Bhastrika Pranayama

Bhastrika is a fun pranayama!  The pranayama bhastrika or bellows breath produces brain waves similar to gamma waves β€” our brain waves of integration and higher consciousness.

Bhastrika initially gives one a sensation of excitation followed by emotional calm and higher mental alertness (measured via EEG showing an activation of the temporoparietal cortical area brain waves).

Bhastrika is fun to do and has many other benefits including those of all yoga and meditations plus more:

  • Reducing stress, heart rate, and blood pressure
  • Bhastrika Clears our mind β€” and our lungs!
  • It is Anticatarrhal – meaning removes phlegm
  • Increases our focus and our reaction time, in part by decreasing our distractibility
  • Gives us greater aerobic performance due to its stretching and strengthening effect on our lungs and diaphragm. It also reduces levels of CO2 in our lungs.
  • Reduces physical, mental, and emotional blocks (according to yogic lore). It’s an energizing pranayama.
  • Can help improve agni β€” our digestion β€” and it also improves bile flow which helps with digestion and detoxification.  Anything that improves digestion will also improve how well our body can detox as the same organs are involved in both detoxification and digestion.
  • Increases metabolism
  • Strengthens our abdominal muscles
  • Can help with asthma issues

I have always wondered which pranayama maintained my cardiovascular fitness when I was not regularly biking due to travel or weather, just doing my yoga practice and pranayama. Recently I came across a study confirming bhastrika can indeed improve aerobic performance.

In the first study a total of 30 male participants aged 18-30 were split into two groups, the first group did 15 minutes of bhastrika in three 5 minute increments; starting slow (approx. 6 breaths/minute) for 5 minutes, followed by 1 minute of normal breathing and gradually increasing pace each 5 minute interval. The runners similarily did 15 minutes of running interval style; run 5 minutes walk 1 minute for a total of 3 rounds. This was a randomized controlled study where the investigator was blind to which participants were in which group, for obvious reasons it could not be double blind because the participants know which group they are in!

The study looked at 4 measures of lung function in both groups;

FEV or forced expiratory ventilation, looks at the elastic health of the lungs, ribcage, and diaphragm — in other words how deeply you can expand and contract your lungs and all breathing apparatuses. Are your lungs and ribcage flexible? Bhastrika is like yoga for our lungs πŸ™‚

FEV1 = forced expiatory volume in the first second — how quickly and strongly can you exhale out all the air from your lungs?

PEFR = Peak expiratory flow rate which is a measure of elastic recoil pressure changes or the resistance of small airways. Are your nadis open and flowing or restrictive?? Are you airways also flexible or stiff and rigid?

MVV = Maximal voluntary ventilation measures the status of respiratory

Your Breathing Apparatuses – Photo from Namarupa / Robert Moses notes

muscles, i.e., mechanical properties of lungs and chest, kind of an overall representative of the health of your breathing apparatuses. MVV is widely variable in individuals.

This study proved out there was a significant improvement in all 4 aspects of the yoga group, and only improvements in PEFR and MVV in the running group and they were of less magnitude in improvements than the yoga group! Yes pranayama can improve your aerobic capacity πŸ™‚

In the present study, during bhastrika pranayama practice, participants were asked and trained to inflate and deflate the lungs and chest to the fullest and deepest possible extent. Hence, the practice of bhastrika pranayama in the pranayama group may have helped to use diaphragmatic and abdominal muscles efficiently, leading to significant increase in MVV in higher magnitude than the running group. I wonder if the running group had this same training if they would have scored closer to the pranayama group?

I next wanted to research on the pace of the breath as there is controversy in the yoga world on pace of the bhastrika blasts, I found one referencing fast and slow pranayamas:

This study looked at slower pranayams such as nadi shodhana, the very basic pranav pranayama which is slow breathing while mentally focusing on OM, and savitri pranayama in which you inhale 6 seconds hold 3 seconds, exhale 6 and hold 3. These were compared to the “faster pranayams” of bhastrika, kapalbhati, and Kukkriya pranayama (dog panting breath explains kukkriya well!). While both groups saw benefit in different parameters, the faster pranayamas showed the most benefit for the cardiovascular system.

Though this may have been due to the strengthening and stretching effect on the lungs and diaphragm from the “faster” pranayamas, not necessarily the pace. So I will end this investigation saying there is benefit to both slow and fast paced bhastrika breaths, what I have been doing lately is starting slow on my first round and increasing pace of the blasts with each round.

Bhastrika means bellows and just like how a bellows fans a flame to make it stronger bhastrika increases our digest flames known as agni — our digestive fire in our solar plexus area helping us digest and detox better.  Bhastrika pranayama increases heat in the body stoking the inner fire of our body and mind.

We do not put resistance on our breath like we do in our yoga practice (some call this ujjayi). Our yogic breath is a very chesty breath, while the power of bhastrika breathing pulls air into all 3 streams of inhaled air – the one little stream going up to the brain and the two bigger streams going down to the lungs. We are using every breathing muscle to pull in and push out of our nose as much air as possible during bhastrika.

Bhastrika pranayama pulls more air upward and downward equally in all 3 streams; breathing in this manner pulls the air across our ol’factory sense too where we absorb more prana from the atmosphere — the cilia (little hairs) in our nose are actually olfactory nerves, stimulating them has a cleansing and clearing effect on our mind.

The sound of the breath is a mix between chesty, throaty, and nasal-y meaning you are making the sound of the breath from your chest area to your nostrils — trying to engage all your breathing apparatuses.

