Kundalini Yoga places a lot of emphasis on breathing, or pranayama. There are many different types of pranayama in Kundalini Yoga: long deep breathing, breath of fire, breath retention (in or out), and alternate nostril breathing are some of the most familiar. But there are many other ways of breathing: segmented breath, alternate breath channels (nose or mouth) and sitali pranayam (over a rolled tongue) are just some examples of breathing techniques that are regularly practiced in Kundalini Yoga. (For a full explanation of yogic breathing, see the book Praana Praanee Praanayam.)
Breath is life; without it, we cease to function in our physical body. But the power of pranayama is also a way to manifest our intentions. We can use breath to change our energy level, to boost our mood, and to overcome stress. All it takes is a little training in how the different types of pranayama work!
Here’s an example. Pay attention to how your breath feels when you’re anxious. It often gets shallow and harsh. To counter that, as soon as you notice that your breath has become shorter, you can consciously begin to breathe long and deep. This new breath pattern will immediately change your emotional state. For instance, I tend to get anxious when I’m driving, and sometimes I even hold my breath in traffic! As soon as I notice that my breath is constricted, I change the pace of my breath and switch to conscious long, deep breathing. This immediately alerts my nervous system to relax, and then I know my instincts will be on track without me overreacting to other drivers.
Stress is another emotion that can be managed through breath. Yogi Bhajan gave several meditations to handle stress, and one of the key elements in these kriyas is that we use on a deep breath. To see how this works, look at the Meditation to Alleviate your Stress which uses segmented breath on the inhale and one long smooth breath on the exhale. This slow, 8-part inhale through the nose boosts energy, so that the body is prepared to handle a stressful situation. At the same time, the depth of the breath—8 strokes in is quite a lot!—sends a message to our nervous system to build awareness of our current situation, so that we can tap into our conscious mind. Once we find this awareness, our brain realizes that we aren’t in a life-threatening situation, and we really don’t have to fight or flee. The slow single-part exhale invokes a sense of peace and calm, to complete the breath cycle.
Another example of how you can use pranayama in an every day setting is with alternate nostril breathing. The left nostril, or Ida, corresponds to the right frontal lobe of the brain, which is where we access creativity and flow. The right nostril, or Pingala, connects to the left frontal lobe, our analytical brain. If we are faced with confusion or indecision, alternate nostril breathing will often bring us clarity by balancing the two sides of the brain. But let’s say you’re feeling angry. Try inhaling and exhaling through your left (or “cooling”) nostril to cool the fires of anger. Trouble sleeping? Maybe inhaling through your left nostril and exhaling through the right will calm the mind down, let go of those loops of thought, and let you fall asleep.
Breath is a powerful tool to shape our perception of the present moment. Once we learn how to use the breath to stay peaceful, our lives begin to flow more smoothly. Instead of searching for drama, we can find contentment in peace. Instead of self-sabotaging with reactions, we can train ourselves to respond from the heart. And through time, if we keep up with this practice, we re-wire our brains and let go of those old stressful habits.