How to Practice Breath Control the Traditional Yoga Way

Hatha Yoga includes various methods of breath control, all of which belong to the more advanced practices and traditionally follow extensive purification of body and mind. Some Western teachers have incorporated these methods into their beginner classes, but they’re best at the intermediary to advanced levels.

Traditional Hatha Yoga emphasizes holding the breath — not a good idea for beginners. The following techniques are safe for any healthy person to practice.

The cooling methods are best done in warm weather, to avoid overcooling.

Alternate nostril breathing

Lab researchers have demonstrated what Yoga masters have known for hundreds, if not thousands, of years: Humans don’t breathe evenly through both nostrils. In a 2-to-3-hour cycle, the nostrils become alternately dominant. It appears that left-nostril breathing is particularly connected with functions of the left cerebral hemisphere (notably verbal skills), and right-nostril breathing seems to connect more with the right hemisphere (notably spatial performance).

The technique called alternate nostril breathing goes by various others names, including nadi-shodhana (“channel cleansing,” pronounced nah-dee-shod-hah-nah). The following steps help you tackle it at the beginning level:

  1. Sit comfortably on a chair or in one of the yogic sitting postures, with your back straight.

  2. Check which nostril has the most air flowing through it, and begin alternative breathing with the open nostril.

    If both are equally open, all the better. In that case, begin with the left nostril.

    You can check which nostril is dominant simply by breathing through one nostril and then the other, and comparing the two flows.

  3. Place your right hand so that your thumb is on the right nostril and the little finger and ring finger are on the left nostril, with the index and middle fingers tucked against the ball of the thumb.

    According to some authorities, you place the index and middle fingers on the spot between the eyebrows (known as the third eye).

  4. Close the blocked nostril and, mentally counting to 5, inhale gently but fully through the open nostril — don’t strain.

    [Credit: Photograph by Adam Latham]
    Credit: Photograph by Adam Latham
  5. Open the blocked nostril and close the other nostril, and exhale, again mentally counting to 5.

  6. Inhale through the same nostril to the count of 5, and exhale through the opposite nostril, repeating 10 to 15 times.

As your lung capacity improves, you can make your inhalations and exhalations longer, but never force the breath. Gradually increase the overall duration of the exercise from, say, 3 minutes to 15 minutes.

The cooling breath

This technique, which in Sanskrit is called shitali (pronounced sheet-ah-lee), gets its name from the cooling effect that it has on the body and the mind. Traditionally, the cooling breath is believed to remove fever, still hunger, quench thirst, and alleviate diseases of the spleen. Here’s how you practice it:

  1. Sit in a comfortable Yoga posture or on a chair, and relax your body.

  2. Curl your tongue lengthwise, and let its tip protrude from your mouth.

    [Credit: Photograph by Adam Latham]
    Credit: Photograph by Adam Latham
  3. Slowly suck in air through the tube your tongue forms, and exhale gently through the nose; repeat this breath 10 to 15 times.

If you can’t curl your tongue — which is a genetic ability — you can practice the Crow’s Beak instead. This technique is technically known as kaki-mudra (“crow’s gesture,” pronounced kah-kee-moo-drah). Here you pucker your mouth, leaving just a small space for the air to pass through. Inhale through the mouth and exhale through the nose, as with shitali.

Shitkari: Inhalation through the mouth

Shitkari (pronounced sheet-kah-ree) is another technique that calls for inhalation through the mouth, and its effects are similar to the cooling breath. The term means “that which makes a sucking sound.” Sitting upright and relaxed, move through the following routine:

  1. Open your mouth, but keep your teeth closed, as if you’re going to brush your front teeth.

  2. Place the tip of the tongue against the palate behind the upper teeth; keep your eyes closed, and make sure you don’t squint your face.

  3. Inhale through your teeth and breathe out through your nose; repeat the inhalation and exhalation 10 to 15 times.

If your gums are sensitive or a visit to the dentist is long overdue, avoid this practice when the air is cool.

Kapala-bhati: Frontal sinus cleansing

Kapala-bhati (pronounced kah-pah-la-bhah-tee) literally means “skull luster” and is also known as frontal sinus (or brain) cleansing. The curious Sanskrit name is explained by the fact that the technique causes a sense of luminosity in the head, as well as lightheadedness, especially when you’re overdoing it.

Sometimes this breathing method is wrongly equated with bhastrika (“bellows”), which is a more advanced technique of rapid breathing, but kapala-bhati belongs to the preparatory practices of traditional Hatha Yoga. The technique requires rapid inhalation and exhalation through the nose with short, staccato breaths, with emphasis on exhalation.

Kapala-bhati is an energizing technique that you can use to combat physical or mental fatigue, so if you value your sleep, don’t practice it at night. It can also warm your body (but avoid practicing this technique in cold air). Before attempting the following exercise, get the hang of relaxing your abdomen during inhalation and pulling it in during exhalation. Gradually shorten the exhalations.

  1. Sit, if you can, in a comfortable cross-legged posture, holding your spine straight and resting your hands in your lap.

  2. Take a few deep breaths and, after your last inhalation, do 15 to 20 fast exhalations, each followed by a short inhalation, using the nose to inhale and exhale; repeat this step twice.

    With each exhalation, which lasts only for half a second, pull in your abdomen.

If you’re contracting your facial or shoulder muscles during kapala-bhati, you’re not practicing correctly. Remember to stay relaxed and let the abdominal muscles do most of the work.

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