Breathing, its innate, we all do it, even babies practice the motion of breathing in the womb. We inhale and we exhale as we go about our day, never really paying a great deal of attention to it. If we do start to pay attention though we might notice a typical breath can be short, shallow or even erratic at times. But not only does his thing we don’t pay much attention keep us alive, if we pay more attention to it we can use it to our advantage.
In Yoga there is an entire segment of the practice dedicated to breathing, it is the fourth limb of Yoga and is known as Pranayama. Pranayama is the practice of controlling the vital force (breath), usually through control of the breath. There are several distinct ways to control the breath under the umbrella of the Pranayama, here is additional background about the practice of Pranayama and a brief description of the various techniques.
Not only is the breath work a fundamental part of practicing Yoga it is one of the easiest ways to take your practice off the mat and better yet many of these techniques can be utilized anytime or anywhere. What is even more amazing are the benefits of practicing them.
Has anyone ever told you to take a few deep breaths and count to 10 when you are in a stressful situation? It is said this exercise will calm you, this is also the case for the Pranayama breathing techniques. There is proof this is the case, in fact a study from 2013 shows how one of these techniques, alternate nostril breathing, can activate the parasympathetic nervous system which is known to conserve energy and slow the heart rate.
The great South Indian Saint, Thirumular, said, “Where the mind goes the prana follows.” Meaning your breath is a reflection of your state of mind, frustrated your breath may appear agitated or if you are calm your breath may be slow therefore, it is worth just watching and regulating your breath as it is believed to correlate with your state of mind.
I have seen the benefits of these techniques personally but I will admit this blog is a reminder I don’t use them often enough. While spending time with a friend of mine her son was having anxiety and was unable to fall asleep. I sat with him and we worked on paying attention to our breath, slowing it down and noticing how it filled our lungs (which he thought was pretty cool), before I knew it he was sound asleep. I often do breath work myself before my day starts or halfway through the day and it allows me to reset and focus on the several task I have to accomplish and increases my productivity.
The practice has benefits and in this case you can take the practice anywhere as these techniques are always available to you. Here are 3 of my favorite ways to regulate the breath.
Note: not all of these are formal techniques rather elements that I have found beneficial. They are simple and beginner friendly therefore, anyone can give them a try, if you do let me know what you think and share how they have worked for you.
To start keep your mouth open and place your palm in front of your face, as you exhale blow onto your hand as you would if you were trying to fog a mirror, notice in order to do this you have to constrict the back of your throat. While maintaining that constriction close your mouth and continue to breathe, it should create an ocean-like or whispering/hissing sound. Complete for at least 5 breaths.
Increasing the length of your exhale (this is the reverse of a typical persons breath)
To execute this breath first begin by slowing down the breath and increasing the depth of each breath, once you have observed this and you recognize consistency begin to count for each inhale and exhale just noticing the natural cadence you have created by bringing awareness to the breath. Regardless of how high you count for each work towards increasing the length of the exhale beyond the length of the inhale (for example you count to 4 on the inhale, try to extend the length of the exhale to the count of 6). For added breath control, you can pause at the end of your exhale for 1-2 seconds (Viloma Pranayama). Complete for 5-10 breaths.
Inhaling and exhaling fully noticing the effects on the body
To do this you can be sitting or laying down, you can also place one hand on the belly and the other on the heart for added awareness of the movement of the breath. As you inhale notice how the breath fills the lower belly as you continue to inhale notice how it fills the upper belly and all the way into the chest and breath in until you cannot fit one more ounce of air. When this happens you should be able to physically feel the abdomen and chest expand and you should still feel comfortable. As you exhale feel the belly and the chest soften and collapse and ensure you continue to exhale until you cannot exhale anymore and are almost thirsty for your next breath even drawing the belly button in towards the spine to support a complete exhalation ensuring you still feel comfortable . What I have described here is similar to the Dirga Pranayama. 10 of these feels amazing but 5 will allow you to settle.