Sītkarī Pranayama (Hissing Breath) - Steps, Benefits, and Variations

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 steps, variations, and benefits of Sitkari Breathing.

Sitkari Pranyama Cover Image Annotated
A Beginner's Guide to Sitkari Pranayama

Sitkari pranayama, also called Sitkari breath, is one of the eight yoga breathing techniques in Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a classic yoga text. Written in the fifteenth century, the author Sage Svatmarama ambiguously promotes Sitkari as a way to be “adored by all Yoginis.


Now, we presume it alludes to how the pranayama has a 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 touted as a beginner-friendly ‘cooling breath.’


Cooling means 'soothing' or 'calming' in this context. 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 inhalation. Either way, Sitkari pranayama is one of the easiest yoga techniques to learn. It is so simple that it can be used by those who don’t practice yoga at all.


Definition: What is Sītkarī Pranayama?


Sitkari pranayama or the Hissing Breath is a yoga breathing technique. 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 highly 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 because that is what we practice. Nevertheless, we have explained both techniques. Either will work. Your decision will boil down to how you intend to draw the attention of doe-eyed yoginis.


Sitkari Pranyama Step-by-Step


1. 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 protrudes a little (3/4 inch).


2. 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.


3. 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.


4. 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.

Tip: Focus on inhalation and exhalation as a beginner. Add breath retention as a variation or after mastery of the basic pranayama.

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


10 rounds of Sitkari Pranayama are sufficient to experience the soothing effects of this technique. In summers, do 15-20 rounds at dawn and dusk or as required.


Safety and Precautions


People with heart problems and low blood pressure should avoid Sitkari pranayama. It is counter-indicated in flu, congestion, constipation, and respiratory issues. Skip this one and try Sheetali pranayama if you have sensitive gums/teeth or dentures.


For obvious reasons, 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. They should be attempted under expert guidance and by those who have a general practice of yoga asana.

Modifications and Variations


Sitkari doesn’t have any complex variations. The only variation is to add internal and/or external breath retention to deepen the practice. Additionally, you can add bandhas (Throat and Root lock) 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 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.


Also see: Mula Bandha Yoga Guide - The Root Lock Explained and Illustrated


Recommended Mudras for the Hissing Breath

Illustration of Chin Mudra for Pranayama
Chin Mudra

Hand Gestures (Mudras) are optional but highly recommended. 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.


Sitkari pranayama soothes the eyes, ears, and body by activating the cooling mechanisms. 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.


2. Calms the mind and reduces anxiety


Some studies on Sitkari pranayama indicated that it slows down the brain waves and helps with relaxation. Modern yoga texts suggest doing Sitkari pranayama before bed to calm the mind and relieve insomnia. The breathing technique is said to decrease anger and agitation. It is recommended to people who suffer from anxiety and hypertension.


3. Pacifies Pitta Dosha


Outside of yoga, Sheetali or Sitkari pranayama are used 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 is said to improve oral health and provide relief in dental problems, especially those pertaining to the gums. It’s also said to be great for the skin. This benefit is indirect. As Sitkari reduces pitta in the body, it decreases redness, inflammation, and other skin problems associated with overheating.

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.

5 Dos and Don’ts for the Hissing Breath


DON'T perform Sitkari pranayama while lying down or performing other activities such as walk. Sitkari should only be attempted in the correct sitting posture for pranayama or 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 posture 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 to calm the body. 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 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 learn 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?


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References

[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.