Are You Breathing?
Or are you being breathed?
Pranayama or Breath Control is one of the 8 limbs of Yoga and is as important as all the other limbs. But if you don’t breathe well, it could be one of the most important steps you take to give you a greater sense of well-being.
You have probably heard the word Prana before. Before its meaning devolves into a clothing line, let’s recall its original meaning: Life force or energy. Yama is control, hence Pranayama is control of the life force. While many things we do provides life force, such as eating and drinking, no activity is more important for our survival than breathing. After all, we can go weeks without eating, days without drinking but only minutes without breathing. Inhaling provides the oxygen we need to metabolize our food into energy and exhaling throws out all the waste. So immediately we can see why a deep breath will give us more benefit than a shallow one!
If you are not controlling your breath, your autonomic nervous system is doing it for you. It means you are in survival mode. By controlling our breath we can get to thrive mode! Everything feels better with a better breath!
Take a Breath
Right now- Sit up straight, slowly inhale, pushing out the belly, raising the chest and topping it off at the throat. Then slowly release. How do you feel? More relaxed? More energetic? Nothing beats that instantaneous feeling of a deep breath. Maybe that is why we have that colloquial expression: “Take a breath”.
Get the Benefits
Controlling your breath can:
- Calm you, slow you down, reduce anxiety
- Rev you up, bring you more energy and enthusiasm
- Improve your immune system and even slow down the again process
- Improve concentration and lead the path to more successful meditation
More and more research is showing the benefit of breath to your body’s well being.
Three Part Breath
Or Dirga Pranayma is a very basic training breath. In this breath, we begin by placing one hand on the abdomen and the other on chest. Slowly fill the lungs as the belly expands, the diaphragm spreads and chest opens to allow a maximum flow of air into the lungs. Feel it top off and lock the throat so you hold the air in for a moment. Then slowly release pulling the belly in to press out all the air. One of the interesting phenomena here is the fear of pushing out the belly to make room for more lung expansion. You may look more fashionable with that six pack intact but you really suffer from oxygen deprivation if you don’t let it out.
Or Ujjayi breath is often practiced in combination with the postures or asanas. But it is also a calming breath that may be used at the start of a practice. Also referred to in English as Victorious breath, Ujjayi breath practice helps to strengthen the diaphragm, the most important muscle of the breathing mechanics. We accomplish the strengthening of the diaphragm by restricting the back of the throat both on the inhale and exhale as both the inhale and exhale occur through the nose. The restriction of air makes the diaphragm work harder.
Taking it to the next level, we start to develop some discipline over the breath cycle. With a stronger diaphragm we can begin to create greater control over the whole cycle. We divide the breath into 4 parts: the inhale, a holding of the inhale, the exhale and finally the holding of the exhale. Each part of the breath is executed for the same amount of time. Start at 3 seconds for each part and gradually over days and weeks, grow the time to 5 seconds. Take five cycles of Square Breath and then return to a normal breath. Square Breath is a great calming breath which can reduce anxiety.
Breath of Fire
While the Breath of Fire name is more attached to the Kundalini practitioners it is very similar to the Kapalbhati breath or Skull Shining breath. In this breath exercise we look to amp ourselves up with a fast breathing technic that also helps develop more abdominal strength and control of the diaphragm. Kapalbhati also is said to help cleanse the lungs, the blood and digestive system. It gives us more mental clarity and energizes us. Essentially all we do is pump short exhales from the abdomen in rapid succession. Let the inhale happen naturally from the release of the abdomen. Take 15 quick exhales through the nose and then relax with 3 3-part breaths. Do three cycles of Skull Shining.
Or Nadi Shodhana is another great stress reliever as it helps balance the flow of energy by breathing through alternate nostrils. It is said that it balances the activity of the brain, improves focus, calms the nervous system while supporting respiratory function.
- Place the index and middle fingers of your right hand between the eyebrows. Take a deep inhale and exhale through both nostrils.
- Place the right thumb on the right nostril and breath in slowly through the left nostril.
- Place the ring finger on the left nostril as you release the thumb from the right and exhale from the right.
- Inhale now from the right nostril. Go back to step 2 and repeat the process.
Tips for Better Breath
Practice these breathing exercises in a comfortable seated position. Make sure you have a straight back and the abdomen and diaphragm move freely. If needed, place a blanket or block under your hips to help the alignment.
Three part breath and square breath may be practiced laying down. Laying down enhances relaxation. Use a bolster under the knees or place the soles of the feet together for supta badha konasa.
When beginning a breath for the first few times, place your hand on the abdomen. With Three part breath, place one hand on the abdomen and the other on the chest. This helps with your breath awareness.
Almost all breath exercises are through the nose. Sometimes it is helpful when completing a particularly challenging set of asanas or postures with a deep inhale and exhale through the mouth.
Take it off the mat. The whole purpose of practicing yoga is to make our lives better. Become aware of your posture during the day and notice how much more air you can take in if you don’t slouch over. Take moments for conscious breathing and observe how it changes your state of being.
There are thousands of ways to practice breathing. The few included here will help get you off to a good start! So Please Breathe!