Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
To practice any of the three Pranayama techniques below, you’ll want to use Deer Mudra when alternately closing your nostrils. To form Deer Mudra, curl the index and middle finger of your right hand toward the base of your right thumb. Gently place your thumb on the outside of your right nostril, and your ring finger on the outside of the left nostril. (Can’t see the deer face? Notice that the thumb and the ring finger look like deer antlers.)
It’s believed that closing the right nostril to breathe through the left creates a feeling of calm and receptivity, and that closing the left to breathe through the right energizes and invigorates. Alternating between the two balances these energies.
Remember, never strain or force the breath. If you’re new to pranayama, ask an experienced yoga teacher for guidance.
The challenge for many aspiring meditators is simply staying awake long enough to quiet a busy mind. If your body is listless, your mind dull, or your heart heavy, then this practice will help awaken your energy for meditation. A brhmana (expanding) practice is energizing and nourishing. The emphasis is on dynamic, flowing postures with large movements to wake up the body. In addition to the pose series shown here, try chest openers—like backward bends and standing poses such as the Warrior series with sweeping arm movements—to build heat and energy. Do several rounds of Sun Salutation, synchronizing your movement with your breath to help you move through sluggishness and resistance. Sun Salutation variations that include lunges or Warrior poses also help open the hips and pelvis and stretch the low back, making it easier to
sit comfortably in meditation.
The focus here is not on alignment but on moving with the breath, specifically the inhalation: progressively lengthening the inhalations, inhaling in stages, and pausing before exhaling. Holding the breath for a moment after an inhalation can extend the energizing effect of an inhalation on both the mind and the body. This should be done with caution: If your breath becomes agitated at any point, return to a comfortable, natural rhythm, and keep your exhalation equal to or longer than your inhalation.
Begin in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), with palms together at your heart in Anjali Mudra (Salutation Seal). Feel your thumbs rise and fall against your chest as you breathe in and out normally. Gently deepen your inhalations and lengthen your exhalations for several breaths.
On an inhalation, sweep your arms out and up to Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute), with your chest open and chin lifted, while gathering your energy and focusing it inward. Then exhale, lowering your palms to your heart in Mountain Pose. Repeat 3 times, each time increasing the length of your inhalation. Do another 3 rounds, staying for 1, 2, and then 3 breaths in Upward Salute.
Next, come onto your hands and knees. On an exhalation, stretch back into (Cobra Pose). Finally, exhale and come back into Downward-Facing Dog, then inhale to come down to your hands and knees again. Repeat this series 3 times, staying for 1, 2, and finally 3 breaths when in Cobra to build strength, stamina, and energy.
Apanasana (Knees-to-Chest Pose) is a counterpose for backbends, but it also helps ground the energy created during the previous poses. Lie on your back with your hands on bent knees and feet off the floor. Slowly exhale, bringing your belly toward your spine and hugging your knees in toward your chest. With an inhalation, return to the starting position. Do 6 rounds.
Surya Bhedana Pranayama (Solar Breath) will help you feel alert for seated meditation. Begin by noticing your natural breath, then gently lengthen your exhalations and deepen your inhalations until you find a comfortable rhythm. Breathe in through the right nostril while closing the left, then out through the left while closing the right. Pause in between inhalations and exhalations. Do 12 rounds and then return to your natural breath.
Keep in mind that a brhmana practice may keep you awake at night if done in the evening. If you are tired but want to sit for meditation before bedtime, begin with an energizing practice and then move into a calming one.
Did your self-reflection reveal a rapid breathing pattern? Was your jaw clenched? Were you feeling anxious or irritable, as if your engine was running hot? Many of us are in overdrive, and coming to sit for meditation at the end of a hectic day can feel like a jolting break in a speeding car. Langhana (reducing) practices are calming and can help you shift gears and transition smoothly into meditation. The practices are cooling and calming, designed to eliminate and reduce excess energy, thoughts, and strong emotions.
The emphasis in a langhana practice is on exhaling and holding poses—such as seated forward bends and twists—for several seconds. Less attention is paid to alignment and more to hugging the belly in toward the spine during exhalations, which lengthen progressively. Holding the breath for a moment after an exhalation can extend calming effects, but this can be challenging. If your breath becomes strained, simply lengthen the exhalation and skip the pause.
Begin by lying on your back, knees bent, feet on the floor. Place your palms on your belly and take a few minutes to connect with your breath. Exhale and gently press your lower back onto the floor. On an inhalation, invite the natural curve in your lower back to return.
