Yoga is more than just asana (physical poses) and stretching; pranayama (breathwork) is crucial for a well-rounded yoga practice. One of the best Pranayama methods to soothe the brain and calm the mind is also one of the easiest. And, it’s a lot of fun!
“Bhramari” gets its name, “Bee’s Breath,” from the Sanskrit, “Bhramaraka.” “Bhramaraka” means “bee,” “honey,” or a “humming top,” and is associated with the large Indian black bee (also known as a “carpenter bee”), called “Bhanvra” in Hindi. Bhramari (also sometimes spelled “Brahmari”) is pronounced, “Brah-mah-REE.” To practice Bhramari, you hum like a bee, and the results are as sweet as its namesake’s honey.
Practicing Bhramari, “Bee’s Breath”
- Begin by sitting in a comfortable posture. Meditative asanas (yoga poses) such as Siddhasana or Sukhasana are perfect, though sitting in a chair is fine as well;
- Whatever position you take, take a moment to elongate your spine gently, lift through the crown of your head, and spread your chest open slightly;
- Softly close your eyes—though if this makes you uncomfortable you can also simply lower your eyelids;
- Keeping your mouth closed, inhale deeply yet gently through your nose;
- Exhale slowly through the nostrils, while making a pleasant humming sound;
- Repeat the cycle, inhaling quietly and humming on the exhale, for 6 to 10 breaths, or whatever is comfortable; and
- With your eyes still closed and your attention directed inwards, take a few normal breaths and notice how you feel.
Bhramari, or “Bee’s Breath,” is an effective technique to begin your daily meditation. Its overall effect is to draw the senses inward, what is known in yoga literature as “Pratyahara,” or sense withdrawal (one of the 8 Limbs of Classical Yoga). Pratyahara helps you focus on your internal states, whether of body or mind. Even more specifically, the practice of humming in Bhramari interrupts the usual mind-chatter, so it is a great thing to practice whenever you want to change negative emotional or mental patterns, or interrupt any sort of intrusive, overwhelming thoughts. It also encourages slower breathing, which physiologically encourages relaxation. For this reason, it is also a good technique to use just before Savasana, or final relaxation, at the end of your yoga class.
Calm Your Mind and Much More
Because Bhramari fosters a sense of calm and inner focus, this breath technique is sometimes prescribed by physicians to alleviate depression, anxiety, ADD/ADHD, and OCD. Bhramari breathing is supposed to reduce anger, while decreasing blood pressure. Perhaps this is why it is recommended for heart patients. It may ease addiction recovery, and it also can sometimes soothe migraines. Traditionally, in Indian medicine, it was also suggested for women preparing for birth. Overall, this breath helps elongate the exhale, which scientists have shown increases vagal nerve activity, the mainstay of the calming “rest and digest” response of the parasympathetic nervous system (Stay tuned, AHA! Yogis: post on Vagus Nerve coming soon). Recent scientific research on the physical vibration of chanting has proven similar claims; the resonance of chanting deactivates the limbic “fight or flight” system (see brain scan imagery to the above right). So the hum of Bee’s Breath might similarly create calm on a physical level, as well as the subtler levels of mind. Some say it even increases the production of serotonin, thereby creating a sense of well-being and happiness. Traditionally, it has been recommended to improve sleep, since it is so calming; many attest to such benefits when this breath technique is practiced in the evening. In short, Bhramari is a great technique, and because it is so simple, it is especially wonderful for beginners’ yoga stress relief.
Pitch, Volume, and Placement of Bhramari
Bhramari is said to alleviate many ailments. Experiment with the pitch and the volume of the humming sound, and notice what physical, mental, and emotional effects you experience. Quiet, low-pitched sound may be best for insomnia, while a more vigorous, medium- or high-pitched hum might be just the key to treat sinus pressure or nasal congestion.
