~ awake in this moment, at home in the world ~

Bhramari Breath: The Hum of Happiness

May 15, 2020
My favorite sound in the world may just be the quiet hum of my children. When I stumble upon one of them sprawled out on the floor, drawing or cutting or building while also quietly humming a tune, I know that all is well in the world. I know my child is happily engaged, with his mind absorbed completely in the task at hand. I sense a deep ease and contentment. In my mind's eye I see my child happily afloat on the gentle streams of life, completely unconflicted in the moment and utterly at home in the world.

Inevitably, I sigh in deep relief and peace.

Humming and happiness are good friends, it seems. And if happiness leads to a contented hum, is it possible that the relationship works both ways, making it possible for us to hum our way into a happier state?

Yoga masters answer this question with an unequivocal yes. And they offer up one of my favorite breathing practices as proof.

Bhramari breath is a simple yogic breathing technique that nurtures feelings of calm, ease and gentle delight. The practice, named after the sound of a buzzing bee, was offered up five centuries ago in the classic yoga manual Hatha Yoga Pradipika. The book offers the delightful proposition that regular practice of the buzzing-bee breath can lead us to a state of being where "bliss arises in the heart." That sounds like sweet medicine to me!

Practicing bhramari breath is simple: Sit upright in a comfortable and relaxed manner. Close your lips gently, relax the jaw, and rest the tongue softly on the roof of your mouth. Inhale normally through the nose, and then exhale through the nose while making a gentle humming sound.

That's it. If you've ever hummed, then you already know how to buzz like a yogic bee!

In the beginning, you may like to take a few easy breaths between each humming exhalation. Once you feel comfortable, you can hum all the way through each exhalation for several rounds of breath, up to five minutes or so. If you're like me, a few rounds of bhramari breath will soothe and settle the mind while offering a gentle buzz of uplift and delight.

How does bhramari breath work? When we hum, we typically lengthen our exhalations without even trying. Long and slow exhalations calm the nervous system and tone the vagus nerve, helping us switch from fight-or-flight mode toward rest-and-digest mode. Long exhale after long exhale, we gently ramp down our overexcited nervous systems.

In addition, focusing awareness on the sound of the humming breath can help clear and steady the mind, diverting attention from the endless parade of restless thoughts cycling through our  heads. In this way, practicing bhramari breath becomes a form of meditation, offering the mind a safe and lovely place to anchor itself, allowing us to grow calmer and steadier all the while.

And finally, the vibrations created by the humming sounds work their way deep into the body. Some say these subtle vibrations have the power to cleanse and balance the body's inner energetic flows, leaving us feeling rinsed clean from inside out. I like to imagine the sound waves working their way into my bones, joints, organs and fluids, shaking loose anything stuck or unnecessary within.

Studies have shown that even short bouts of bhramari breath can slow the heartbeat and lower blood pressure. One study even found that the practice shifts the electrical activity of the brain toward a state where high-frequency gamma waves are produced. These waves are sometimes associated with states of lovingkindness and bliss. Perhaps this is why the ancient yoga masters offered bhramari breath as a means of cultivating a happy heart.

Once you've mastered the basics of bhramari breath, you can play around with a few variations of the practice. Try plugging your ears as you hum, and notice how this increases the resonance within. Try readjusting your head and tongue in ways that draw the vibrations farther back in the mouth and down the throat. Or play around with the pitch and volume of the sounds you make, noticing where you feel the vibrations most clearly within. I find that higher pitched sounds feel like they move up into my brain, while lower pitched noises can work their way all the way down my spine into the belly.

You might even take this exploration beyond the bounds of traditional closed-mouth bhramari breath, by opening the mouth and vocalizing various sounds. Feel free to turn your buzzing bee into a chant or poem or song that you love. Make a joyful noise!

And if all of this sounds like gobbledygook, just hum a happy tune as you go about your day. The practice may not be written up quite like this in the classic yoga texts, but I bet you'll still find bliss arising in your heart.