Is Bhramari the Forgotten Pranayama?
I am passionate about Pranayama. I love the different qualities and effects that the various yogic breathing practices induce. And while I don’t always have the time (or the inclination) for a daily Asana practice, I would be lost without my morning Pranayama.
I attended my first yoga class back in 1993. I loved the stretches and the sensation of opening up my body, but I was fascinated by the breath. It was incredible to me that I could calm my agitated mind and over-stimulated brain with just a few rounds of Nadi Shodana or Ujjayi. Or I could energise and invigorate my tired body through some Bhastrika or Kapalabhati. And now as a Pregnancy Yoga Specialist, I am inspired by how effective the breath can be as powerful birthing tool.
Of all the Classical Pranayamas, I am becoming more and more drawn to Bhramari. There is something unique about its qualities – the soothing effect of the humming, which seems to wrap you in a soft blanket of sound; the remarkable range of benefits the practice brings; and the sheer simplicity of the technique, making it accessible to everyone.
What is Bhramari Pranayama?
One of the 8 classical Pranayamas, Bhramari appears in the ‘Hatha Yoga Pradipika’:
“Breathe in quickly, making a reverberating sound like the male black bee, and exhale slowly while softly making the sound of the female black bee. By this yogic practice, one becomes Lord of the Yogis and the mind is absorbed in bliss”.
HYP Chapter 2 Verse 68 (Swami Muktibhodananda Saraswati commentary 1993)
As its colloquial name suggests, Bee Breath is quite simply, humming. The classical texts state the humming should be done on the inhale, and the exhale. This produces two very different sounds – the inhale is high pitched and short, while the exhale is more low pitched and much longer. The inhale can be quite difficult to sustain, and Bhramari is more commonly taught as creating the humming sound on the exhale only.
Pranayama merging into Pratyahara
Another common way to practice Bhramari is to incorporate it with the sense withdrawal technique of Shanmukhi Mudra. By blocking the ears and closing the eyes, fingers lightly resting on both, we become even more deeply immersed in the profundity of the practice. The usual distractions of life, whether external or internal, drop away and we are left with nothing but the sound of our breath. (This variation should not be undertaken by anyone suffering from clinical depression or anxiety.)
The uniqueness of this Pranayama lies in the vibratory aspect – the humming sound vibrates every cell in the body, and this is where the magic happens. If we don’t hum loudly enough, we won’t get the benefit from the practice. This is a useful teaching point – how many of our students feel really self-conscious about making any sounds in our classes? Once we explain the benefits of Bhramari, the volume of their practice should increase!
The Bridge to Meditation
All Pranayamas, and indeed any conscious breathing, are an effective preparation for meditation. This is why, if we believe Patanjali’s 8 Limbs to be a sequential journey, Pranayama comes right before the meditative aspects of the Raja Yoga system. Bhramari goes one step further, and allows an almost seamless transition into deep meditation. It is particularly useful for Students (and yes, even Teachers!), who find it difficult to switch off the endless chatter of the mind. One of my students commented at the end of a recent class:
“I can’t believe how easy it was tonight to get into the meditation. I usually struggle to meditate, but that Bhramari Breath seemed to cut everything else out.”
Bhramari clears out the mind and allows it to come to a laser-pointed focus. The stillness and silence that follow the sounded practice is profound – the mind becomes primed and ready to be still.
The Bridge to Mantra
How many teachers do you know who have struggled to introduce Mantra, or even a little bit of chanting into their classes? 10 years ago, I all but wiped out a successful yoga class by introducing some bija mantras into the Asana session, and then a chant at the end. They weren’t ready. Over half of them never came back. Lesson learned.
Bee Breath can be a fun, simple and effective way to introduce some sound into our Yoga Classes, and can act as a bridge towards Mantra chanting. It takes away the need to learn complicated Sanskrit words, but still allows Students to enjoy the benefits of a practice that raises our vibrations.
And my class now? 18 months ago, we learned the Shanti Path, line by line. We chant it every week at the end of each class. They love it!
Bhramari for Healing
Bhramari Pranayama has some interesting healing properties, and can even have an impact on some medical conditions. The combination of the soothing sounds, the slow breathing, the calming effect on the Autonomic Nervous System, and the vibratory effect on a cellular level, can help with:-
- High Blood Pressure
- Anxiety and Mental Tension
And possibly the most interesting claim, put forward by Swami Niranjanananda in his book “Prana, Pranayama, Prana Vidya” (Bihar School of Yoga 1998)
“It speeds up the healing of body tissue and may be practised after operations”. Page 196
Bhramari for Birth
As a Pregnancy Yoga Specialist, I have witnessed over the years how effective Bee Breath can be during the 9 months of pregnancy, during birth, and also post-natally.
I teach Bhramari as one of several specific Birthing Breaths. These consciously controlled breaths have proven to be really useful as a tool during labour to:-
- help with pain relief
- reduce the sense of overwhelm
- maintain a feeling of control
- create a ‘bubble’ of introspection, where Mums can birth quietly and remain ‘in the zone’
One unexpected benefit of using Bhramari during birth is the effect is has on the baby. Birth is a very traumatic process for babies. We have found that when Mums use Bhramari Breath during contractions, the vibratory effect of the breath seems to soothe and calm their babies, leading to less foetal heart distress.
Bhramari for Babies
Babies cry. They get agitated. Mums have always known that ‘white noise’ helps to calm fractious babies, and have instinctively used a ‘shhushing’ sound for soothing since time began. We can also use Bhramari in the same way, and it seems to have an even bigger impact. I’ve used it in my Baby Massage and Baby Yoga classes, when all the babies have a meltdown at the same time! I get the Mums to do a few rounds of Bhramari while holding their babies. The babies easily become settled and calm (except the ones who need a feed/clean nappy – no amount of humming will work then!).
Bhramari for Children
Anyone who has ever taught Yoga for Children will know how effective it is. It calms them down, helps them to concentrate and to be more attentive. And the kids love it! So for any Primary School teachers out there, try and get your students to hum, with eyes closed, for a minute before the start of your class.
This amazing, versatile Pranayama is truly a gift to us all.
(This Article appeared in the Autumn 2016 AMRITA Yoga Alliance Magazine)