The Science of Bhastrika Pranayama
Bhastrika Pranayama, or Bellows Breathing (Bhastra is a Sanskrit word for “bellows”), is not really a beginner’s breathwork practice. Before getting to the stage of Bellows Breath, one first needs to have an established practice in both breath awareness and grounding pranayama practices.
That said, there’s no reason not to read up on this practice, also known as Yogic Breath of Fire, so you have an inkling of what lies ahead. This section looks at the science and technique behind this transformative technique.
Pranayama and Breath Control
At the heart of Bhastrika Pranayama lies the art of pranayama—control of the life force through breath. Breathing isn’t solely a biological necessity; when done with awareness and control, it’s a bridge between body and mind.
Pranayama practices are generally separated into three categories: balancing (like Alternate nostril breath), cooling (like Victorious breath), and heating (like Bellows Breath).
It’s wise to learn more about cooling pranayama and balancing pranayama before delving into heating pranayama. This is because these two categories lay the foundations for breath awareness that are essential to establish before progressing to heating practices.
Bhastrika Pranayama Technique
The Bhastrika technique is a heating practice. It’s the precursor to the more vigorous Kapalabhati Breath (Skull-shining Breath). It mimics the fanning of fire much like bellows do.
Before attempting this technique, make sure you have the go-ahead from your trusted medical professional, as it comes with some contraindications.
These include (but are not limited to): menstruation, pregnancy, high blood pressure, heart problems, hernia, gastric ulcer, epilepsy, glaucoma, and more.
Personally, I’d always recommend practicing this technique under the supervision of a trained yoga teacher or breathwork teacher.
Bhastrika Pranayama Steps:
1. Sit in a comfortable seated position with a straight spine.
2. Make fists, and bring your fists up to your shoulders, palms facing forwards.
3. As you inhale through the nose, raise your arms up over head.
4. Exhale with some force (you’ll make a kind of hissing sound), and bring the fists back down to your shoulders. This will feel like more rapid breathing than you’re likely used to.
5. Repeat for about 10 breaths. Keep in mind that as well as a forceful exhalation, you’re also aiming for a forceful inhalation, too.
6. Relax with your palms in your lap, returning to normal breathing for a few breaths
7. Repeat another round if you feel up to it. For beginners, two or three rounds of Bhastrika Pranayama may be sufficient.
Bhastrika Pranayama makes strong use of the abdominal muscles and therefore should be avoided on a full stomach. If at any point you start to feel dizzy, stop the practice and return to normal breathing. Stay seated or lying down for a while, and you can always come back to it next time.
1. Oxygenation and Energy Flow
Bhastrika Pranayama supercharges oxygen intake, fueling cellular functions and metabolic processes. Increased oxygen levels can lead to heightened alertness, mental clarity, and overall vitality. In yogic philosophy, as prana surges, energy pathways (nadis) awaken, harmonizing the body’s intricate systems and reinvigorating the mind.
2. Neurophysiological impact
This preliminary study suggests that Bhastrika Pranayama had neurological impacts leading to a decrease in anxiety and an increase in mental clarity, suggesting that it influences the autonomic nervous system in a positive way. Pranayama has long been known to help regulate the nervous system by switching off the stress response (our fight-or-flight state) and switching on the relax response (the rest-and-digest state). You can read more about that here.
Cooling practices bring us down from anxiety and panic. Heating practices bring us up from lethargy and depression (and sometimes from swinging wildly between anxiety and depression) and into a more regulated state called our Window of Tolerance. This is where we feel most at home in ourselves, and where we want to be for a long and as often as possible.