Breathing Exercises for Yoga – Simple Techniques to Try at Home
June 14, 2020
Breath is an essential part of life and an extremely important part of any yoga practice. Not only does breathing deeply while practicing yoga help you to avoid injury, but it also assists in keeping your attention present. Breathing can be both an unconscious process and consciously controlled, therefore breath serves as the bridge between your conscious and unconscious mind.
Breathing exercises for yoga are known in Sanskrit as Pranayama. Prana is our vital energy or life force and Ayama means extension or expansion. These words combined together to form Pranayama mean “the extension or expansion of prana”. The practices of pranayama can provide a method to activate and regulate one’s life force (prana) in order to extend beyond the usual limitations and reach heightened states of awareness.
In this article, we will explore some of the basics of yogic breathing and 2 of the more widely known pranayama exercises.
The 4 Aspects of Breath
When practicing pranayama, we must first understand that there are 4 aspects, or parts to the breath. These are:
- The Inhalation
- The Exhalation
- Internal Breath Retention (holding your breath after an inhale)
- External Breath Retention (holding your breath after an exhale)
The pranayama exercises utilize these 4 aspects of breath in different ways to achieve varying results. However, when first exploring pranayama, it is important to remember that there must be a gradual development of the control over your respiratory functions. Therefore, it is best to start with a focus on just the inhales and exhales in order to build strength in your lungs and balance your nervous system.
Become Aware of Your Breath
Before you begin any type of breath practice, it is a good idea to get connected with your natural breath patterns first. Step one is to simply observe your natural breath. Begin to tune in, without attachment, to create more awareness of your own body and natural breath rhythms.
Natural Breathing Exercise
- Find a comfortable seated meditation position or lie down on your back in Savasana and relax and close your eyes
- Observe the natural flow and rhythm of your breath cycles
- Breathe in and out through your nose and do not attempt to control your breath in any way
- Become absorbed in the awareness of your inhales and exhales
- Notice the temperature of the air on your inhales as opposed to your exhales
- Shift your awareness to the different areas in your mouth, then throat, where you feel the breath
- Now bring your awareness down to your chest as your breath flows through your trachea and bronchial tubes
- Feel the breath moving through your lungs and become aware of your lungs expanding and relaxing
- Notice how your rib cage contracts and expands to accommodate your lung capacity
- Focus on the way your abdomen moves upward on your inhalation and downward on your exhalation
- Become aware of the entire breathing process, from nostrils to abdomen and continue to observe for a while
- Shift your awareness back to your body as a whole and gradually open your eyes
Awesome job!! Let’s take it a step further and get acquainted with your diaphragm…
Abdominal (or Diaphragmatic) Breathing
The diaphragm is an essential part of a healthy breathing process. It is a dome shaped sheet of muscle that separates the lungs from the abdominal cavity. When the diaphragm is functioning properly, it naturally facilitates the most efficient and effective way to breathe.
When you take an inhale, the diaphragm is designed to move downward, to accommodate a greater lung span, which pushes the abdominal contents downward and outward. On your exhale, and as your lungs contract, the diaphragm moves back up and the abdominal contents move inward. This is a completely natural process which should ideally be utilized during every breath you take.
Unfortunately, our modern lifestyles have left us largely disconnected from this process and diaphragmatic breathing has become more and more difficult due to poor posture, tension, restrictive clothing and a lack of training and awareness. Once correct breathing is learned and restored and diaphragmatic breathing becomes a part of your everyday life, you will notice a great improvement in the state of your mental and physical well being.
