We all breathe. Oxygen is the only thing we cannot live without for more than a few minutes, so we do it. Unlike our heart, which we cannot control, we can choose to alter our breath. We can speed up our heart or slow it down by actions, but we cannot actually stop our heart or alter its beat with our mind. We can with our breath, but if we forget to breathe, our body takes over, and we breathe to survive. Our diaphragm is a muscle that is both voluntary AND involuntary; ah the miracle of the human body!
If you have ever watched a baby lying on her back sleeping or a dog sleeping, you will see the deep rise of the chest and expansion of the ribs. Each inhale fills the lungs and each exhale empties them nearly completely. Most adults do not breathe that way….not even in sleep. Most adults only use about 70% of their lung capacity.
There are both short- and long-term benefits for improving your lung health and for practicing breathing. In the short term, you can reduce stress and anxiety; increase focus and concentration; aid in muscle recovery and healing; improve sleep. In the long term, as that article I linked above says, you can reduce your risk of pulmonary diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or pulmonary fibrosis.
Now with all of this going on with COVID-19, which is a respiratory disease, I believe that maintaining healthy lungs is more important than ever.
As I have mentioned before, yoga, as we know it in the West, is comprised of three parts: asanas/postures, pranayama/breathwork and dyhana/meditation, but more often than not, the focus for most people is on the first one.
In recent weeks, I have been exploring all three aspects of yoga and working to develop a more holistic practice for myself while writing about it to share with you. Previously, I wrote about the asanas and dyhana. Today, I will focus on pranayama.
Translated, pranayama means ‘control (yama) over your life force (prana).’ In the yogic tradition, it is believed that your vital energy or prana flows through channels in your body on your breath passing through each of the chakras on the way. The ancient yogis developed many breathing practices designed for different purposes and health benefits. Some of these practices are very advanced, and should not be done without working up to them and only under the tutelage of an experienced yogi. However, anyone can learn some basic breathing exercises to enhance their asana practice, make meditation more accessible and improve their lung health.
Today, I will introduce you to some that I teach during my classes, which anyone can do. Some breathing practices are contraindicated for pregnancy and people with heart problems or uncontrolled high or low blood pressure. The ones I will talk about today should be safe for anyone, but if you have any pre-existing conditions, be sure to talk to your doctor first. As with any practice, discontinue if you feel unwell, dizzy or lightheaded. These may be done on their own or before or after an asana practice or meditation session. Ideally, we start with asanas; follow that with pranayama and savasana; and meditation is the final part of a complete yoga practice.
The sanskrit word ujjayi is translated as “victorious,” so this is the victorious breath. All yogis and yoginis should learn this most basic of the pranayamas. This breath is commonly associated with a typical ashtanga practice. When we are working through the postures, we want to, as much as possible, inhale and exhale through our nose. The breath is cleansed and warmed this way on the way in and we can more easily control the flow on the way out. In vinyasa, ashtanga and other flow-based yoga practices, we want to match the inhale and exhale of the ujjayi breath to the movement. In this way, we achieve the ‘union’ (yoga) by linking our breath to our movement. When holding a posture in hatha, by using the breath, we connect to our self, the earth and our prana.
The ujjayi breath warms and energizes the body, but it is also an excellent breath to practice if you find yourself in a stressful situation. Often, when we are stressed or anxious, our breath can become shallow and fast, which can lead us to hyperventilate and even faint from lack of oxygen. If we faint, our body will take over and begin to breath more slowly to bring oxygen back to the brain. With the ujjayi breath we take control and do that ourselves.
To perform this breath, inhale slowly through your nose. Now, exhale through your nose, but as you do constrict the back of your throat slightly. As the breath passes over the glottal part of the back of your mouth, there is a slight noise, often described as the sound of the sea or the sound you hear when you hold a shell to your ear. Sitting or standing still with a tall spine and with your eyes opened or closed, practice this breath. At first, work to make the inhales and exhales about the same. So as you inhale, count in your head slowly to four and then as you exhale count to four. As you get more practice, you may work to make the exhales up to twice as long as the inhales. Before you begin your asana practice, take a few moments to simply practice the breath and throughout your practice bring yourself back to it.
As you hold static postures, this breath will help you balance and will help deliver much needed oxygen to your muscles. As you move through postures, linking the breath to the movement creates a sense of rhythm in the body. As you sit in stillness, this breath will slow your heart rate and bring you back to a place of calm.
This is a wonderful breath to start getting a sense of your breath in your body. You can do this one seated upright, but it is more effective if you do it lying on your back.
You can lie with legs extended or with the soles of your feet together in diamond, whichever is more comfortable. If these cause tension in your low back, you can put a bolster, pillow or rolled up yoga mat under your legs. You could also prop yourself up in na heart-opening position, such as this one if lying on your back is not appropriate for you (such as in pregnancy):
However you have decided to position your body, place one palm on your solar plexus, in the middle of your chest. Place the other hand on your abdomen just about on top of your navel or maybe a bit below. Allow your elbows to relax down by your sides.
