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A Pranayama Primer: The basics of breathing like a yogi


Yoga class: A nostril-flaring safe zone

If you’re a Kula Yoga Project regular, practice with Isaac Pena, or can prattle on about Pattabhi Jois, then please sit serenely in Lotus pose for the remainder of this post.

If, however, you need a little refresher course on the intricacies of pranayama (Sanskrit that roughly means “yoga breathing practice”), here are the key terms you’ll likely hear in yoga class, followed by a brief explanation on how to inhale and exhale accordingly. (Not that you were doing it wrong…)

UJJAYI
“It’s the throaty oceanic breath,” explains Kundalini instructor Sarah Bernier, who teaches breath work to hyperventilating office-workers through her company Relax Already. Translated as “victorious,” Ujjayi is the type pranayama most often associated with yoga. Inhalation and exhalation are both done through the nose. The “ocean sound” is created by gently constricting the throat to create some resistance to the passage of air. (Not by heavy breathing as if you were trying to fog a bathroom mirror.)

Sarah Bernier teaches breath work to stressed out office workers

SITALI
The air-conditioner of breath work. By curling your tongue and letting the breath pass over it, like sipping through a straw, cool air is delivered to your throat. This cooling breath is often prescribed for anger, says Bernier. It’s also good in the summer when your AC is broken.

KAPALBHATI
Short, sharp exhalations out through your nostrils, generated by contracting the lower belly, which pushes air out of your lungs. The inhalation happens as a passive response. It’s the CPR of yoga breathing because it increases lung capacity and the exchange of O2 and CO2. Normally we  breathe 16 to 20 times per minute, but during Kapalbhati we breathe 120 times per minute. Speeding up the consumption of O2 and elimination of CO2 is especially good for New Yorkers looking to purge bus fumes and construction dust.

Even though the various types of yoga breathing feel very specific, “they all work on calming the nervous system and lowering the blood pressure,” says Bernier. And once you master Breathing 2.0 in yoga class, it’s a portable skill to take with you on the subway platform, in the long line at the juice bar, and to your family Thanksgiving table. Namaste.