Practicing yoga takes not only disciplined limbs but also a disciplined diaphragm.
Think about it, the first thing you did when you were born, was breathe and the last thing you will do before you die is breathe. Breath is life, and our respiratory system is, in fact, the only system in our body we can control. The ancient yogis knew this and created an entire study called Pranayama around controlling our breath. Prana, or Chi in Chinese medicine, is our life force energy and yama means to control, so pranayama means control of our life force energy. The ancient yogis looked to nature for answers and discovered the animals that took the least number of breaths lived the longest. A turtle takes on average, 4 breaths per minute, for example, and lives over 150 years. A whale which lives to over 100 years take 4-6 breaths a minute. The average adult takes 15 breaths a minute. It’s all about lowering our resting heart rate so when our heart becomes more efficient at pumping the blood around our body we can take fewer breaths. Modern science has now documented the impact of yoga and pranayama to improve our quality of life as this article explains.
Like any activity, proper breathing takes practice. You need to train your lungs and the surrounding muscles so you are better able to control your breath. Yoga is unique in that the breath guides our practice. If you are not breathing steady, calm, conscious breaths then you are not doing yoga, only fancy calesthenics as my teacher Donna Fahri says.
In general, when we lengthen the exhale we are calming the body and mind, when we lengthen the inhale we are energizing or awakening the mind and body. Below are some breathing techniques that will improve your lung capacity and calm a distracted and restless mind.
In this calming breath we breathe in through the nose normally and exhale making a gentle, low humming sound. The central nervous system relaxes and the entire head and neck vibrates at a low, calming frequency. You may feel a tingle in your nose and ears, this is normal. The exhale is longer than the inhale calming the entire body. Repeat 10 times.
This exercise works on developing the diaphragm and abdominal muscles. Start by placing your hands on your lower belly below the navel. Actively inhale through the nose into your belly and feel it rise like a balloon. Then exhale and feel the belly drop. Repeat 10 times feeling the rise and fall as your diaphragm pushes down making your internal organs push your belly up, and then release upward causing your lungs to empty and your belly to flatten again.
This practice balances the flow of prana to the left and the right side of the brain and body. Breathing in and out of the left nostril creates a cooling or relaxing effect on the mind and body. Breathing in and out of the right nostril creates a warming or energizing effect. Alternating breathing through each nostril balances the energy. Try breathing in and out of the left nostril 10 x and then 10 on the right side. Make sure both nostrils are open, not advisable to do any of these practices if you are stuffed up.
This exercise helps to strengthen the abdominal muscles used in breathing and clears the nostrils so you can breathe more easily. Sitting with your back straight, exhale in short bursts through your nose while tightening your abs. Allow the in breath to happen naturally as the belly relaxes. Repeat 20 times then rest and do 3 sets.
This breath lengthens our inhalations and is excellent to bring energy and vitality to the face and nervous system. It is also very cooling for the body and great if you suffer from hot flashes like me. Imagine you have a straw between your lips and start to suck the air in across your tongue. Exhale through the nose. If you can curl the edges of your tongue in and up to make a tube shape, try breathing in this way. You are now doing Sheetali pranayama. Note that 30% of people cannot do this due to the position of the frenulum, or the skin beneath the tongue.
Learning to breathe properly is the most important aspect of yoga. If you would like to learn more about How to Breathe to Reduce Stress, join my workshop on Friday, 11 May from 10-12 noon. To register click here.
Article written in partnership with Sally Writes.
Spot on Elaine! What a beautiful experience and what a life enhancement! It was my first time in such a setting and it was a great opportunity to meet amazing people like yourself! The article is beautiful and everyone has to know that you did it from the heart. Love it!!!
This is amazing!
Posted on 06 April 2018 by Elaine Kelly