The breath is truly fascinating. It is both involuntary, happening automatically and subconsciously since the moment we were born, and also voluntary. We have the ability to consciously change our breath at anytime. The breath is our vital life force. It sustains life, nourishes our cells, expels waste, and has effects on our nervous system. Focusing on our breath, training it, and learning to control it can have an immense positive effect on our bodies and well being. In yoga, this art and science of breathing is called pranayama (prana=breath or life energy + ayama=unrestrain or extend).
As a nurse, I see the effect of the breath on a basic level every day. A huge emphasis is placed on coughing, deep breathing, and moving after surgery to promote healing and prevent disease, like pneumonia. On the other hand, I see the abominable effects that lung disease and illness can have on an individual. I also instruct my patients to be mindful of their breath and use deep breathing to cope with anxiety and stress, while in the hospital.
How amazing does it feel to take a deep breath of fresh air? It is one of the most uplifting experiences when done mindfully. In yoga, great emphasis is placed on breathing. Asana, or yoga postures and sequencing, is practiced hand in hand with the breath. There are many types of pranayama, all with great benefits. Some of my favorite yoga breathing exercises, which I use frequently, are below:
The Three-Part Breath (Dirga Pranayama) This yoga breath is usually practiced in a seated or lying down pose. It is especially helpful for relieving anxiety, insomnia, and easing tension. This is a slow, deep breath that fills every part of your lungs. Breathing through your nose, begin by filling the top part of your chest, expanding your lungs beneath the clavicles fully. When you have completely filled the top part of your chest, continue the breath into your chest and side ribs and then finally into your belly, fully expanding your lungs entirely. To exhale, begin by contracting your belly, pushing the air up and out of your belly, then your chest, and finally your upper chest. The breath should look and feel like a wave on the beach, washing into the body and then retreating as it came in. Notice where you are tight and feel constricted; for me, it is my upper chest. Continue to practice this breath to overcome resistance and use your lungs to better capacity.
Ocean or Victorious Breath (Ujjayi Pranayama) This is a common breathing technique that is often used in yoga practice. Ujjayi breathing can be practiced seated, standing, or throughout a yoga class. It is performed by pressing the glottis back, gently constricting the back of the throat, creating a soft soothing audible ocean sound, which is why it is also referred to as the ocean breath. The slight restriction creates some resistance, naturally lengthening the breath, as you inhale and exhale through the nose fully. Ujjayi breathing is both calming and energizing. It also warms and relaxes the body.
Alternate nostril breathing (Nadi Shodhana Pranayama) Our nasal passageways carry prana (vital life force) into our bodies. Throughout the day we unconsciously alternate breathing through our left and right nostrils. This pattern is not always equal and even, which is why yogis find alternate nostril breathing to be so beneficial. This yogic breathing technique calms the mind and nervous system. It balances both hemispheres of the brain by bringing equal amounts of oxygen to both sides of the brain, improving mental clarity. It also helps purify and balance energy channels, optimizing prana flow throughout the body. To perform alternate nostril breathing, find a comfortable seated or standing pose; place your right thumb on your right nostril and right ring finger on your left nostril. Start by gently closing the right nostril with your thumb, inhaling slowly and deeply through the left nostril. At the peak of inhalation, release your thumb, gently close the left nostril with your ring finger and slowly exhale fully through your right nostril. At the peak of exhalation, inhale slowly back through your right nostril, close the right nostril and exhale slowly through your left nostril. Repeat this sequence for at least five breaths.
Connecting breath with your asana practice is so beneficial and will most definitely improve your yoga practice, but can be confusing at first. The most important thing to keep in mind is that you are moving your body with your breath (not your breath with your body). So, on your inhale or exhale is when you come into a pose. Other tips are: exhale when bending forward or bringing your arms toward your body, exhale when twisting, and inhale when lifting/opening your heart or bringing your arms away from your body. Most importantly, try not to involuntarily hold your breath….if you aren’t breathing, you aren’t practicing yoga ;-)
About Lauren Hoerauf
Lauren is a registered nurse currently working with cancer patients in the ICU. Being an RN, she has always had an interest in health and wellness, which has naturally led her to yoga. Her love for yoga has impelled her to deepen her practice and she hopes to become a yoga instructor one day. She is currently enrolled in the 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training at Green Locus and will graduate this November.