What do you turn to when you need a boost—coffee, an energy drink, or a sugary snack? What if there was a way to radically raise your frequency? To tune into yourself and stimulate or relax your system (or anything in between), that was totally free and always accessible?
That frequency-raising superpower is your breath or, more specifically, prana. Revered throughout the Vedic texts of yoga and Ayurveda, prana is our “life force” that governs all the vital movements of our bodies—not only gross ambulation, but also the internal movements of digestion, elimination, circulation, nerve conduction, sensory input, communication, and, yes, respiration.
What is Pranayama?
Breathwork, or pranayama, can be a fast and effective way to shift energy in this way because it acts as an interlocutor between the mind and body. While pranayama can be used to upregulate or downregulate the nervous system, because prana is inherently light and mobile, it tends to move upward and create a clearing sensation in the body that can relieve feelings of fatigue, stagnation, and dullness. As such, pranayama will move the nervous system more into a sympathetic mode, which sharpens our senses and wakes up the body’s movement centers.
What’s different about pranayama-induced energy, as opposed to those from external stimulants, is that it won’t activate the fight-or-flight response in quite the same way. Rather than initiating fear and gripping in preparation to defend ourselves or run away from danger, pranayama facilitates expansion and softness, so that inspiration and creativity can rise up from within. Pranaya energizes us by restoring our own reserves of life force, which means we can bring more of ourselves to our work, relationships, and lives.
These five exercises are all simple ways to work with your breath to raise your frequency and increase your sense of vitality in mind, body, and spirit. If you’re new to pranayama or have any respiratory, heart, or nervous system conditions, please proceed with the guidance of a trained teacher and clearance from your doctor. It’s best to practice pranayama on an empty stomach.
This warming, “victorious” breath is done by inhaling and exhaling through the nose. Make a small constriction at the back of your throat as you breathe, so you hear a soft whooshing sound inside your head. Visualize the breath moving all the way into your pelvis, and let your abdomen relax and swell with your inhalation and move back in with the exhalation. Ujjayi is stimulating but also grounding, making it the perfect accompaniment for your yoga practice. A few cycles can revitalize and focus your whole system any time of day, or use it as a base for a breath-based meditation.
Yoga and Ayurveda describe a vast network of channels, called nadis, that circulate bodily substances as well as energies. Two main nadis are ida nadi and pingala nadi. Stimulating pingala nadi, located on the right side of the body and moving into the left-brain, will light up the system with energy, activity, and heat (you might actually feel warm after this!); pingala is also aligned with the Chinese Medicine concept of yang. Practice surya bhedana (surya means “sun”) by visualizing your breath moving from your root up the right side of your spine, through your head and above it, then down the left side of your spine back into your root and out. Repeat 5-7 rounds, or up to 15 minutes as you get more comfortable with the practice.
Viloma I and II
Lengthening the exhalation or inhalation stage of your breath will also affect the state of your nervous system. In Viloma I, we lengthen the exhalation, which brings lightness and space to the body; to practice, take a full, smooth inhalation through your nose, then exhale in three parts, releasing the breath from the chest, then ribcage, then low belly. Take a regular breath in and out between rounds. Viloma II is just the opposite—you will breathe in three parts (belly, ribcage, chest), then take a smooth exhalation, which grounds the body and mind through the fullness of prana. Both can be relaxing or stimulating, depending on your body and present state, so try both! Practice for 5 to 10 minutes, or as part of your savasana practice in yoga.
Bhastrika means “bellows,” and in this pranayama we will be pumping the belly with forceful inhalations and exhalations through the nose the way that a bellows will stoke a flame. The version demonstrated here is on the gentler side, but will still do a lot of work to stimulate digestion and bring energy to the whole body. You might notice you feel hungry after practice, so be ready to eat!
One of our most powerful pranayama exercises, kapalabhati means “skull-shining breath,” and that’s just what you might feel! This breath is done with a forceful exhalation out through the nose, which can help move energy up and out through our crown chakra along the sushumna nadi—the central channel that connects us to the divine. Kapalabhati is a more advanced pranayama, so start with 5 to 10 rounds before moving on to longer practices.
*Do not practice bhastrika or kapalabhati pranayama if you’re pregnant, have high or low blood pressure, or glaucoma or other eye conditions. If you feel any discomfort, light-headedness, or dizziness while practicing, stop and return to normal breaths.
Refreshing, Grounding, and Self-Healing
In the service of waking us up, these practices are great to do in the morning, as opposed to the evening when we want to prepare for sleep. They’re also great in the fall, winter, and spring seasons, when the external cold can be balanced by internal warmth. Turn to these practices throughout the day whenever you feel like you need a bit of refreshment, and notice how you and those around you benefit from this radical self-healing.