This breath helps you learn how to breath deeply into your belly. Often when someone “takes a deep breath,” we will see their shoulders rise, but our shoulders have nothing to do with our breath. We want to focus on our chest and our diaphragm which is below our ribs. We don’t really “breathe” into our belly, clearly, but as the air expands our lungs and the diaphragm presses down, our abdomen expands.
This breath brings your focus to three areas in to which we feel the breath travel: abdomen, ribs, chest.
With your eyes closed take a long deep inhale (through your nose) and on a slow 1–2–3–count, notice the hand on you belly rise, notice your ribs expand and notice the hand on your chest rise. Then on a slow 1–2–3– exhale through the nose, and notice your abdomen fall, your ribs contract and your chest fall. Repeat this breath, inhale: abdomen, ribs, chest. Exhale: abdomen, ribs, chest.
This is a good breath to do after your practice, before you savasana to slow the breath and really bring your focus to the deep breathing practice. This breath will increase your lung capacity and your lung health. It is also nice to do just before going to sleep, as it slows your heart rate and relaxes you.
Nadi-Sodhana or Anuloma Viloma
The alternate breath is my favorite pranayama to do and to teach. It can be done with kumbhaka/retention (nadi-sodhana) and without (anuloma viloma). I am going to explain it without khumbaka because learning to do the locks or bandhas needed for the retention is a bit more advanced, and my goal here is to keep this simple. Also, the retention is contraindicated for some people, while this practice without is (usually) safe for everyone.
It is imperative that you sit upright with a straight spine for this one. You can sit on a chair with both feet on the floor or on the floor in thunderbolt pose or any of the cross legged postures. I talked about postures for meditation in that post, and any of those are perfect for this.
There are two mudras associated with this pranayama. With the left hand, you jnana mudra, by simply touching the tip of your index finger to the tip of your thumb and resting that hand on your leg or knee. This is said to close your body’s circuit, so the energy continues to flow uninterrupted.
With the right hand, you will form the Vishnu mudra by folding your index finger and middle finger to your palm. Your thumb will be near your right nostril and your ring finger near your left nostril.
Begin by sitting tall and exhaling fully. Close your eyes (once you have practiced and understand what you are to be doing). This is pictured above.
Press your thumb gently against your right nostril and inhale slowly through your left.
Press the ring finger to the left nostril, release the thumb and exhale slowly through your right.
Inhale through your right nostril.
Press your thumb against your right nostril, release the ring finger and exhale through your left nostril.
That completes one round. See if you can complete 3-4 rounds to start and then work your way up to 6-8 rounds.
After your final exhalation, release the mudra at the nose, and take a full deep breath and then open your mouth and let it go in a sigh. Then resume normal breathing.
It is nice to pause here for a moment keeping the eyes closed and just breathing naturally. Notice how you feel. Notice your breath and your body. Notice your mind.
At first, try to make the inhales and exhales the same amount of time, but as you practice, increase the length of the exhale to be twice as long as the inhale.
The purpose of this breath is to balance the body by activating both channels. During the day, our breath will shift and one side or the other will be activated. In the yogic tradition, the right side is said to be the solar side and is associated with energy and warmth; it is the masculine side. The left side is said to be the lunar side and is associated with relaxation and cooling; it is the feminine side. Together they balance the positively and negatively charged energy in the body creating a sense of relaxation without lethargy and energy without stress.
This is an excellent breath practice to do after your asanas and before your meditation or anytime during the day if you feel that your body is out of balance i.e. sluggish or jittery.
Technically, the “lion’s breath” is done in a specific lion’s posture, or simhasana, however, I have been in classes where we do this in down dog; it is great in cobra; and you can do it just sitting upright. Variations are the spice of yoga, so I am not going to say you have to do this sitting on your knees, which is the asana typically paired with this breath.
The lion’s breath is super energizing, and because it is sort of silly, it frees you from self-judgement and that nagging voice that tells you that you can’t do something. You will have the confidence of a lion after this one! I have had classes crack up doing this breath, and that’s great. Kids think this breath is hilarious. Let’s not take ourselves to seriously, shall we? Because it let’s it all out, I find it great for relieving frustrations too. Try this when sitting in rush hour traffic. It’s sure to get some funny looks!
The breath is fun and easy. Take a full deep inhale through the nose. Now open your eyes wide, stick out your tongue, open your mouth wide and exhale through your mouth on a “HAAAAAAAAAA!” It sounds like the roar of perhaps a baby lion, which may be why it is so funny. You should not be shouting or trying to make a loud vocalization, but there is a sound that comes out as you “HAAAAAA” on the exhale. Inhale and repeat two more times and then continue to breath normally. Easy!
So there you go, some simple breathing practices to add to your repertoire! Try to incorporate one or more of these into your practice and into your life each day. These combined with the physical exercises and the mediation make for a complete yogic practice and a healthier happier human that is YOU!
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