Sitkari Pranayama (Hissing Breath) - Steps, Benefits, and Contraindications
Sitkari Pranayama calms the mind, cools the body, and if Sage Svatmarama is to be believed, it leads to the 'admiration of Yoginis.' In this post, we discuss the Sitkari pranayama steps, variations, and benefits as noted in yoga literature.
Sitkari pranayama, also called Sitkari breath, is one of the eight yoga breathing techniques in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a classic yoga text. Written in the fifteenth century, the author Sage Svatmarama ambiguously describes Sitkari as a way to be “adored by all Yoginis.”
We presume Svatmarama is alluding to the pranayama's beneficial effect on the skin. Thus making the practitioner blossom into a beautiful glow. Or, just maybe, yoginis of yore were attracted to men sitting under trees with their tongues sticking out.
Fast forward to 2021, Sitkari pranayama is doing the rounds as the ultimate beginner-friendly ‘cooling breath’ in yoga. Cooling here means 'soothing' or 'calming.' You don't need a yoga blanket to keep you warm. Although, a cozy one won't hurt on a chilly day.
The Sanksrit term Sitkari is derived from the 'शीत्कारिन्' (Shitkarin), which refers to the 'sound uttered while drawing the breath.' The English name - Hissing Breath - is derived from the hissing sound that occurs during the inhalation stage of this pranayama.
Either way, Sitkari pranayama is one of the easiest yoga breathing techniques to learn. So simple that it can be used by those who don’t practice yoga at all.
Definition: What is Sitkari Pranayama
Sitkari pranayama is a yoga breathing technique to cool down the body, calm the mind, and reduce hot manifestations of Pitta dosha or the fire element in the body. It involves inhaling through the mouth, retaining the breath (optional), and exhaling through the nostrils. Inhalation can be done with the tongue flat and slightly protruding (classical version) or through the upper and lower teeth touching each other gently (Bihar School Version).
“Sitkari pranayama is performed by drawing in the air through the mouth, keeping the tongue between the lips. The air thus drawn in should not be expelled through the mouth.” – Hatha Yoga Pradipika ( Chapter 2, Verse 54)
B.K.S Iyengar espouses the same idea as Hatha Yoga Pradipika in his book 'Light on Pranayama.' We recommend getting a copy as it codifies Sheetali and Sitkari Pranayama in great detail. A slightly different version of Sitkari can be found in the book Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha by Swami Saraswati, which mandates breathing through the teeth.
Our instruction is based on the Iyengar version as that is what we practice. Nevertheless, we explain both techniques. Either will work. Your decision will boil down to how you intend to draw the attention of doe-eyed yoginis.
Practice Sitkari Pranayama in 5 Steps
Preparation: Get into a seated meditation posture. Close your eyes and do a few rounds of deep, even breathing. Rest both hands on the knees with a yoga mudra of your choice (optional). Keep the lips slightly apart, and allow the tongue to protrude a little (3/4 inch).
Inhalation: Inhale through the mouth, allowing the air to go around the teeth and into the windpipe. Inhalation is gentle and should fill the lungs. A sipping or hissing sound will occur as you inhale. The 'hissing' is a natural consequence. Do not try to exaggerate it. Now, close your lips when after the inhale and ‘swallow/gulp’ the air.
Retention: At this point, you can retain the breath for full benefits. Breath retention is optional but if you choose to do it, keep the tongue in its natural position or touch the soft palate with the tip of your tongue.
Exhalation: Exhale through the nose and empty the lungs while keeping the mouth closed. You have completed one round of Sitkari Pranayama. Start over to continue without a break.
Follow up: Sitkari breathing doesn’t have any specific follow-up protocol. You may sit with closed eyes and breath normally to conclude. Alternatively, you can lie in Corpse Pose for additional relaxation.
Duration and Ratio:
Beginners should focus on inhalation and exhalation with a 1:1 ratio. Lengthen the exhalation to a 1:2 ratio before you proceed to add breath retention. 8 to 10 rounds are sufficient to obtain the Sitkari Pranayama benefits. In summers, do 15-20 rounds at dawn and dusk or as required.
Sitkari Pranayama Contraindications
People with heart problems and low blood pressure should avoid Sitkari pranayama.
Sitkari is contraindicated in flu, congestion, and constipation.
Do not practice Sitkari if you have respiratory problems such as bronchitis or asthma.
Avoid Sitkari and try Sheetali pranayama if you have sensitive gums/teeth or dentures.
Don’t practice the "cooling breath" in air-conditioned rooms and fall/winter.
Lastly, don't attempt breath retention during Sitkari Pranayama if you have hypertension, anxiety, or cardiovascular problems.
Consult a physician if you have any underlying health conditions. Internal locks are not mandatory for Sitkari Pranayama benefits. They should be attempted under expert guidance and by those who have a general practice of yoga asana.
Practice Sitkari Variations
There are no advanced or complicated variations to practice Sitkari. The only known variations are to add internal and/or external breath retention to deepen the practice. Additionally, you can add yoga bandhas (locks), but it is not necessary to do so as a beginner.
BKS Iyengar recommends internal breath retention with Root Lock (Mula bandha) as an advanced version of Sitkari. Swami Satyananda recommends adding the Throat Lock (Jalandhara bandha) over internal retention. You can try both if you have the yoga expertise required. We will link to both books at the end to defer that decision to you.
