THE FRIDAY FIVE… BREATHING TECHNIQUES
Many people come to yoga because they’ve heard that it helps with breathing. It’s true, yoga really brings the breath (or lack of it!) to the forefront, really highlighting how poorly we breath on a daily basis. Our breath is our life-force on a physical and energetic level and we squander it away through our short, sharp, stressed breathing.
Yoga teaches you how to cultivate a more nourishing breath but also a connection to the physical movement and to your inner being. It’s incredibly grounding and meditative to focus in on the breath, harness it to reenergize the body and find peace by moving inwards with its energy.
Through a regular yoga practice you may be exposed to pranayama (breath control) techniques. In Sanskrit, Prana means Life-Force and Ayama/Yama means extension/control. Below are five breathing exercises that focus on extending the life-force energy via the breath. Life-force is similar to what the Chinese call Qi (chi) or the Holy Spirit in Christianity. It’s your own connection to the source, the infinite and it is life-giving and nourishing – your true essence, residing within that feeds you.
These five techniques are often best learnt in person with guidance from an experienced teacher. It is interesting nonetheless to understand the different exercises and their benefits. This list is less about the ‘how’ and more about the ‘what and why’.
Sometimes called the ‘conquerors’ or ‘victory’ breath, Ujjayi is a deep, ocean or whisper-like sound. It is created by contracting the back of the throat – the glottis – as you inhale and exhale. To you and perhaps the person next to you the breath should be audible. This breath is often practised too intensely – you can hear students forcing the breath and over exaggerating the sound. Although it’s a strong sound it should still feel quite subtle and soothing – not harsh and raspy.
This breath works to quiet the brain, making it the perfect partner to flowing yoga practices – helping you reach a more meditative state. Ujjayi slows and smooths the flow of breath. It’s both energising yet calming.
2) Nadi Shodana
This is the channel cleansing breath. Within our body, on an energetic level, we have Nadis – these are energy channels that correspond with our own veins/arteries on the physical levels. Nadis carry the prana (life-force) or breath throughout the subtle/energetic body. This pranayama technique works to cleanse two of the main Nadi’s – the Ida (feminine, moon, cool energy) and Pingala (masculine, sun, hot energy) which exit the body at the left and right nostril respectively.
Nadi Shodana works by closing off one nostril at a time, inhaling through the other. Holding the breath and then releasing the closed nostril to exhale. The breath count is even, e.g. inhaling for four counts, holding for four and exhaling for eight.
This is the cooling breath and best practiced only in the warmer months. Sheetali calms the mind, reduces the stress or fight/flight reaction, cools the body and lowers blood pressure (careful if you already have low blood pressure!)
For those that can, sheetali is performed by rolling the tongue in and creating a tube shape. Gently inhaling through that tongue which cools the breath before it enters the body and exhaling through the nostrils. Many people can’t roll the tongue so simply pursing the lips and creating a tube shape through the lips will work just as well.
Kapal means skull and Bhati means lightness. So this pranayama refers to the cleaning or cleansing of the mind. The breath here is short, rapid and strong. Using the lungs to pump and expel waste.
Kapalabhati is a series of alternating short, explosive exhales and slightly longer, passive inhales. Exhales are generated by contracting the lower belly to push air out of the lungs. Inhales are responses to the release of this contraction, which sucks air back into the lungs.
This is a great technique to complete energise the body. It is about learning to master and control the flow of breath, inwards and outwards.
When practising Viloma, the breath is interrupted by several pauses. When inhaling the breath is paused every 2-3 seconds. By filling the belly/diaphragm first, then the rib cage, the lungs and the upper chest last you elongate the inhale to around 15-20secs.
When exhaling, you do so in reverse and pause at each stage. Releasing the breath from the upper chest, then the lungs, rib cage and finally letting the belly draw in.
Similarly, with interrupted exhalation, the out-breath is lengthened from twenty-five to thirty seconds. It’s simply like climbing up and then down a ladder with a pause at each step.
You are left with a feeling of calmness and lightness to the body, and a sense of exhilaration. It increases endurance by learning to elongate and control the breath. The art of deep breathing is learnt with precision, ease, and comfort.
Learning how to harness the power of the breath provides countless benefits – from a calmer state of mind, more focus, the ability to settle your nervous system, distress and sleep better.
And sometimes, just pausing and checking in with your breath will give you a clear signal to how you are feeling – allowing you to bring yourself back into balance.
Signing off with an exhale (how appropriate!)
Pause. Listen. Live
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