Curious about how to do Sheetali Pranayama as practiced in the yoga tradition? In this post, we explain the meaning, steps, and Sheetali Pranayama benefits. Plus, five tips to get the most out of your practice!
Agni (Fire) is venerated in Yoga and Ayurveda. It represents intelligence, action, and digestion. We use yoga poses, mudras, and 'heating' pranayama like Surya Bhedana or Bhastrika to stoke the inner fire to our benefit. But what happens when the fire is too sharp and fiery? It creates imbalances on the opposite side of the spectrum. Not cool (pun intended).
Luckily, yoga has equally effective resources to balance excess heat by soothing the mind and cooling down the body when required. Sitkari and Sheetali Pranayama are two of them you can learn even if you don't practice yoga. There is growing evidence that pranayama can mitigate the harmful effects of stress and inflammation . Several studies indicate [2, 3, 4] that Sheetali pranayama can be used as a standalone practice to manage hypertension and heart disease.
We covered Sitkari in a previous post, missing no chance to point out how it scores big with yoginis. Now, it’s time to look at its sister practice – Sheetali Pranayama. A very similar yoga breathing technique that triggers the calming and cooling mechanisms of the body.
What is Sheetali Pranayama?
Sheetali pranayama is a yoga breathing technique that involves curling the tongue and protruding it to inhale through the mouth. The breath is retained for as long as comfortable and exhalation is done through the nostrils with the mouth close. Sheetali calms the mind and soothes the nervous and digestive systems and cools the mind/body.
Sheetal is a Sanskrit word to describe something comforting. Think of an ice pack over a strained muscle, cool breeze on a summer evening, or cucumber slices over sore eyes. Sheetali breathing is a metaphorical ice pack on a hot day or after a fast-paced yoga session. It’s a great way to wind down or prepare yourself for meditation.
"With a protruding tongue a little outside the lips, draw prana in to the tongue. Perform Kumbhaka (breath retention). Then the practitioner should slowly release the breath through the nostrils." - Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Chapter 2, Verse 39)
Sheetali Pranayama: Step-by-step Instructions
Get into a meditation posture. Close your eyes and relax with a few deep breaths. Place your hands on the knees with or without hand mudras. Proceed to the next step when you are ready.
Inhalation: Roll the tongue into a tube by curling the sides. The tongue should look like a folded taco (U-shaped). Stick it out by 3/4-inch. Inhale through the mouth as if sipping air through a straw. Keep your chest open. It should not cave while inhaling.
Breath Retention: Close the mouth and swallow/gulp the breath. At this point, you can retain the breath for as long as comfortable. Beginners should focus on the inhale and exhale for the first week of practice. Add retention later.
Exhalation: Exhale gently through the nostrils to empty the lungs. This is one round of Sheetali pranayama.
Follow Up: No follow-up is necessary. Once you wrap up, stay seated for a minute or two. Keep your eyes closed and quietly observe yourself. Do you feel calm and comforted? Increase the count if you don't feel any difference. You are the best judge of any positive or negative effects; use these observations to fine-tune your practice.
Time and Duration
Practice it as and when needed but always on an empty stomach.
Start with 1 to 5 minutes or 8 to 10 rounds per session.
Raise the count gradually.
In hot weather, you can do 50 rounds per day, split into two sessions.
Curling or Rolling the Tongue
Looking at the featured image, you might assume tongue rolling is easy. Oddly enough, a large part of the population cannot do it. Apparently, there is a 'tongue rolling gene' that allows us to curl the lateral edges of the tongue to form a tube. If you missed out on a genetic inheritance, you will never be able to do it. Don't fret. That is why yoga has an alternative to attain the benefits of Sheetali Pranayama. It's called Sitkari - you can learn it here.
Precautions and Contraindications
Sheetali pranayama is contraindicated in the following conditions -
Asthma, bronchitis, and respiratory diseases
Flu, congestion, or excess mucous or phlegm
Low blood pressure
For obvious reasons, the breathing technique should not be performed in air-conditioned rooms and during late autumn and fall/winter. People with cardiovascular problems or hypertension should practice Sheetali pranayama without breath retention. If you are using breath retention and/or internal locks, follow the contraindications for those techniques as well. Consult a yoga teacher and/or a physician if you are on medication or suffer from chronic health problems.
Sheetali Pranayama Benefits
Satyananda Saraswati calls Sheetali Pranayama a breathing technique to balance heat within the body. He describes the effect as "reduces emotional excitation, induces muscular relaxation, promotes tranquility, and activates brain centers associated with temperature regulation."
Sheetali is also frequently used for its therapeutic benefits in Ayurveda. It strengthens digestion and reduces Pitta dosha by releasing or reducing the hot and sharp manifestations of fire (element) in the body. People use it for relief in acidity (acid reflux), hot flashes, and to bring down a mild fever. Other Sheetali pranayama benefits include -
Soothing effect on the nervous and mind
Cools the deep tissues and lower organs
Lowers blood pressure and reduces stomach acid
Strengthens digestion and reduces thirst/hunger
Helps with insomnia if performed before bed (2 to 3 hours after food)
Alleviates heat-related skin problems such as acne, rashes, and redness
Modifications and Variations
Sheetali variations include adding breath retention (Antara kumbhaka) and practicing the abdomen lock during breath retention. Alternatively, you can also use the Vishnu Mudra to partially block the nostrils to slow down inhalation and exhalation.
Start with 1 to 2 seconds of retention and increase the duration gradually. Once you can retain the breath for a long time, add the abdomen lock during inhaled retention. These additions are a part of an advanced routine. Learn them from a reliable resource or under expert guidance.
Check contraindications for breath retention. Attempt variations only after mastering the basic practice, ideally under the guidance of a yoga expert.
Generally, Chin Mudra, Anjali Mudra, and Jnana/Gyan mudra are used with Sheetali pranayama. You can use Pitta Nashak Mudra or Shanka Mudra too. These yogic hand gestures are known to strengthen digestion, reduce heat, and improve prana-flow.
5 Tips to Enhance Your Sheetali Breathing Practice
DO Sheetali breathing in a seated, cross-legged posture. It should not be attempted while standing, walking, or performing other tasks. If you cannot sit cross-legged, sitting on a chair is permissible if your body is aligned correctly.
DON’T do Sheetali Pranayama after a meal. Always practice yoga breathing on an empty stomach or 3 hours after a meal. Avoid drinking water for 10 minutes before and after the practice.
DO Sheetali in a room/space with clean air and good ventilation. Our nasal passages filter, purify and warm the air before it reaches the lungs. In Sheetali pranayama, we breathe through the mouth. The inhaled air remains cool but, at the same time, it is completely unfiltered.
DON’T follow up Sheetali with any heating activity (exercise, yoga poses) or hot/warm food. You can do so safely but it will negate or nullify the benefits of cooling the body down.
DO swallow (saliva) during your practice if your tongue, mouth, or throat feels dry or astringent.
Other Cooling Yoga Breathing Techniques
There are three breathing techniques in yoga to ‘cool’ the system.
Sheetali Pranayama (Cooling Breath)
Of these, Sheetali and Sitkari are similar. They offer the same benefits and are seen as an alternative to each other. Generally, people who cannot form the U-Shaped tongue will learn Sitkari pranayama and those with dentures or missing teeth practice Sheetali.
Chandra Bhedana is slightly different. It involves breathing exclusively through the left nostril. There is an overlap in terms of benefits, but it works on different mechanisms on the breath and biology. It's equally easy to do and worth having in your arsenal of calming yoga techniques.