Previously, we discussed two of the most basic forms of pranayama (breath work), ujjayi and sama vritti pranayama. Both of these breathing exercises assist in bringing the body and mind into a more grounded, restorative state. By activating the parasympathetic nervous system, these exercises can induce profound effects on several of the body’s systems. While these practices are extremely beneficial to help down-regulate the mind and body amidst our hectic lives, sometimes our non-stop days leave us feeling drained and in need of an energy boost. In circumstances such as these, the breath can be used in the opposite manner, acting as a catalyst to ignite and energize the body. Yoga incorporates several engaged, active breathing practices to produce internal heat and stimulate systemic movement. Studies have demonstrated that these practices help to increase respiratory muscle efficiency, as well as increase lung compliance by shifting the elastic and viscous resistance of the lung tissue.
A commonly utilized practice for activating the body and increasing energy is kapalabhati pranayama, or “breath of fire.” To perform this practice, come to a comfortable seat, take a long, deep inhale, and then begin to forcefully and rapidly exhale out the nostrils, generating the force of the exhale from the abdominal region. No emphasis is placed on the inhale, as this occurs naturally as a “recoil” effect from the forceful expulsion of air. Aptly nicknamed, this practice has the capacity to generate heat quickly because the diaphragm, abdominal, and intercostal muscles must contract rapidly in order to maintain a continuous rhythm of exhales. The most obvious benefit of this type of practice is strengthening the diaphragm and intercostals since we typically don’t focus on contracting these muscles in our everyday lives.
But kapalabhati has the potential to influence far more than the strength of our respiratory muscles. When practiced regularly, studies have shown that kapalabhati improves several respiratory parameters and increases lung capacity and ventilation. Kapalabhati also temporarily preferentially activates the sympathetic nervous system, increasing heart rate, and thus blood flow, throughout the body. This increased blood flow helps supply the organs with more nutrients and oxygen, as well as removing any local stagnation. Additionally, because emphasis is placed on the exhale, carbon dioxide exchange at the alveoli (tiny air sacs where gas exchange occurs in the lungs) is increased, removing carbon dioxide from the blood at a greater rate than it is during normal breathing. Increased carbon dioxide clearance causes a shift in the natural buffering systems located in the blood, which in turn help to “quiet” the brain’s respiratory centers via chemical messengers. Studies have shown that participants demonstrate improved concentration and altered blood pressure fluctuations upon completion of kapalabhati breath work, which leads to a more energized, balanced state.
A more advanced pranayama, known as bhastrika pranayama, or “bellows breath,” can also be used as a tool to energize and balance the body. In bhastrika pranayama, emphasis is placed upon both the inhale and the exhale. Just as in kapalabhati, the control point of the breath is in the abdomen, but more focus is required, as effort is exerted on both components of the breath. The breath does not necessarily move as deeply as it does in kapalabhati, but effort is continuously maintained. If performed properly, the belly will fluctuate in and out (like the “bellows” of a blacksmith) and a hissing sound is produced through the nostrils. One round of this pranayama generally contains about ten complete bellows (forceful inhales and exhales). The speed and number of bellows can gradually be changed as your body becomes more adept at the practice.
Bhastrika pranayama helps to provide gentle, mechanical stimulation of the digestive system, as the organs are repeatedly compressed and released. In addition, this type of breath has been described as “electrifying” the nervous system. But what exactly does this mean physiologically? As with kapalabhati, this practice shifts the nervous system to preferentially activate the sympathetic nervous system, which releases activating neurotransmitters, thus energizing the body’s organs. However, this practice should be practiced with caution, as over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system can shift practitioners too far to the other side of the spectrum. If this practice begins to induce lightheadedness or anxiety, it should be discontinued until more basic forms of pranayama are mastered.
So how exactly does this apply to our everyday life? Pranayama is actually one of the easier limbs of yoga to incorporate into your life, as it does not require a lot of time and can be done almost anywhere. The next time you are feeling sluggish behind your desk, instead of running for a cup of coffee, why not move through some rounds of kapalabhati for a quick energy boost? If you are feeling cold, a quick way to warm the body without having to do much movement is to utilize pranayama. If your digestive fire is lagging, encourage the process by moving through some rounds of bhastrika pranayama. Incorporating these practices in our everyday lives equips us with the tools to help ignite and control our inner fire, setting us up to experience greater vitality throughout the day.