right, I really love to strategically place pranayama in my workshops and classes.
One pranayama that's important for all poses, even savasana is Ujjayi, Victorious Breath. I say do Ujjayi while you're doing the dishes. To do Ujjayi, pretend you're blowing onto a mirror to fog it up (slight throat closure with a thin, long breath). Do it again, but this time, close your mouth and breathe out of the nose. It should be very audible and sound like ocean waves.
This is not included in the list because I believe that a whole class, every pose should include ujjayi. Ujjayi should go with life; you should use it for every challenge in your life. Audible breath has saved me on the mat and in life on several instances.
That said, let's move on to pranayama techniques.
7 Different Pranayama Techniques & Their Benefits:
1. Kapalabhati, Breath of Fire:
This is the one that began my dig into this yoga limb so naturally it should be number 1.
So anyone who is nursing, pregnant, or having any kind of cardiac issues, should not do this one. Also any ladies menstruating should abstain, and children should not do it either. Wait until you're a grown-up.
I've also heard this called skull shining. This is due to the clarity it brings to the mind. It would also say that it's called breath of fire because of how it stokes the digestive fires through internal organ massage, and at the risk of giving too much information, which I always do anyway, I can tell you that it works.
It's super detoxifying for all the organs and cleansing for the lungs. It's balancing for the nervous system (explains why it gave me such a zen effect that first time, and every time after). It also supercharges your magnetic field (yes, you have a magnetic field so start putting some good things in it now). So energizing.
How to do it: Open your mouth and pant like a dog, giving quick pumps to the naval. Equal inhale and exhale here. Very quick to the point of an almost sniff, but the powerful naval pumps into the spine are important. Now close your mouth and let the air pump in and out of the nose. The breaths should be rhythmic, and you should slowly increase the speed of your breath.
Always stop anything if you feel light-headed or dizzy.
2. Bhastrika, Bellows Breath:
Breath of Fire and Bellows Breath are closely related, the sisters of pranayama. And just as with Breath of Fire, this technique is very energizing. Even more energizing in my opinion.
Besides for being the most energizing pranayama, it also boosts the metabolism. So that's awesome if you want to lose weight or suffer from hypothyroidism in which you're metabolism in compromised. Like Breath of Fire, it will stoke the digestive fires. Oxygen levels increase which creates clarity of mind.
So obviously we're going to copy a bellows when we practice this.
How to: Sit tall and tap into the breath: calm breathing for one moment. Breathe in forcefully through the nose, filling up the whole belly suddenly. Just as forcefully and quickly, exhale on the breath out of the body, using the diaphragm, pushing out the breath all at once. The head, neck, face, chest and really the rest of your body should be soft and completely still while practicing bellows breath. Just the belly, filling up suddenly and quickly, and then emptying with a push of the diaphragm suddenly and quickly. It should be rhythmic like Breath of Fire.
Should be practiced in seated positions.
Just as with Breath of Fire, if you feel light-headed or dizzy, just take a break and return to normal breathing. The same Breath of Fire rules apply to Bellows for those who must abstain from this practice. Don't use Bellows if you have just eaten. Wait until the food has moved, 1-2 hours after eating. Anyone with epilepsy should also abstain from this technique.
3. Nadi Shodhana, Alternate Nostril Breathing:
Nadi means channel or flow, shodhana means purification.
This important breathing technique is used even more in my classes than Breath of Fire. Mostly because it's so relaxing, and that's what my students need. It is balancing for them, as it balances the right and left hemispheres of the brain. This is also a way of saying that it balances the masculine and feminine energies of the body, the solar and lunar energies respectively. What this means is that on a day when you feel like you want to control things, or attack to defend your position, the masculine energy is probably out of balance. Nadi Shodhana will help to bring that masculine energy into balance with the feminine.
It also clarifies the mind (like they all do), but it especially creates the ability to focus because it calms the nervous system so completely. This is how it reduces stress and anxiety.