Try this Abdominal Breathing Exercise to connect with and access your diaphragm:
- Lie on your back in Savasana, close your eyes and relax your entire body
- Place your right hand on your abdomen just above your navel, and your left hand on the center of your chest
- Observe your breath without controlling it, let it be completely natural
- To access your abdominal breathing, imagine you are drawing your breath in and out directly through your navel
- Your right hand should move up with your inhalation and down with your exhalation
- Your left hand on your chest should remain almost still
- Do not try to force the movement, let the abdomen relax and do it is thing
- Do not expand the chest or move the shoulders
- Continue breathing slowly and deeply and focus on the expansion and contraction of your abdomen
- On your inhale, expand the abdomen as much as is comfortable without expanding the rib cage
- On your exhale, the diaphragm moves upward, and the abdomen and your navel compresses toward your spine
- Continue with this for a few minutes
- Let go of any effort and return to your normal breathing pattern
- Bring your awareness back to your physical body as a whole and gently open your eyes
Movement of the diaphragm is important because it signifies that you are breathing fully and that the lower lobes of your lungs are being utilized. It may feel unnatural at first but once you train yourself and get used to it, you will be able to access this breath practice with ease and experience its many health benefits.
Ujjayi is one of the more widely known pranayama exercises because it is a breath that is often done while practicing yoga asana (postures). It is known to have a tranquilizing effect on the mind and a heating effect on the body. This breath helps to soothe the nervous system and calm the mind. Also, the subtle sound that you make when practicing Ujjayi breath helps your mind to stay focused and present.
Ujjayi Pranayama can be done in any position, standing, sitting, lying or while in motion with your physical yoga practice. To begin:
- Find a comfortable meditation position
- Close your eyes and relax your entire body
- Breathe naturally in and out through your nose
- Bring your awareness to the air moving through your nostrils and develop a calm and rhythmic breath cadence
- After a while, bring your awareness to your throat
- Imagine that the air is being drawn in and out through a small hole in the throat and not the nose
- This should start to produce a slower, deeper, more controlled breath
- Gently contract the back of your throat so that a soft snoring sound is produced as you inhale and exhale
- The contraction should be light and held continuously throughout your practice
- Relax your face and try not to constrict your throat too strongly
- Continue with this breath and focus your mind on the sound being produced in your throat
- The sound of the breath should be natural and not forced, audible to only yourself
- Start with 10 breaths and then gradually increase the time to 5, 10 and then 15 minutes
Nadi Shodhana Pranayama
Nadi Shodhana is also known as alternate nostril breathing and is used to balance the breath and the brain hemispheres. It can have a calming effect on the mind and help to relieve anxiety, as well as improve concentration.
Please ensure that both nostrils are clear and free flowing before beginning this breath practice. It is important to have a basic understanding of abdominal breathing before trying Nadi Shodhana.
How to practice Nadi Shodhana:
First adopt the appropriate Hand Position
- Hold your right hand in front of your face
- Lightly rest your index and middle fingers between your eyebrows
- Hover your thumb above your right nostril and your ring finger above your left nostril
- Comfortably fold your little finger so it is out of the way
Then begin the breathing exercise with an equal inhalation and exhalation ratio of 1:1
- Close the right nostril with your thumb and inhale through the left nostril for a count of 3 or whatever in comfortable
- Close the left nostril with your ring finger and then release your thumb off of your right nostril
- Exhale through the right nostril for the same count that you inhaled
- The length of the inhales and exhales should be equal and without strain
- Next, inhale through the right nostril for the same count
- At the end of your inhale, close the right nostril with your thumb and open the left nostril
- Exhale through the left nostril, counting as before
- This is one complete round. Then start from the beginning again and continue for 5 to 10 rounds.
This technique takes a little getting used to, so don’t get frustrated with yourself if it is difficult at first. As you continue to practice this, over time you can gradually increase the length of your inhales and exhales but always make sure that the ratio is an equal 1:1 and not rushed.
Breathing is the most vital process of the body and is intimately linked to all aspects of our human experience. We cannot survive more than a few minutes without breath. Knowing this, you can understand how important it is to develop and maintain a positive relationship with your breath and create healthy breathing habits. Pranayama can help you to learn and master breath techniques that will ultimately contribute to your overall health and well being.
I hope you enjoyed this article and learned something form it!! If you have and questions or comments, please leave them below. Namaste.
The book Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati was referenced for this article