Hum Your Way to Better Health

Even though most of us have been humming throughout our lives, there are several powerful health benefits to paying closer attention to it and consciously integrating it into our daily wellness routines. Dive right into a practice session with Brian, then explore the resources below to learn more.

Enjoy a short practice with Brian – first loosening the body, and then exploring breath-connected vocalization.

Slow and low for calm focus.

The benefits researchers associate with humming can be grouped into two general categories. First, we promote a sense of calm focus by slowing down our exhalation when we hum. This process is complex but can be understood as activating the parasympathetic, or “rest and digest” side of our autonomic nervous system.1 When we exhale slowly and deeply, we lower the heart rate and light up areas in the brain associated with reflection and decision-making. That slow and low out-breath sends messages up through the vagus nerve to our brain’s alarm centers that “everything is OK” and there’s no need for the “fight or flight” response of our sympathetic nervous system.2 This helps explain why we are often encouraged to “take a deep breath” when presented with a potential stress trigger.

Noses are for breathing, mouths are for eating.

The second group of benefits we receive from humming relates to how we exhale. As we hum along to our favorite tune, we vibrate or oscillate the air in our sinuses and nasal cavity. This action naturally increases our production of nitric oxide (NO), a molecule that opens our blood vessels, boosts our circulation and even supports our digestion and immune function.3 Humming was found in one study to contribute to a 15-fold increase in NO production in the airways.4 Now, it is important to note that in order to reap these benefits we need to breathe in through the nose to carry these NO molecules down into the lungs. As we like to remind our students, nasal breathing is usually preferred to mouth breathing for a number of reasons, but we’ll save those for a future post!

Listen to the bees and let them guide you. – Brother Adam

The benefits of humming were well-known to the earliest practitioners of yoga, who integrated a soft vocalization during prolonged exhalation in an exercise we know today as the Bee Breath, or Bhramari Pranayama. Resembling the soft droning of a bee, this pranayama (breath control) practice embodies some of the vibratory qualities of mantra meditation where words and phrases are repeated to help softly center the mind within the body.5 There is evidence that such vocalizations may trigger the release of “feel-good chemicals” including endorphins and oxytocin, into the blood stream7,8. This helps to explain the virtuous circle common to many mind-body activities, where the more frequent and focused our practice is, the more deeply and consistently we feel its benefits. Humming can become a powerful tool in all of our wellness toolkits. Just like the breath, it’s always right there waiting for us, a gateway into the present moment.

General breathwork references:

McKeown, P. (2016). The Oxygen Advantage. New York, NY: William Morrow.

Nestor, James, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. (2020). New York, NY: Riverhead.

Research references:

1 Gerritsen. R & Band, G.(2018). Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12(397): 1-25.

doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2018.00397  (This review presents a wide range of studies that illustrate how slower respiration rates and longer exhalations phasically and tonically stimulate the vagus nerve.)

2 De Couck, M., Caers, R., Musch, L., Fliegauf, J., Giangreco, A. & Gidron, Y. (2019). How Breathing Can Help You Make Better Decisions: Two Studies on the Effects of Breathing Patterns on Heart Rate Variability and Decision-Making in Business Cases. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 139(2019):1-9. doi10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2019.02.011 (Reports that just two minutes of deep breathing with longer exhalation engages the vagus nerve, increases HRV, and improves decision-making. )

3 Wink, D, Hines, H., Cheng, R., Switzer, C., Flores-Santana, W., Vitek, M., Ridnour, L. & Colton, C. (2011). Nitric oxide and redox mechanisms in the immune response. Journal of Leukocyte Biology, 89(6): 873-891. doi: 10.1189/jlb.1010550

4 Weitzberg, E. & Lundberg, J. (2002). Humming Greatly Increases Nasal Nitric Oxide. American Journal of Respiratory Critical Care Medicine, 166(2002): 144-145. doi:10.1164/rccm.200202-138BC

5 Kuppusamy, M., Kamaldeen., D, Pitani, R., Amaldas, J. & Shanmugam, P. (2018). Effects of Bhramari Pranayama on health – A systematic review. Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine,(8)1: 11-16.

6 MacMullan, A. (2020, September 25). Bee Breath: Hum Your Way to Health. Retrieved December 12, 2020, from https://www.premayogainstitute.com/pyi-blog/bee-breath-hum-your-way-to-health

7 Merrett, D., Peretz, I. & Wilson, S. (2014). Neurobiological, cognitive, and emotional mechanisms in melodic intonation therapy. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8: 1-12.