Move into Windshield Wipers. With an exhalation, gently pull your belly toward the spine while lowering your knees to the right. Raise your knees to the center as you breathe in, then lower your knees to the left as you breathe out. Repeat 6 times, focusing on lengthening your exhalations. On the third and fourth round, pause for 2 seconds after each exhalation; on the fifth and sixth rounds, pause for 4 seconds after each exhalation. When practicing these exercises, hug your lower abdomen toward the spine, but do not clamp down or harden on the pause. To come to sitting, roll to your side and press up.
To come into Janu Sirsasana (Head-of-the-Knee Pose), bend your right knee and bring your foot against your left thigh. Inhale your arms overhead, then exhale as you fold forward gently over your left leg, hands toward your left foot. Fold forward only as far as is comfortable. Inhale, lengthen your spine, and slowly lift your chest and head. Exhale, fold over your outstretched leg again, and pause for 2 seconds. Repeat 4 times on each side. On the third and fourth rounds, pause for 4 seconds after exhaling.
End with Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), to lead into a quiet, inward focus. (For instruction, go to yogajournal.com/poses, and type Paschimottanasana into the search box.) Then rest in Savasana (Corpse Pose) for 5 minutes before sitting in pranayama and meditation.
Chandra Bhedana Pranayama (Lunar Breath) has a soothing, cooling effect and is linked to creativity, intuition, and receptivity. It also helps to calm the nervous system and quiet the mind for meditation. Begin with your natural breath, then -gently lengthen your exhalations and deepen your inhalations until you find a comfortable rhythm of the breath. Breathe in through the left nostril, closing the right, and out through the right, closing the left. Pause between inhalations and exhalations. Repeat 12 times before returning to your natural breath.
Get Focused Series
A practice that combines energizing and calming principles (brhmana and langhana) has a balancing, or samana, effect. Begin with a Sun Salutation series and standing poses to engage the body and mind. While you’re doing these, try taking inhalations and exhalations of equal lengths. Movements that bring your focus from the center of the body to the periphery and back, and bilateral exercises, which require the left arm and the right leg (and the reverse) to work in unison, can help cultivate balance between focused attention and relaxed awareness. This is a powerful practice to prepare for meditation. Because it does not include static poses that emphasize alignment, you can pay more attention to lengthening both inhalations and exhalations evenly and allowing space in between the breaths.
Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (Alternate-Nostril Breathing) is a wonderful pranayama technique to help you feel centered, with a clear and bright mind for meditation. To start, inhale and exhale normally through both nostrils. Then inhale through only the left nostril while closing off the right. Next close off the left nostril, and exhale through the right. Inhale through the right nostril, then close off the right nostril to exhale through the left.
Do 12 rounds, pausing between breaths.
Begin by standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), taking a moment to feel the ground and your breath moving in and out of your body. To bring your mind into focus and prepare for the following postures, inhale and sweep your arms out to the side, up to shoulder height. Continue raising only your right arm overhead. On an exhalation, lower your right arm to shoulder height, then bring both arms down to your sides. Repeat several times, alternating arms.
Now, with your feet in position for Dynamic Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I, variation), inhale to bend your front knee forward, and curl your fingers toward your palms while pulling your elbows back. Exhale, release your fists, and thrust your
palms and arms forward, belly pressed back. Inhale to return to the prior position. Exhale, re–lease your arms, and straighten your front leg. Repeat this series 4 times on each side. Dynamic Warrior builds heat, energy, and focus. Alternating stretching and curling your fingers brings blood flow and awareness from the core to the periphery. And moving your arms in and out while pulling your elbows back opens your chest with each inhalation and draws your awareness to the lower belly on exhalations.
Chakravakasana (Sunbird Pose, variation) requires you to engage the opposite arm and leg while directing your awareness from the core to the periphery and back, and from opposite fingers to opposite toes. Begin by coming onto all fours in Table. Exhale your hips back toward your heels, while hugging your belly toward your spine to come into Balasana (Child’s Pose, modified). Inhale and come forward into Bitilasana (Cow Pose) with your chest and head lifted. Repeat this sequence 3 times. Then, with an inhalation, come into Sunbird Pose by extending your right arm forward and left leg back, and reaching from the central axis of your spine out to your fingertips and toes. Repeat this 6 times, alternating opposite arms and legs. Stay for 3 breaths in the pose on the last 2 rounds.
Urdhva Prasarita Padasana (Leg Lift) is symmetrical and focuses on exhaling, which can bring your awareness back to your whole body. Begin by lying on your back, with your knees toward your chest and hands resting at your sides. Inhale as you extend your arms up overhead and lift your legs over the hips, bringing them perpendicular to the floor. Exhale to release, and hug your knees to your chest. Repeat 6 times.
Rest in Savasana (Corpse Pose) for 5 minutes, taking a moment to feel your whole body at once before sitting for pranayama and meditation.