Vata Season: 3 Essential Breathing Practices for Calming Anxiety
There are three essential breathing practices that I have used, almost daily, to manage vata dosha. These practices got me through the initiation into motherhood and, honestly, I do not know where I might have been if I did not have them in my toolbox to use anytime I needed them.
Pranayama is another word for breathwork, or breathing practices. Prana is often called the Vital Breath—it is an important part of how our physiology functions and forms, and it is also connected to the more subtle layers of ourselves, like our mind and emotions.
Vata dosha is built of the space and air elements—the most subtle of the five elements of Ayurveda. This is one reason why everyone has a vata imbalance. . .and explains why vata dosha is the most easily disturbed. Vata (made up of space and air) is light, rough, dry, cool, subtle, and easily mobile. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, these qualities become prominent in our environment from late summer through early winter. Think scattered autumn leaves and winds with a hint of snow in them.
When vata is disturbed, common imbalances occur—like dry skin, constipation, or dizziness. Mental and emotional disturbances, like anxiety or fearfulness, and trouble sleeping are also signs of a vata imbalance.
The following breathing practices are designed for balancing vata dosha and are particularly beneficial during the autumn, but may be used anytime you need to calm down and center yourself.
Ujjayi breath is called Victorious breath or sometimes Ocean breath. I prefer the latter, as it is a good way to explain the sound you make when performing this breath correctly. Ujjayi breath is sometimes done during asana practice, and it is the loud wave-like sound you might hear coming from the advanced students in yoga classes.
Ujjayi breath can also simply be done on its own, as a seated or lying down practice before bed. If done seated, relax your hands on your legs, or cup the hands into one another in front of your body in Bhairavi mudra (shown). The breath is done through the nostrils, on the inhale as well as the exhale. The inhale and exhale are approximately the same length.
You will begin by imagining you are breathing in from the base of your throat. Then internally, gently squeeze your throat so that when you breathe, the airflow is slightly restricted. This will create a sort of whispering sound, and will also elongate your natural breath. This constriction is held constantly during the breathing practice, and again, is done on both inhale and exhale. Sixteen breaths is a nice, safe, daily practice of ujjayi breath for most anyone.
Also known as Bumble Bee breath, the name is very telling of the technique. In Bhramari breath, there is a humming sound done on the exhale only. The sound and the hand positions help to draw the awareness inward, blocking out external influences. You may use the hands to quiet the senses by closing each ear with the thumbs and placing the index finger just above the eyebrows, with the rest of the fingers gently placed along the bridge of the nose. A more simple technique is to place the hands over the face and eyes.
The breath is done through the nostrils only. You will inhale naturally, then, with the teeth touching and eyes closed, exhale with a humming or buzzing sound. The sound will last as long as your exhale, then you will begin again. When you focus your awareness on the sound, the mind will be drawn immediately into the practice, and you can feel the calming vibration of the sound throughout your being. Begin with seven breaths.
Nadi Shodhana (including hands-free variation)
The nadis are the channels through which prana flows throughout the body. Nadi shodhana is sometimes translated as “nerve cleansing.” Nadis are sometimes connected with nerves or the nervous system, though they are actually part of the subtle body.
There are different techniques that might be called nadi shodhana. Many of them involve Vishnu mudra, using the right hand and the thumb and ring finger to manipulate the nostrils. This is to bring focus to the ida and pingala nadis, and the left and right nostrils which represent the more gross aspects of these nadis. We can use the hands to move the breath, or we may also simply use our awareness to start to direct the flow of prana in the channels. (I found that during pregnancy, I did not want to close off my nostrils, so I used the hands-free variation.) Ida represents the lunar, yin, feminine, and cooling aspects of our being, while pingala represents the more solar, yang, masculine, and warming qualities. With this practice, we invite balance between the two within our being.
For this example, I will instruct you to use the hand to begin a nadi shodana practice. Finding a comfortable seated position, fold the right hand into Vishnu mudra (shown). The first two fingers will fold in, and you will use the thumb and ring finger of the right hand. The left hand may rest quietly on your leg or in another mudra.
Begin by closing the right nostril with the thumb, and exhale your natural breath out the left nostril. You will keep the hand where it is, and simply inhale deeply through the left nostril. Then closing the left nostril with the ring finger, exhale out the right. Next inhale through the right again, then close that nostril with the thumb, and exhale out the left. This is one full round of nadi shodhana. You will continue on like this, alternating the inhale and exhale from side to side. If you need a break, you may use a completely natural nostril breath, or, for a more advanced practice, you may begin to layer ujjayi breath over this practice. 5–15 minutes.
These three breath practices may be done together in one sitting, or stand-alone, any time.
BKS Iyengar writes that a pranayama practice is like a “string of pearls.” The benefits grow with daily practice. In conjunction with a daily Abhyanga practice, you’ve got a powerful winning combination this fall! Faith inspires discipline—and when you’ve got tools like these it becomes easy to trust that Ayurveda will work for you.
Adena is creator of The Healing Diet, a 10 week course in healing through diet and lifestyle. Apply Ayurveda to your body week by week. Click here to learn more, and apply for the next program, which begins October 1.