Sing Like a Bee
With regular practice of bhramari, bliss arises in the heart.
By Timothy McCall, MD
“As you exhale, make the sound of the female honeybee,” the sari-clad instructor sweetly intoned as I sat in class at the Swami Vivekananda ashram, outside of Bangalore. Later that same year, at a conference in the Rocky Mountains, I had occasion to try the buzzing-bee pranayama again, this time with Rod Stryker. Maybe it was the altitude, or the way Stryker taught it that day, but for some reason this ancient practice of bhramari really spoke to me. I felt calm and clear, and the sound continued to resonate in me long after the class ended. I began a daily practice, one I’ve continued for years now. Through bhramari I became sensitized to the physical vibration of sound waves, which, quite unexpectedly, awoke in me a love of chanting, something I’d been slow to embrace.
Bhramari, a safe, easy-to-learn practice, has tremendous therapeutic potential. Like other pranayamas, its power comes partly from its effects on the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Lengthening the exhalation relative to the inhalation activates the calming parasympathetic branch of the ANS. For those who suffer from anxiety or anxious (rajasic) depression, the practice can begin to quiet the mind within a few breaths. The noise of bhramari’s incessant buzzing can drown out the endless mental tape loops that can fuel emotional suffering, at least for a few minutes, making it a useful starting point for those whose minds are too “busy” to meditate.
Find a comfortable seated position, either on the floor or in a chair. If you choose to sit on the floor, place enough support under your pelvis so that your thighs angle down and you keep the natural curve of your lumbar spine. If you prefer a chair, scoot forward and sit at the edge of the seat so that your thighs angle down and your feet are flat on the floor. (If your feet don’t reach the floor, rest them on a couple of yoga blocks.)
Always balance effort and ease. Make a buzzing sound of moderate volume, but never force it. Keep your facial muscles loose, your lips lightly touching, and your jaw relaxed, with the upper and lower rows of teeth slightly separated. Prolong the buzzing sound on the exhalation as long as it’s comfortable and you can still inhale smoothly, without gasping for air. If you start to feel agitated, back off and return to normal breathing.
Sit comfortably and allow your eyes to close. Take a breath or two to settle in and notice the state of your mind. When you’re ready, inhale and then, for the entire length of your exhalation, make a low- to medium-pitched humming sound in the throat. Notice how the sound waves gently vibrate your tongue, teeth, and sinuses. Imagine the sound is vibrating your entire brain (it really is). Do this practice for six rounds of breath and then, keeping your eyes closed, return to your normal breathing. Notice if anything has changed.
Once again, settle in for a breath or two to prepare. Now do six more cycles of basic bhramari. After your sixth round, switch to silent bhramari, in which you imagine making the buzzing sound on each exhalation. Do for six rounds. Notice whether you can still sense vibrations in your face and sinuses.
Bhramari with Shanmukhi Mudra (Variation)
One way to intensify the effects of bhramari is to add shanmukhi mudra. Bhramari encourages pratyahara, the turning of the senses inward, so by blocking some of the external input to the senses with your fingers, you can heighten the effect. Try a simplified version first. Use your thumbs to push on the tragus of each ear—the bump of cartilage on the cheek side—to block the ear canal. Practice low- to medium-pitched bhramari for six rounds of breath. When you’re finished, lower your hands and breathe normally.
Bhramari with Shanmukhi Mudra (Traditional)
Sit up straight and place your hands on your face with one thumb on each tragus, the index fingers lightly touching the inner corners of your eyes, the middle fingers on the sides of the nose, the ring fingers above the lips, and the pinkies just below. Be sure to place only very light pressure on the eyeballs. Do six more rounds of low- to medium-pitched bhramari, lower your hands, and notice the effects. If you suffer from anxiety, depression, or claustrophobia, you may not enjoy shanmukhi mudra and should probably skip it.
When you make a sound, it literally vibrates from the top of your head down to the tips of your toes, whether you can sense it or not. Different pitches vibrate at different frequencies. Bass notes and other low-pitched sounds vibrate slowly, whereas high-pitched sounds vibrate quickly, some at thousands of times per second.
Once you’ve reestablished a relaxed sitting position, close your eyes and take a few normal breaths. Now do six rounds of high-pitched bhramari, with or without shanmukhi mudra. Notice where you feel the vibration; most likely you’ll experience the vibration higher in the head than you did with the lower-pitched sound. Does the higher-pitched sound feel more stimulating? Experiment with different tones and different volumes and compare the results.
Although very few of the potential therapeutic applications of bhramari have been studied scientifically, the yoga tradition teaches that well-chosen sounds have powerful and salutary effects. Even if it turns out that the sound waves of bhramari don’t help the thyroid directly, for example, the side effects of the practice may include a more balanced nervous system, a calmer mind, and heightened awareness. Speaking of which, after all the bhramari you’ve just done, why not sit up straight again and try a few rounds of Om or another familiar chant, and see if it doesn’t sing to you in a whole new way?
The Benefits of Buzzing
Where the sound resonates—as well as the energetic effects of different pitches and volumes—can suggest which variations of bhramari will most likely help in specific situations.
- Insomnia. A quiet, low-pitched sound, perhaps with the addition of shanmukhi mudra, could be soothing to the nervous system and mind.
- Sinus infection or nasal congestion. A more forceful medium- to high-pitched sound might be a better choice to open the passageways.
- Thyroid problems. Try a medium-pitched sound and add jalandhara bandha (chin lock) to direct the sound waves to the throat.
- Stressed out. Use the silent variation, at work or in public, so no one around you knows what you’re doing.
Timothy McCall, MD, is a board-certified internist and the author of Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing (Bantam, 2007). He teaches yoga workshops worldwide and can be found on the web at drmccall.com.