Breath of Joy
If you find yourself more bleary-eyed than bushy-tailed in the morning, try inviting some vitality into your day with an uplifting practice called “Breath of Joy.” This three-part breathing technique entered the Kripalu tradition when the late yogini Lila Ostermann taught it to hundreds of teachers in the early 1970s. In its many variations, Breath of Joy remains a staple warm-up exercise in classes today.
Through strong inhalations and synchronized arm movements, the practice awakens your whole system—increasing oxygen levels in the bloodstream, temporarily stimulating the sympathetic nervous system, circulating more prana, and gently stoking agni. A forceful exhalation lightly detoxifies the body and helps release pent-up tension.
After completing several rounds, the parasympathetic system (which sustains the body at rest) kicks in, leaving the mind calm and focused. The result is a state of homeostatic balance that the yogis call sattva. These qualities make Breath of Joy especially effective in managing mood. The practice counters the shallow upper chest breathing of anxiety by inviting the breath to fill every milliliter of the lungs. Like a strong bright wind, it also sweeps away the sluggishness of depression and infuses the mind with a serene sense of clarity.
This practice may not be appropriate for everyone. Skip it if you have high blood pressure or if you suffer from any kind of head or eye injury, like migraines or glaucoma. If you start to feel light-headed, instead of light-hearted, stop for a minute and just breathe normally.
To practice Breath of Joy, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and parallel, knees slightly bent.
- Inhale one-third of your lung capacity and swing your arms up in front of your body, bringing them parallel to each other at shoulder level, with palms facing the ceiling.
- Continue inhaling to two-thirds capacity and stretch your arms out to the side like wings to shoulder level.
- Inhale to full capacity and swing your arms parallel and over your head, palms facing each other.
- Open your mouth and exhale completely with an audible ha, bending the knees more deeply as you sink into a standing squat and swing your arms down and back behind you like a diver.
Repeat up to nine times. Don’t force or strain the body or breath; simply be absorbed by the peacefully stimulating rhythm. Return to standing. Close your eyes and experience the effects. Notice how quickly your heart beats; feel the sensations in your face and arms, and the tingling in the palms of your hands.
Variation: For a lighter, brighter mood, add a bija mantra to each arm movement. As you lift your arms out in front of you, silently inhale the sound of va; as your arms move to the side, intone the syllable ra; with arms overhead, the sound is ya. Finish by exhaling completely as you speak the sound of ha out loud.
Senior Kripalu teacher Amy Weintraub is the author of Yoga for Depression, founder of the LifeForce Yoga Healing Institute, and a leader in the field of yoga and mental health.