Updated: Jan 3, 2021
Pranayama plays a wonderful role within a yoga practice which is sometimes not often explored as much as it should be. As we start a yoga practice we start by tuning into the breath, the sound, the sensation and just with this little inclination we allow ourselves to breathe a little deeper.
Our breath, the very thing that keeps us alive, the most beautiful thing that is there without any thought, just like the waves of the ocean, automated, in and out, always there.
As we use our yoga practice to physically stretch, strengthen and mobilise the body we too can use the breath to create space, calmness and clarity. You'll find within every single one of the classes you attend with myself (and many other teachers) you will notice how the breath comes first, it initiates a movement, and moves you from one place to the next.
Within a posture especially within a Yin practice we use the breath to relax the body, we allow it to settle without tension or force. As the body begins to relax we notice if we deepen the breath it may highlight areas of restriction, a wonderful reminder how much tension we have been holding onto without knowing or that our breath is continuously compromised by movement and stress, physical or emotional.
Have you noticed yourself holding your breath in a tough workout? Have you noticed yourself holding your breath in a difficult situation or argument?
Sometimes we aren't really conscious of the way we are breathing, but generally, there are two types of breathing patterns:
Diaphragmatic (abdominal) breathing
Thoracic (chest) breathing
When we are anxious we tend to take rapid, shallow breaths that come directly from the chest. This type of breathing is called thoracic or chest breathing. When you’re feeling anxious, you may not even be aware you’re breathing this way.
Chest breathing causes an upset in the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body resulting in increased heart rate, dizziness, muscle tension, and other physical sensations. Your blood is not being properly oxygenated and this may signal a stress response that contributes to anxiety and panic attacks.
During abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing, you take even, deep breaths.
This is the way newborn babies naturally breathe. You're also probably using this pattern of breathing when you're in a relaxed stage of sleep.
Let's explore ways in which we can establish a deeper connection to our breath.
The simplest way we can begin creating a mindfullness practice is just noticing the breath. As you read these words right now, notice your breath. Suddenly you breathe deeper! These it is! Allow yourself to sit, stand or lie where ever you are and just take a minute to notice your breath, how it moves in and out of the body, what is sounds like, how it feels. Don't try to change it, just sit with it almost as if you are a witness to it.
3 PART BREATH - Dirga Swasam Pranayama
3 Part breathing is a breathing technique often taught to new yoga practitioners. The “three parts” are the abdomen, diaphragm, and chest. During this practice, you first completely fill your lungs with air starting from breathing into your belly, ribcage, and upper chest. Then you exhale completely, you reverse the flow.
Find a comfortable seat, or lie down. Rest one hand on the chest and one hand on the belly. Relax and don't put pressure on yourself to do this correctly first time! Just enjoy the feeling and new sensations that arise. Take an inhalation and fill your belly like a balloon, then allow this breath to move upwards into the lower ribs and chest. (You'll find its a big space to fill and you may be surprised how deep you can actually inhale when thinking about it!). As you exhale reverse the 'parts' emptying the lungs, lower ribs and belly. Thats one round! Ill leave it up to you to explore how long you would like to practice, 5 minutes is great but don't worry about timing, if you are focusing on when the timer will go off you wont be paying full attention to what you're doing!
Practicing Dirga Pranayama teaches you to breathe fully and completely. Ineffective breathing is a common problem in today’s modern world, compounded by poor posture and long periods of sitting or driving. When you breathe shallowly (called “chest breathing”), the air only enters your upper chest and very little enters your lower chest. This causes a lack of oxygen to your blood vessels, which can create strain on your heart and lungs.
Learning to breathe deeply will increase your oxygen supply, which, in turn, will help to decrease stress and anxiety levels. Additionally, focusing on your body during Three-Part Breath brings awareness to the present moment and calms your mind. According to studies, you can inhale and exhale up to seven times as much air (and oxygen and prana) during a three-part breath than in a shallow, chest-based breath, how amazing is that! This is a fantastic technique to practice just before sleeping.
This is a common breathing technique you will hear used within the studio. It is easy to perform during your physical practice, no matter what type of practice you have and its a great way of helping you to stay focused! It is useful for calming the mind and the nervous system in tricky situations both on and off the mat.
To practice Ujjayi breathing we inhale and exhale through the nose. The best way to establish this breathing technique is to imagine fogging up a window when you exhale, try it, when you breathe out, fog up a window or mirror. You'll feel a sensation within the throat, and it will create a sound. Next time around try to maintain the restriction within the throat, and as you exhale keep the mouth closed. It begins to sound like the ocean waves, gently in and out, a sensation within the throat which can create internal heat and massage the lungs. Try to make each inhale last as long as the exhale, and take each breath a little deeper than the last until your breathing is long and smooth. Being able to control your breath will deepen your physical practice dramatically, it will allow you to remain calm, in control, without force or effort. This can be practiced any time of day to give you that extra momentary clarity and focus!
The breath gives you life, its there moving and working in the background, so often taken for granted and unnoticed, so next time you’re feeling a little overwhelmed take a moment to notice your breath. See how you feel, reflect and rest into yourself.