Oh and it's great for alleviating allergies of the sinuses.
And the balancing of hormones (so definitely should be a moon time practice).
How to: Some people like to bring both the middle index fingers to the base of the right hand (or left hand if you're left-handed). I actually love to instruct my students to bring those fingers to the third eye, which is the space between the eyebrows. Then I tell them to align their ring and pinky fingers. The thumb closes the right nostril (or left if you're left-handed). Breathe for a count of 5 or 7 through the left nostril with the right nostril closed. Then hold for one second while your left nostril with your ring and pinky fingers, lifting the thumb to open the right nostril to exhale the breath for a count of 7 or 9 (2 counts longer than inhale). Then do a round the same way with opposite nostrils: inhale through the right and breathe out through the left. Slowly begin to increase lengths of the breaths.
4. Surya and Chandra Bhedana, Single Nostril Breath:
In the same way that Nadi Shodhana cleanses and balances the energy channels of the body, if your students are so out of balance (live in a dog-eat-dog type of world?) then it can be great to choose between Surya and Chandra Bhedana and use this pranayama throughout the whole class. Or perhaps you've got a group that needs to be more assertive, needs more motivation and get-up-and-go, needs more Surya or solar or masculine energy. Or maybe you just want to do a deep balancing of both energies throughout your entire class, and then you can pick and choose which poses to give to each pranayama, using the same number of poses for each side and practicing the poses for the same amount of time.
So refer the list of benefits for Nadi Shodhana above, only add the element of one energy over the other being accentuated in the students' overall mood and mental/emotional state for the day. Teaching yoga is such a power trip. This might be my Surya side talking, but you can really effect the outcomes of people's whole day with your teaching. Thought I'd throw that in there. Maybe all yoga teachers are actually control freaks like me. No? Oh well, I was just kidding anyway. Haha.
How to: Refer to Nadi Shodhana above for hand positioning. To increase surya or masculine energy, assuming you're right-handed, place aligned picky and ring fingers over left nostril to inhale through the right nostril (thumb lifted off right nostril), and then cover the right nostril (pinky and ring fingers lifted off the left nostril) and exhale through left nostril. Repeat with as many rounds as you want. Use even counts, inhaling and exhaling to a count of 5 or 7. To increase energy for your chandra or feminine energy, flip the directions so that you inhale through the left nostril and exhale through the right.
The chandra energy channel might need more attention at this time in our history. I'm just saying.
5. Simhasana, Lion's Breath:
I'm a Leo so I love this one. It's a good way to start the class or even end the class because it's very clearing. Like hitting the reset button. It's a wonderful way to release stuff.
It also helps to relieve tension in the face and jaw, and if you live in this world, if your students live in this world, it's very probable that they have met a clenched jaw or even had TMJ. Because there's a lot of action with the throat, the small muscle at the front of the throat called platysma is strengthened and firms. This is a part of neck that weakens and sags as we get older.
It's a wonderful tool to use before public-speaking, and so maybe you may want to use it before class, not only to cleanse your own energy but also keep yourself clear from stuttering or a soft mouth (what I call slurring, lack of diction, even mumbling). Every word will be spoken with intention.
How to: Take a nice deep breath through the nose. Try to send your gaze to the third eye, and open your mouth, curling and reaching your tongue to the tip of your chin. When it's time to exhale, let out a long exhale, making the ha sound. Contract the front of the throat, bringing the chin down to the throat, affecting Jalandhara Bandha. Breath passes the back of the throat strongly. Repeat as many times as you wish, followed by a lion's roar (optional but not in my class).
6. Sheetali, Cooling Breath:
This technique is wonderful for people suffering from acidity, heartburn or indigestion. It reduces high blood pressure, removes heat and is very relieving for a mouth or stomach ulcer. Anyone suffering from inflammation (we all are) would benefit from this technique. Great for use in hot weather.
