Have you noticed that certain pranayama techniques can help heat our bodies, while others can cool them down? That some can raise energy levels, and others help us to harness and channel our energies? Do you remember these points from your yoga teacher training? In the original yogic methodology - that set of practices for optimum wellness that began to formulate thousands of years ago (yes, something extending far beyond the physical asana practice that many in Western culture know of as yoga), physical practice prepared the body for the breath regulation practice of pranayama.
Both, but especially pranayama, can prepare our bodies for meditation. One way that the breath practice can do that is through helping to minimize physical sensations - including being too cool or too hot, very languid or very energized. In that way, pranayama can be an effective tool for managing the intense physical sensations that can come with the extremes of each season or climate.
In the midst of winter here in the Northeastern coast of the US, I’ve been guiding my students in – and personally practicing – pranayama techniques for keeping warm. Ujjayi Breath can help to heat our bodies, through cultivating a slow release of the warmth in the body’s core out through the breath channel. That warmth and energy can also extend through to our physical peripheries, if we coordinate breath and movement as well as allow release of tension (which could block that energy flow).
On a socio-emotional level, winter can come with the feeling of just wanting to hibernate like bears, to just stay inside and remain sedentary. For some people, such a feeling becomes serious enough to be a diagnosable mental health condition – Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), in which lack of sunlight leads to depressive symptoms such as lack of energy and low motivation.
Ujjayi Breath can help ease those symptoms, and generally raise energy levels in those who experience them at less than a clinical level, through that same cultivation of energy flow through the body. This type of breath especially supports Vinyasa-flow type practices (which can very effectively raise physical heat and energy in and of themselves), because it helps practitioners to maintain awareness of asana practice’s rhythmic flow as we coordinate breath with movement. To further raise energy, we can make our inhales longer than our exhales. In Ujjayi Breath, it is relatively easy to purposefully create and continue with such breathing ratios.
Kapalabhati Breath, an even more purposefully rhythmic breath of forcefully “pumping” out air on exhalations, can similarly increase heat and energy. Thus, it can also be helpful for dealing with winter’s cold and tendencies towards low energy. This type of breath is especially helpful for helping to maintain the quick rhythmic flows of Kundalini yoga kriyas, though it does not as well match the somewhat slower (yet not stagnant) movements of Vinyasa flows.
In the midst of winter, I’m also looking forward to summer (though enjoying the graces of beautiful snow and getting cozy with loved ones!). In that much warmer season, Sitali Breath can help cool the body. It is sometimes called Dog’s Breath, because it includes a slightly extended tongue – similar to a dog panting to keep cool on warm days. That’s an example of nature’s wisdom that we humans would do well to follow! To execute Sitali, we curl the tongue and let it slightly protrude out of the mouth. We pump air out on exhalations in a rapid rhythm, similar to when executing Kapalabhati. This exercise allows us to release heat from our bodies through our exhales.
In warm temperatures, we also sometimes have frantic energies. Long days with energized bodies can lead us to feel like we can conquer anything, like we can do it all. Such energy can lead to anxiety when issues arise with everything that we’re trying to do, or when we can’t meet our own expectations for what we thought we could get done. High temperatures can also make tempers flare. The continuous, forceful exhales of Sitali Breath can help us to release such anxieties, reign in our energies, and feel calmer.
Bharamari, or Humming Bee Breath, can also be quite calming. In this pranayama practice, we make the sound of a buzzing bee through creating a hum in the throat, which we also constrict through keeping the tongue behind the teeth. With any of these pranayama exercises, seated positions (Padmasana or Lotus Pose, Sukhasana or Easy Pose, Virasana or Hero’s Pose, et cetera) can feel grounding in and of themselves; when one feels overheated or overly anxious, it’s a common recommendation to sit, relax, and let the body re-regulate.
Overall, pranayama practices are ancient techniques that can help us to keep living our lives to the fullest even when temperatures become extreme. In a world where global temperature change is making those times more common and more significant, such effects will become even more necessary and appreciated. As yoga instructors, we’re poised to share that with the world.
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