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3 Yogic, Warming Breaths for Winter

8 months ago / by Sweta Vikram

The benefits of such breathing techniques include stress relief, fatigue reduction, and increased oxygen levels

Woman performing pranayama
Woman performing pranayama. Shutterstock

The word pranayama consists of two parts. Prana can be translated as life force, breath, or energy. Ayama means stretch, extension, expansion, regulation, restraint, and control. Think about it. Our breath can be both conscious and unconscious. Pranayama is a way of harnessing life force energy.

One of my teachers, Dr. Vasant Lad (an Ayurveda legend), once told us at a workshop that if we didn’t have time for asanas, meditation or movement, “do pranayama, my dear.” That’s how sacred pranayama is in yoga and Ayurveda.

For those new to yoga and breathing techniques, pranayama is the practice of breath regulation. In Ashtanga Yoga — the eight limbs of yoga — defined by Sage Patanjali, pranayama is the fourth limb. It provides a vital bridge between the mind and the body.

When I got upset as a little girl, my mom used to say, “Take deep breaths, beta.” Did you know that by controlling the breath, one can control the mind? Yoga teaches us that not only do our emotions control the quality of our breath, but that controlling our breath can help us control our emotions. Isn’t that profound?

The Evidence

More than 1,000 medical and research studies have investigated the benefits of yogic breathing. These can range from stress relief to reduction in fatigue to increase in oxygen levels in the body to improvement in mental focus to boost in the immune system to lowering of the blood pressure to improvement in digestion. The list goes on.

The breath has considerable transformational powers. There are several benefits of pranayama. Every pranayama practice offers its own unique benefits. For the colder months, let’s look at three breathing techniques that can generate a little heat and help keep the winter blues away.

Surya Bhedana

This is a pranayama, or a yoga breathing technique, traditionally described as “increasing the inner fire.” Surya means the sun, and bhedana means piercing. This practice creates heat and powers the pingala nadi, the right nostril, or the masculine side. Surya bhedana pranayama is believed to be heat generating. In this pranayama, we use the right nadi (right nostril) to breathe in (inhalation). Using the ring finger of your right hand, block your left nostril. Inhale slowly and deeply through the right nostril. Open the left nostril. Shut your right nostril with your right thumb. Exhale through your left nostril, keeping the right nostril closed. This completes one cycle. You can repeat it 5-7 times.

Make sure you sit in a comfortable cross-legged position with your spine erect and eyes closed. In yoga teachings, the moon creates cooling, and the sun is a heating element. Surya bhedana is the opposite of Chandra bhedana. The latter involves yogic breathing through the left nostril to cool the body. Those with epilepsy, heart disease, anxiety, and high blood pressure should not do this exercise. Doing it at night makes it hard to sleep.

Ujjayi Pranayama

It is called ocean breath because air moving in the glottis (throat) sounds like waves. In this technique, you constrict the back of the throat to support lengthening each breath cycle. Each inhalation and exhalation is long, full, deep, and controlled. This breathing technique increases the temperature of the body and gets your heart pumping. It balances all the three doshas.

The heat generated through the ujjayi pranayama bolsters the immune system and releases stagnant emotions. No wonder it’s called the “breath of victory.” Late winter to early spring is the kapha time of the year. And one sign of kapha imbalance is that you hold on to heavy emotions that no longer serve you. This is difficult if you have breathing difficulties, or a condition such as asthma. Ensure you are breathing enough, and that you end the practice immediately if you feel dizzy or lightheaded. You should not feel any pain during this practice.


Known as skull shining breath, it is part of the yogic body cleansing system known as shatkarma or shatkriya. It is one of the six shatkarmas (cleansing techniques) of yoga as mentioned in the classic text, “Hatha Yoga Pradipika.”

Let’s be very clear: kapalbhati isn’t a pranayama (breathing technique). Yet ,it can be a warm-up for formal pranayama. Kapalbhati is another great practice to generate inner heat. This rapid breathing technique includes slow, passive inhalation and forceful active exhalation, using your abdominal muscles. Winters can feel lonely and isolating if you live in the east coast or Midwest. The breath reflects our mental state and vice versa. This often goes unnoticed, even when it rules our behavior. Kapalbhati boosts the production of endorphins, thereby helping uplift your mood.

Kapalbhati isn’t advisable for those suffering from heart ailments, high blood pressure, glaucoma, or severe spine-related back problems. Patients with epilepsy, stroke, and migraine should avoid performing it, too.

Check with your medical doctor and make sure these exercises are safe for you.

Pranayama is to yoga as the heart is to the human body.” ~ BKS Iyengar

Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature. It should not be construed as medical advice. It is not meant to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional. If you are looking for advice from a trained yogi and Ayurvedic coach, contact Sweta Vikram here.