Recommended Yoga Mudras for the Hissing Breath
Hand Gestures (Yoga Mudras) are optional but highly recommended to augment the pranayama benefits. Chin Mudra would be the obvious choice, as it is omnipresent in yoga. You can try Pitta Nashak Mudra, Shankha Mudra, or any yoga mudra to deepen your pranayama practice.
Get creative with gestures because they can supplement Sitkari pranayama in different ways. Ensure that the mudra you choose for Sitkari doesn't antagonize or negate the "cooling" effect. For instance, don't use Surya Mudra as it has heating qualities.
Sitkari Pranayama Benefits
1. Cools or soothes the body
Practice Sitkari pranayama to soothe the eyes, ears, and body. It can be beneficial in burning eyes, stomach pain, and mild fever. In addition, Sitkari can be used to bring the body back to balance after high-intensity exercise or yoga.
2. Calms the mind and reduces anxiety
Some studies on Sitkari pranayama indicate that it slows down brain waves and helps with relaxation. Modern yoga texts claim Sitkari pranayama benefits sleep. A few rounds before bed can calm the mind and relieve insomnia. The breathing technique is also said to decrease anger and agitation, making it ideal for people who suffer from anxiety and hypertension.
3. Pacifies Pitta Dosha
Outside of yoga, people practice Sitkari pranayama to pacify pitta dosha – a constitutional imbalance as per the traditional health system of Ayurveda. It is also used in hyperacidity and gastric problems, or other health issues caused by Pitta dosha.
4. Reduces hunger and thirst
In yoga texts, Sitkari pranayama is said to create a feeling of ‘fullness,’ which can be equated to reducing hunger and thirst. Some yogis suggest that it can be used to regulate body temperature. However, there is nothing beyond anecdotal evidence to support these claims.
5. Oral Health and glowing skin
Sitkari Pranayama benefits oral health and provides relief in dental problems, especially those pertaining to the gums. It’s also great for the skin. This benefit is indirect. As Sitkari reduces pitta in the body, it decreases redness, inflammation, and other associated skin problems.
Takeaway: Sitkari pranayama is more therapeutic than spiritual. It eases stress, reduces heart rate variability, and soothes the body. Many advocate it use after prolonged exposure to the sun, a fiery yoga asana session, hot flashes (menstruation), or to tame a mild fever.
Sitkari Pranayama: Five Practice Tips
DON'T perform Sitkari pranayama while lying down or performing other activities such as walking. It should only be attempted in a yoga sitting posture such as Easy Pose.
DO Sitkari while sitting on a chair if you are unable to sit cross-legged. Just ensure that your posture is correct - sit upright with an elongated spine.
DON'T attempt Sitkari after food. Pranayama should only be performed on an empty stomach, ideally in the early morning after elimination. Moreover, cooling the body dampens the digestive fire (Jatharagni). It has an undesirable effect on nutrient absorption. Wait for 2 to 3 hours after a meal and avoid drinking water for 10 minutes after the practice.
DON'T do Sitkari pranayama in a space with poor ventilation. As mentioned earlier, nasal passages filter the inhaled air but the mouth does not. Ensure that your yoga space has good air quality while performing any pranayama with mouth-based inhalation.
DO 5 to 10 rounds of Sitkari pranayama after an intense postural yoga session. It is an excellent way to calm the mind and prepare yourself for pranayama or meditation.
Sheetali and Sitkari Pranayama: Choose your Favorite
Would you prefer to bare your teeth or curl your tongue into a U?
Sitkari is similar to another pranayama called Sheetali. Both yoga breathing techniques achieve the same results but use a slightly different arrangement of the mouth. Therefore, Sitkari pranayama can be used as an alternative to Sheetali and vice versa.
People with sensitive gums, dentures, gaps in the teeth (or lacking teeth) cannot practice Sitkari pranayama. They should learn Sheetali.
Conversely, Sheetali needs you to form the ‘taco tongue’ - a rolled or U-shaped tongue formation. If you can't do that, you should practice Sitkari pranayama.
Sadly, if you have a denture and cannot curl your tongue, I hate to be the bearer of bad news. Sage Svatmarama does not offer a third alternative to win over yoginis.
Hmm, Chandra Bhedana Pranayama, maybe?
Stay the Course: Related Articles
[i] Thanalakshmi, Ravindran et al. “Impact of Sheetali and Sheetkari Pranayama on the Topographic Mapping of the Brain Waves.” IOSR Journal of Pharmacy (IOSRPHR), vol. 4, no. 10, 2014, pp. 51–57. Crossref, doi:10.9790/3013-04010051057.
[ii] Rathinaraj, James & .P, Yoga. (2020). “Influence of Sheetali and Sitkari Pranayama Package on Systolic Blood Pressure Among Middle-Aged Person In Bangalore City”. Aegaeum. 8. 112-119.
[iii] Shetty, Prashanth et al. “Effects of Sheetali and Sheetkari Pranayamas on Blood Pressure and Autonomic Function in Hypertensive Patients.” Integrative medicine (Encinitas, Calif.) vol. 16,5 (2017): 32-37.
[iv] Pranayama for Self-Healing. Dr. Vasant Lad. The Ayurvedic Press, 2009. DVD.
[v] Swami Satyananda Sarawathi. 2005. Bihar School of Yoga, Asana pranayama mudra bandha; Yoga publication Trust, Munger, Bihar, India,1:10-12.