Bhastrika means bellows, picture your torso and breath pumping like a bellows. A bellows expands broadly and contacts fully  β€” Inhales should expand the whole thoracic rib cage area β€” front to back, side to side, and top to bottom  β€” 3D expansion. Exhales contract fully and push the air out of our nostrils fanning imaginary flames of Agni fire. 

These are forceful breaths

Strongly and forcefully exhale as if you are fanning a fire through your nose! Inhale deeply, strongly, and somewhat quickly expanding your entire thoracic area and nostrils taking in as much air as you can.

Keep your tongue in jiva bandha (on the roof of your mouth), and your teeth lightly touching to keep air out of the eustachian tubes as you do the pumps.

In actuality the inhales are contracting our diaphragm and the exhales are contracting our abs β€” we have to coordinate the action of our abs and diaphragm so the air moves in and out quickly and equally. Occasionally you might experience a little hiccup kind of thing at the start of your blasts, this is because you have not yet found that coordination between your diaphragm and abs.

Bhastrika is an abdominal exercise!

At the end of each round of bhastrika we do an short exhale retention after the last pump, then an inhale retention, holding your breath in anywhere from 10 seconds or heart beats to 1 minute. A short hold will bring your CO2 levels back to normal after performing bhastrika, a longer hold that is without suffering or straining will bring more of the benefits of breath holding.

The exhale retention at the end of the pumps is quite natural and may even happen spontaneously. The pumping action offloads a lot of CO2 which makes it easier to hold your breath. When CO2 increases in your blood your body signals you to breathe because it’s moved the oxygen from the blood to the tissues where we want it. 

Contraindications: Do not practice Bhastrika if you’re pregnant, have uncontrolled hypertension, epilepsy, seizures, some hernias, ulcers, vertigo, or panic disorder. You should also avoid practicing bellows breath on a full stomach; wait at least two hours after eating.
If you feel faint, nausea, or you start sweating excessively stop performing this pranayama until you meet with a skilled trusted practitioner, you could be doing it incorrectly.

How to do Bhastrika

Sit in lotus or your meditation posture with straight spine and relaxed shoulders.

Inhales and exhales are all done through the nose.

Start with a big inhale and then begin inhaling and exhaling to your fullest extent. If you are beginner start with 10 slow blasts and work your way up. Starting slow and strong will help you learn it better. Over time you can do more pumps, faster.

Hands can be palms down on your knees in jnana mudra, or holding feet if in lotus – arching your back squeezing your back muscles to help expand your chest and breathing space.

Begin by taking 5 deep yogic breaths with sound.  After your 5th exhale:

  • Take a deep inhale and strongly and forcefully exhale and inhale to your fullest capacity making your rib cage expand and contract like a bellows for up to 30 blasts.
    • Initially each breath (one inhale and one exhale) will be slow, then over time increase to each breath about one second, as you progress you may want to make them faster or shorter or a set of each.  Inhales and exhale are equal. Bhastrika can be done fast or slow — I have seen bhastrika done slow at 6 breaths / minute and also much faster, both speeds have benefit. Experiment yourself. As a beginner, its better to start slower and gradually increase pace if you so desire.
  • End with a slow exhale and hold your breath out til you have the desire to breathe, then Inhale lift your chin, tuck your chin into Jalandhara bandha and hold your breath in.
  • Lift your chin, exhale slowly through your nose only.
  • Repeat for a total of 3 rounds.

Finish by taking 5 deep yogic breaths.

After several months to a year of practicing bhastrika there are some fun ways to progress with it.

Fun with Bhastrika:

Alternate Nostril Bhastrika – combining nadi shodhana with bhastrika:

  • Start with 1 round of easy bhastrika – 30 pumps
  • Inhale R, hold 30 seconds. Exhale left.
  • Take one full and slow inhale and exhale

Ida Bhastrika

  • With your right hand in vishnu mudra, use your thumb to close your right nostril: Take 16 bhastrika pumps through your Left nostril only.
  • Inhale Left nostril, Hold 30 second, Exhale left nostril.
  • Take 1 full deep inhale and exhale through both nostrils

Pingala Bhastrika

  • With your right hand in vishnu mudra, use your ring finger to close your left nostril: Take 16 bhastrika pumps through your Right nostril only.
  • Inhale Reft nostril, Hold 30 second, Exhale Reft nostril.
  • Take 1 full deep inhale and exhale through both nostrils

Alternate Nostril Bhastrika

With your hand in vishnu mudra, begin with 1 inhale through both nostrils and exhale left nostril only, then begin your nadi shodhana pattern with a bhastrika breath:

  • Inhale Left
  • Exhale Right
  • Inhale Right
  • Exhale Left

Start at 10 rounds only of this — it is quite energizing. Over time you can add more sets.

End with 5 slow deep nasal breaths.

Dr. John Douillard of also teaches a one minute meditation using bhastrika that you can do most anytime throughout the day (except when your belly is full) to help clear your mind, reset your thoughts and increase your gamma brain waves πŸ™‚

Here is how I would perform his version:

Seated in meditation posture

  • Take 5 deep yogic breaths with sound
  • Inhale deeply and do one round of 30 blasts of bhastrika (NO breath holding)
  • Sit for 30 seconds with a slow yogic breath β€” this is about 3-5 breaths depending on your breath rate.

Gently continue on with your day taking your mindset with you.

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