8 Wilson, S., Abbott, D, Lusher, D., Gentle, E. & Jackson, G. (2011). Finding your voice: A singing lesson from functional imaging. Human Brain Mapping, 32(12): 2115-2130.

Cooling Breath

We can learn something from our dogs! We sometimes worry when Lucy practices her Cooling Puppy Pranayama, but she knows what she’s doing. Panting is the primary way for dogs to cool themselves off because they don’t sweat the way humans do. Instead, dogs cool themselves through their mouths using the evaporation of moisture from the mouth and tongue, and by exchanging the hot air of their lungs with cooler external air.

For us humans, Cooling Breath, or Sitali Breath, can help in much the same way. We can “drink the air” through a curled tongue to cool down!

How to Practice Sitali / Sitkari Breath:

  1. Close your eyes, take a few normal breaths, then open the mouth and form the lips into an “O.”
  2. Curl the tongue lengthwise and project it out of the mouth.
  3. Inhale deeply across the tongue and into the mouth as if drinking through a straw.
  4. Focus your attention on the cooling sensation of the breath as the abdomen and lower ribs expand.
  5. Withdraw the tongue and close the mouth, exhaling completely through the nostrils. During each exhalation, you can also lightly touch the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth, inviting the tip of the tongue to send coolness toward the upper palate.
  6. Swallow now and then if the throat feels dry. 
  7. Continue this cycle until you feel refreshed.
  8. If you are unable to curl your tongue, try Sitkari breath. Gently press your lower and upper teeth together and separate your lips as much as you comfortably can, so your teeth are exposed to the air. Inhale through the teeth and exhale through the nose.

Besides building breath awareness, this practice is said to calm hunger and thirst! Sitali breath cools the body, adds moisture to the system, and may reduce fatigue, bad breath, fevers, and high blood pressure. Try it for yourself and let us know how it goes!

For more Pranayama or Breathing Exercises, visit the Breath Page.

Bee’s Breath

Why we love Bhramari Pranayama: As we’re exhaling and creating the droning sound, like that of a bee, we’re also lengthening our exhalations – which in turn activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the side in charge of resting and digesting. Calming, centering, grounding…bee’s breath is just what we need these days!

🐝Bhramari is the Sanskrit word for “bee,” and this pranayama or breath exercise is so named for the humming sound produced – like the gentle low buzz or droning of a bee. We like it best for its ability to drown out an anxious mental loop, and find it incredibly grounding and centering. 

Bhramari Pranayama (Bee’s Breath):

  • Calms and quiets the mind
  • Releases cerebral tension
  • Stimulates the pineal and pituitary glands, supporting their proper functioning
  • Soothes the nerves
  • Relieves stress and anxiety
  • Dissipates anger
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • May have a positive effect on tinnitus
  • Bolsters the health of the throat
  • Strengthens and improves the voice
  • Supports the healing of bodily tissues
  • Induces sound sleep

“The busy bee has no time for sorrow.”

– William Blake

How to Practice Bee’s Breath:

  1. Sit comfortably but upright, with a stable foundation to support you.
  2. Gently close the lips, keeping the teeth slightly apart, and bring the tip of your tongue to the space behind the upper front teeth. (Keep the jaw relaxed throughout your practice.)
  3. This part is optional: You can actually use your thumbs to “close” your ears (for me, not all the way feels better) and then gently cover your eyes with cupped palms. There are other ways to practice with the fingers fanned out, but this is most comfortable for me. It does take the experience a little deeper inward.
  4. To begin, take a deep breath in through the nostrils.
  5. Begin to exhale slowly, making a steady, low-pitched ‘hmmm’ sound at the back of the throat—like the humming of a bee. Focus on making the sound soft, smooth, and steady. The positioning of the tongue allows the vibration to better resonate throughout the head.
  6. Continue for as many repetitions as you like. After the final exhalation, allow your breath to return to normal and observe any changes that have occurred.
  7. Maybe you can even feel the vibration continue throughout your head and body after you’ve stopped humming!

🐝How do you feel after your bee’s breath practice?🐝

Bee Breath is also featured in a blog post I wrote for Prema Yoga Institute, as part of my Yoga Therapy Training. I learned a little more about Bee breath during my Breath Coach course – and it turns out there is even more benefit to this technique than I could imagine! Read MORE.