Would you like to boost your energy? Banish the morning doldrums? Strengthen your immune system while stoking your digestive fire? The solar plexus is the hub of power and light, and a steady blaze here is the source of health as well as of success in both worldly and spiritual pursuits. Yoga offers a variety of techniques for fanning the fire, all focusing on the navel center. One of the most straightforward is a breathing practice called bhastrika, or bellows breathing.
This vigorous pranayama involves a rapid series of active inhalations and exhalations. Just as a bellows draws in air and pushes it across glowing coals to generate heat, bhastrika uses the action of the abdominal muscles and diaphragm to draw air in and out of the lungs, generating heat in the body by squeezing blood through the digestive organs, toning the liver, spleen, stomach, and pancreas, and increasing digestive capacity. It can also keep winter colds at bay by clearing the nasal passages, sinuses, and lungs.
Just as a bellows draws in air and pushes it across glowing coals to generate heat, bhastrika uses the action of the abdominal muscles and diaphragm to draw air in and out of the lungs.
The Practice of Bhastrika
Sit in a steady, comfortable posture with the spine straight. Take a few deep, even diaphragmatic breaths through the nostrils. When you’re ready to begin bhastrika, exhale by contracting the abdominal muscles quickly and forcefully, followed immediately with a quick diaphragmatic inhalation of equal force, letting the abdominal muscles relax completely.
The challenge here is to coordinate the action of the diaphragm and abdominal muscles so the air moves in and out of the lungs quickly: as the abdominal muscles relax at the end of an exhalation, the diaphragm actively contracts to begin the inhalation; as the diaphragm begins to release its contraction after the peak of inhalation, the abdominal muscles immediately contract. It will take time and attention to coordinate these movements. Both the exhalation and the inhalation will be audible through the nostrils; the goal is to make them equal in both duration and force.
Bhastrika should be practiced only on an empty stomach. Early morning is ideal; before lunch and/or late afternoon are good times, too. (Doing this invigorating practice at bedtime can cause insomnia.)
From Beginner to Advanced
At first, limit yourself to 7–11 breaths, or repetitions. Then pause and rest with a slow, deep diaphragmatic breath. This constitutes one round. Do 1–3 rounds daily, gradually increasing the number of breaths per round by 5 each week. Aim for one inhale/exhale per second. If you know how to do the root lock (mula bandha), apply it during your practice.
Over time, you can work your way up to 3 rounds per session and 3 sessions per day, increasing the vigor and speed of practice up to 2 breaths per second. You can also continue to increase the number of repetitions within each round by 5 each week. Always stay within your comfortable capacity.
If you feel a stitch in your side, a sharp pain under your ribs, or if you begin to feel edgy, irritable, worn out, or spacey, return to simple diaphragmatic breathing; you’ve exceeded your capacity. Another sign of fatigue is a sudden need to take deeper breaths. Avoid bhastrika if you have an ulcer, hiatal hernia, chronic constipation, heart disease, high blood pressure, or moderate to severe nasal congestion. Avoid this pranayama during menstruation and pregnancy.
Peace of Mind
With diligent, regular practice, you’ll find a few seconds of absolute quiet filling your mind after you finish doing bhastrika. You can rest in the silence until it disperses, or, even better, begin your meditation practice from this place of sthira sukha: steadiness and stillness.