Most beginning yoga students initially practice the humming sound at the front of their mouths, so that their lips and upper palette vibrate slightly. Traditionally, the sounds of Bhramari Pranayama originate more from the back of the throat, and some instructions even suggest you move the back of your tongue to the back of your throat as if you were trying to dislodge a wayward popcorn kernel. Focusing your hum more towards your throat might enhance the calming effects because this moves the vibration and resonance towards your ears and vocal cords. This is the very location where the vagus nerve—the driver of the relaxation autonomic response of the parasympathetic nervous system—branches from its connection near the brain towards its meandering pathways throughout your gut. Moreover, some say that Bhramari aids the thyroid, perhaps because the focus of humming on the throat stimulates the very region where this gland is located. To direct the intention of your energy even more to the throat, you may also explore with a slight “neck lock” technique (“Jalandhara Bandha”) by bending your head just a tad, and tucking your chin down and in towards your body.
Play with variations of pitch, volume, and placement and see what works best for your needs right now, for your body-mind today.
Deepen the Bee Breath Experience: Shanmukhi Mudra
“Mudra” translates as “Seal,” and in yoga practice this refers to specific bodily postures or hand gestures (“hasta mudras”) that provide symbolism for mental focus and facilitate meditation. They are said to “lock in” or “seal” the intention and benefits of sadhana (yoga practice). Mudras often deepen accompanying practices like asana (yoga postures) or pranayama (breathing practices). The traditional hasta mudra practiced alongside Bhramari breath is Shanmukti Mudra. The term “Shanmukti” derives from the Sanskrit for six (“shat”), and “Mukti” refers to face, opening, mouth, or gate. The hand position is thought to still the input of the two eyes, two ears, the nose, and mouth; hence its name, “Shanmukti,” means “Closing of the six gates.” Here, the gates of perception are closed. By lessening the external input of your senses, Shanmukti Mudra helps you draw your attention even further inward, enhancing the practice of Pratyahara (sense withdrawal). Additionally, in this position the subtle closing of the ear canal distinctly changes the internal sensations enticed by the humming of the Bee’s Breath.
To practice the traditional Shanmukti Mudra with Bhramari breathing, as you continue to hum on the exhale:
- Bring your thumbs to the subtle outer cartilage tabs (the “tragus”) near your cheekbones and just outside your ear canals, and gently press these towards the ear openings;
- Place your pinky fingers at the edge of the lips;
- Rings fingers rest at the sides of the nose;
- Middle fingers cover the eyelids; and
- Index Fingers point rest above the brow point (or, they can also cover the eyelids, alongside the middle fingers).
Another variation of Shanmukti Mudra is commonly called “Helmet Mudra.” It might be the mudra of choice if the traditional Shanmukti Mudra causes claustrophobia or hypervigilance, or if there is pain in the sinuses. It is also worth a try for anyone, as it can be very soothing.
To practice Helmet Mudra, continue to hum on your exhale as you:
- Gently press your thumbs on the outer cartilage flap just outside the ear opening (the “tragus”), slightly closing off your external hearing;
- Rest your pinky fingers near the hairline; and
- The other fingers embrace the top of the skull, right and left fingers touching or reaching towards each other.
Combine your Bhramari Pranayama, Shanmukhi Mudra, and posture of your choice to enrich your meditation experience right here, right now. You might just be a bee’s breath away from a calmer, happier day.
Special thanks to teacher trainer extraordinaire Heidi Rei of Yogacara, who first introduced me to Bhramari Pranayama.
Brahinsky, Rachel. “Use ‘Bee Breath’ to get Anxiety to Buzz Off.” Yoga Journal (December 2, 2008) http://www.yogajournal.com/article/practice-section/buzz-away-the-buzzing-mind/
Iyengar, B.K.S. Light on Pranayama: The Yogic Art of Breathing. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2008, pages 152-155.
Kalyani, Bangalore, et. al. “Neurohemodynamic correlates of ‘OM’ chanting: A pilot functional magnetic resonance imaging study.” International Journal of Yoga 4.1 (January-June 2011): 3-6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3099099/
McCall, Timothy. “5 Ways to Practice Bhramari.” Yoga International (May 24, 2013) https://yogainternational.com/article/view/5-ways-to-practice-bhramari
Weintraub, Amy. “Bee Breath (Brahmari) Practice.” LifeForce Yoga (May 1, 2014) http://yogafordepression.com/bee-breath-brahmari-practice/
Disclaimer: Always consult your healthcare provider before practicing yoga, or any other exercise program. The information provided on this website is intended for educational purposes only, and not as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. The author, illustrator, editor, and publisher assume no responsibility for injuries or harm that may result from practicing yoga or any other exercise program.