Pranayama for Self-Soothing: 3 Yogic Breathing Practices to Cultivate Peace

March 30, 2020

It feels like the whole world could use some deep relief right now. Thankfully, yoga-based practices to enhance inner peace are abundant. Of the various possibilities, there may be no timelier way to settle the nerves and comfort the mind than through the use of soothing pranayama (breath-awareness) practices.

Generally speaking, pranayama can be practiced in two main ways: techniques that energize, uplift, purify, and stimulate; and techniques that soothe, ground, calm, and relax. In the current global situation, the relaxing pranayamas are most needed to help promote mental and emotional ease, steadiness, clarity, and presence. Here are three of my favorites. 

Nadi Shodhana (Alternate-Nostril Breath)

One of the most effective techniques for soothing the nerves and settling the fluctuations of the mind, Nadi Shodhana is rhythmic, harmonizing, and grounding. This practice is excellent not only for releasing physical tension, but also for supporting clarity, tranquility, energy flow, and stress reduction. It can be practiced daily, and is perfect for chaotic times, or whenever you're feeling anxious, nervous, stressed, depleted, or exhausted.  

In this video, Larissa guides Nadi Shodhana and Samavritti; written instructions are below. 

 

  1. Take a comfortable, steady seat. Make sure you feel cozy—consider using a meditation shawl or wrapping a blanket around your waist to enhance groundedness and stability. Sit up tall and close your eyes. 
  2. Close the right nostril gently with the right thumb. Begin by inhaling slowly up the left nostril. Close the left nostril with the ring finger. Lift the thumb and exhale down the right nostril. Inhale back up the right nostril. Switch to exhale left. That’s one cycle.  
  3. Continue at a comfortable rhythm. The breath should be smooth, soft, even, and comforting. Explore this practice for five to 10 minutes, or until you feel relaxed. Try it any time of day or night, whenever you need enhanced balance and ease.
  4. Pause and feel the effects of the practice. 
  5. If one of your nostrils is congested or if you have a deviated septum, you can practice Nadi Shodhana hands-free (without blocking off the nostrils). Simply visualize the breath flowing gracefully from side to side as you follow the pattern above.

Samavritti (Balancing Breath or Counting Breath)

When the mind is spinning, counting the breath is one of the most effective ways to slow down. The steady rhythm of the count helps to settle the mind’s fluctuations (vrittis) and reestablish balance (sama). The most common practice is maintaining a one-to-one ratio—for example, inhaling and exhaling to the count of four. It’s natural to begin at a faster pace and gradually slow down as the mind begins to quiet. Feel free to layer on a soft Ujjayi pranayama (Ocean-Sounding Breath) to enhance focus and concentration.

  • Establish a steady, comfortable seat. Close your eyes and rest your palms on your lap.
  • Inhale smoothly as you count to four. Exhale smoothly as you count to four.  
  • Continue for two to five minutes, or until you feel mentally and physically settled. Try this any time of day or night, whenever you feel overwhelmed or overstimulated.
  • Afterward, scan for enhanced calmness, steadiness, and serenity in body and mind.
  • Variation: To enhance the relaxation response, lengthen the exhalations.  For example, inhale to the count of four, then exhale to the count of six or eight. 

Sheetali (Cooling Breath)

Being homebound for an extended time can make us feel agitated, annoyed, or upset. Sheetali pranayama is a classic cooling technique used to refresh physical hot spots (such as burning eyes or acidic belly) and abate mental frustration. It’s quick acting and incredibly effective, so it can be used in a pinch to cool down and restore composure. 

  • Take a comfortable seat with an erect spine. 
  • Close your eyes and rest your upturned palms on your lap. Draw in a long, refreshing breath through a curled tongue and exhale through the nose. 
  • During each exhalation, lightly touch the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth, sending coolness toward the upper palate. 
  • Establish a relaxing, calming rhythm. Swallow if the throat feels dry. 
  • Continue this cycle for one to three minutes, or until you feel mentally and physically refreshed.
  • Pause and feel the effects of the practice, noticing any areas of the body-mind that feel refreshed, renewed, or cooled.
  • Variation: if your tongue doesn’t curl, practice a variation known as Sitkari pranayama: Inhale through the teeth, with the lips parted, then exhale through the nose.

Get more breathing practices, yoga classes, and guided meditations with Larissa Hall Carlson and other expert faculty on Kripalu Connect!

Larissa Hall Carlson, E-RYT 500, MA, former Dean of the Kripalu School of Ayurveda, guides retreats, directs trainings, and provides Ayurvedic consultations across the country.

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