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3 Pranayama Breathing Techniques for When Your Mind Needs to Chill Out

We take a lot of things for granted, and breathing is one of them. Not only is it a basic human function, but taking a moment to really focus on your breath could help you during your most stressful or anxious moments (especially since we lead such hectic, go-go-go lives). Turns out, there’s research that backs this up. In 2017, scientists at Stanford University School of Medicine found that slowing down the breath could induce tranquility.

If you’ve ever been to a yoga class, you’ll know that breathing is a huge aspect of the practice—it helps bring oxygen to the body, allows us to concentrate better, and of course, calms us down. Likewise, if ever you’ve suffered a panic attack, you’ve most likely been told to breathe—and perhaps you’ve even practised some breathing techniques yourself. To shed some light on the soothing benefits of breathing, we called upon Joanna Baron, a Toronto-based kundalini instructor and breathwork facilitator.

Baron teaches two types of breathing: Pranayama and breathwork. “Pranayama is the basic yogic science of breathing, whereas breathwork is more ceremonial, and frankly, sometimes a psychedelic experience,” she says. Because the latter tends to be intense—its purpose is to bring you into a non-ordinary state-of-consciousness—Baron suggests practising it under the supervision of a teacher. On the contrary, pranayama is a technique that everyone should practise everyday. “It’s a simple way to lower your cortisol levels,” Baron says. “When you’re practising pranayama you’re essentially focusing on your breath, so your mind naturally stills.” Here, three pranayama techniques you can try out at home when your mind is going a mile a minute.

Cooling Breath

One of the techniques that Baron finds extremely useful is Sitali Pranayam, also known as the Cooling Breath. “It’s my go-to if I’m feeling emotional or angry,” she says. Essentially, this exercise cools you down; it provides a sense of relaxation and helps relieve anxiety.

How to do it:
Start off by sitting in a comfortable position while maintaining good posture; make sure your spine is straight. Stick your tongue out slightly while forming a “U” shape. Inhale deeply through the opening of your tongue and exhale calmly through your nose—you should aim to continue this exercise for at least two to three minutes. This technique can be practised both in the morning and the evening.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Nadi Shodhan, or Alternate Nostril Breathing, is said to restore balance in the mind. “It essentially purifies your energy channels,” says Baron, who adds that it has the ability to change your brain chemistry. “It’s a gentle exercise, but it’s underrated.” Alternate nostril breathing is also said to help improve focus and reduce stress.

How to do it:
Begin in a comfortable, seated position. Relax your left hand on your knee (or in your lap) while raising your right hand in front of your face. Take your thumb to cover your right nostril, and your ring finger to cover your left nostril. (You can keep your index and middle fingers rested on your forehead to keep your hand in place.) Close your right nostril and take a slow, deep breath through the left nostril. Then gently close both nostrils for a brief pause, before releasing the right nostril to exhale slowly. At the end of the exhale pause before inhaling through the right nostril. Pause at the height of the inhale closing both nostrils, then exhale through the left nostril slowly. Repeat this cycle five to 10 times, while maintaining the same length for each exhale and inhale.

Breath of Fire

Agni Pran, also called the Breath of Fire, is a powerful technique that uses controlled breaths to cleanse the body and stimulate the mind. According to Baron, it “oxygenates the blood and stimulates the pituitary gland.” She recommends practising this technique for seven minutes in order to reap the full benefits. However, keep in mind that this is considered an intermediate to advanced exercise, so it’s best to begin with shorter sessions and work your way up. Also worth noting is that this technique is not recommended for women who are pregnant or menstruating, or those suffering from cardiac and spinal problems, diabetes or abdominal ulcers.

How to do it:
Start off in a seated position, sitting up tall and lengthening the area between your chest and navel. You’re going to want to keep your mouth closed for this exercise, breathing in and out only through your nose. Exhale while pulling your abdomen in, and then immediately inhale, filling up your belly with air while pushing it outward. The inhales and exhales should be short and equal in length. Begin performing this exercise for 30 seconds, then rest and take a few deep breaths to check in with yourself. Once you start gaining experience in this meditation, you could work your way up to doing three sets of 30 seconds with a pause and deep breaths in between each sets.