In the same vein, when you are mentally too hot, with anger or frustration, irritation or annoyance, it is a wonderful practice to relieve anger and all its mad varieties.
It also satiates hunger or thirst, so it would be great to try when you can't your hands on what you need at the moment. Or if you're trying to eat less. It is said to balance hormones and purifies the blood. Great for heart issues and those with insomnia.
And of course, it relieves stress due to its tranquil effect.
How to: Extend the tongue out of the mouth and roll the sides of the tongue to form a tube. Inhale a long breath through this tube, and when it's time to exhale, close the mouth and blow the air out of the nose. Breaths are slow and deep.
People with low blood pressure, asthma, constipation should not partake. Also if you are a "cold" person (like me, you're cold all the damn time) then just go without.
7. Bhramari, Humming Bee Breath:
Like all pranayama, it relieves tension, stress and anxiety. So by effect, this technique reduces high blood pressure and insomnia. It stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. So it would be great in a restorative class.
Great for any throat problems and stimulates/balances the thyroid. Brings attention and causes introspection. The perfect pranayama to do before meditation, in my opinion.
It can improve hearing too!
How to: Deep inhale through the nose. When you exhale out of the nose, make an "mmmm" sound like a buzzing bee. The exhale should be long and smooth, controlled and even with the inhale. To increase and enjoy the vibration further, cover your ears with your hands, fingertips to the back of the head and elbows wide.
It will sound a little bit like you are saying om. Only you aren't. We are just grasping the tail end of the om. I'm saying this so you know that there will a kind of musical quality, you will hot a tone and pitch.
If you have an ear infection, this could hurt you. So abstain if you have ear infection issues.
That brings us to...
Poses to Use with These 7 Techniques:
1. Kapalabhati, Breath of Fire:
This is a heating pranayama. Also it has the potential to make us dizzy if standing so let's use poses where we'll be low to the ground, with the shoulders and torso pretty even, but stimulating the digestive fires too:
Malasana (squat poses)
Navasana (boat pose)
Padmasana (lotus pose)
2. Bhastrika, Bellows Breath:
A lot of the same rules for Breath of Fire apply here. We don't want to be in a wobbly standing position due to light-headedness that often occurs. Low to the ground, internal organ stimulating poses will be our focus with this technique:
Virasana (hero's pose)
Baddha Konasana (bound angle pose)
Utkatasana (chair pose)
3. Nadi Shodhana, Alternate Nostril Breath:
I like to use this technique when my students are trying to relax. Like either cooling off or warming up for class. This technique is really great for meditation but also any standing pose where the hands are free and you have to do the other side. If doing this, it's a good idea to start off breathing the nostril of the side you're doing first. Only do 1-2 rounds if you're doing this to keep things simple.
Vrksasana (tree pose) - with other hand on center of chest to keep center of gravity
Upavishta Konasana (wide angle seated forward bend)
4. Surya or Chandra Bhedana, Single Nostril Breath:
Remember that you want to have the same amount of poses in a class that correspond to both energy channels if you are balancing the energies. Also you will want to count the same, while doing the same amount of rounds.
Mountain pose of a Surya Namaskar (sun salutation)
5. Simhasana, Lion's Breath:
Remember this is a reset. So you want to use at the beginning or end of class. Also great for thyroid-stimulating poses.
Any end of class twisting like Ardha Matsyendrasana
Legs up the wall
6. Sheetali, Cooling Breathing:
This is great for cool-down poses for very obvious reasons.
7. Bhramari, Humming Bee Breath:
Again, is this a great vibe-lifter to turn inward and prepare for meditation.
Vadrasana (sitting on heels)
Cow's face pose
Legs up the wall
Easy pose or Padmasana (lotus) in preparation for meditation
Comment below with any questions! Teachers, I'd love to hear other ideas or suggestions!
Tap on one of those bright buttons below if you know a few yogis who would love this info or just to be nice! Thank ya.