These days, I find myself feeling very grateful for my breath. The simple yet complex process of inhaling oxygen into my lungs and exhaling carbon dioxide energizes every single cell of my body…20,000 times a day*. Since I started learning pranayama, I’ve developed a whole new appreciation for the science of breathing.
Breath is at the heart of every form of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practice. We move to the pace of our breath during yoga, using it to connect with our body and mind. We use our breath as a focal point during meditation, as an anchor to the present moment. Our breath can be a portal to higher awareness.
Breath is life. Every single cell in our body requires the oxygen we breathe to function properly. All our organs need it to function efficiently. The ability to think, feel, move, eat, sleep and even talk all depend on energy generated from oxygen. And the only way to get oxygen to all those cells is by inhaling and exhaling.
Breath is powerful. There is a strong connection between our breath and our emotions, and we can very quickly shift our emotions, to find more calm when we need it, or a boost of positive energy or a bit more joy just by focusing on our breath and changing the way we breathe.
Did you know that breathing is the only physiological process that we can control...or not control? We can just let it be, let the body breathe on its own. Or we can consciously change it and use it to impact our energy levels and our emotions.
And that is what pranayama is all about
What the heck is pranayama?
Pranayama is a Sanskrit word that can be broken down into two parts:
So “pranayama” means expanding and controlling our breath to generate more energy within our bodies and minds. Sometimes called the “yoga of breath”, pranayama, is a powerful practice to maximize our life force in order to rejuvenate our body, and as a means of self-study and self-transformation.
Pranayama is a vitally important part of the Hatha Yoga tradition. It is one of the 8 limbs of yoga mentioned in the the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (approx. 200 BCE), a path to living an ethical and purposeful life. The limbs include ethics to live by, posture practice, meditation, and wisdom practices. The 4th limb is pranayama.
Why practice pranayama?
For many of us, our yoga and meditation practice is about self-awareness and self-transformation. Adding pranayama to your existing practice offers you tools and techniques that will amplify the effectiveness of your personal practice. It can be layered into your existing practice, or it can be a practice in and of itself.
Pranayama can help us to gain better awareness of our breath so that we can breath more efficiently (there are so many health benefits to efficient breathing). Breath awareness is also a way to stay grounded and steady (something we can all use in these chaotic times). And I have found that these techniques are a great way to relax, to calm and soothe frazzled emotions, or to boost my energy when I need it.
Like any practice, the more you practice the more benefits you get. So it’s a good idea to include some breath work in your daily home yoga and meditation practice
4 Easy Breathing Exercises
These 4 easy practices are a way for you to dip into pranayama, to begin experiencing the techniques and the benefits. They are based on my own trainings and experience, and they will get you started.
And if you’d like to learn more about pranayama, try the excellent and approachable book by Richard Rosen that I’ve listed below - The Yoga of Breath. To go deeper and to get the full benefits of the practice, you might want to find a qualified pranayama teacher.
1. FINDING SPACIOUSNESS
To be able to breathe fully, you need to find spaciousness in your body for the breath. When I was first learning pranayama, I had a huge realization that poor posture can restrict breathing. I was experimenting with a posture for pranayama and felt I couldn't get enough breath into my lungs. And all of a sudden, with a simple adjustment to my posture, sitting a little taller with my shoulders back, correcting a slight slump, my lungs filled with oxygen much more easily. Using various types of supports will help you to find that same spaciousness. This exercise is an exploration of your breath in relation to various postures. Try the following:
Sitting: sitting cross-legged on the floor is the traditional position for pranayama, same as for meditation. Be sure to sit on a meditation cushion, a yoga bolster or other support to raise your hips off the floor - this helps maintain the natural curves in your back, for more comfort. Experiment with the height, add folded blankets if you need more. Sit tall but not rigid, with your shoulders down and back, hands on your knees.
Supine: lying down and using supports can be a great way to create space in your body for your breath. Use a rectangular yoga bolster to support your back, along the spine, and to open up your chest. If you don’t have a rectangular bolster, fold and stack blankets to create a flat support that is about 10” wide and 24-26” long. Your arms should be out to the side with palms up. Lie flat on the floor in savasana or try Reclined Bound Angle Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana) see below, possibly with your knees supported by meditation cushions or folded blankets.
Keep noticing your natural breathing and how it is impacted by different postures. Small changes can make a big difference.
2. BREATH OBSERVATION (Anapanasati)
Before you can practice controlling your breath through pranayama, you need to understand it intimately. So this is the the first pranayama practice. This practice is about the passive observation of your breath, about exploring it with curiosity. You are not yet going to be controlling or changing your breath, so just breathe naturally, and observe. There are 4 qualities of your breath that you can observe.
This exploration is a breath awareness practice that can be done before you do any pranayama practice or as a mindfulness meditation it’s own. It’s great for savasana at the end of a yoga practice.
Once you’ve practiced Anapanasati enough to be able to sit with your breath for at least 10 minutes, you can move on to more complex practices.
3. EQUAL BREATHING (Sama Vritti Pranayama)
This exercise teaches us now to notice the ratios of our breathing and to regulate the flow of breath. It’s useful to calm and rebalance your mind.
Find your comfortable pranayama position and close your eyes.
Begin by observing your breathing ratio: that means silently counting as you breathe in and counting as you breathe out and comparing the count. This ratio of inhale:exhale changes all the time, sometimes the inhale is longer than the exhale, sometimes it’s shorter. This practices aims to make the inhale equal to the exhale.
Once you’ve noticed the ratio, begin to adjust your breathing so that the inhale is equal to the exhale. If the inhale is shorter than the exhale, gradually extend the until until it becomes equal to the length of the exhale. If the inhale is longer than the exhale, you can gradually extend the exhale until it is the same length as the inhale. Don’t try to do it in one breath - add one count with each breath until it is perfectly balanced.
The flow should remain smooth and relaxed. Don’t try to breathe over the natural pauses in your breath cycle - you need those.
Once you feel comfortable with this, (and it may take several weeks of practice) you can begin to extend both the inhale and the exhale, equally.
4. UNEQUAL BREATHING (Vishama Vritti Pranayama)
This is a calming and relaxing practice that is about extending the exhale until it is twice as long as the inhale.
Begin by observing the natural breath ratio, as explained above. Gradually extend the length of the exhale. For example if you start at a ratio of 4:4, start extending it so the exhale is a little longer, breath by breath: 4:5, then 4;6, 4:7 until you reach 4:8. No need to rush, just take your time and remember that the flow of your breath should remain smooth and relaxed.
Once you have reached this pattern, you can stay here. Or when you are comfortable with the 4:8 ratio you can extend both the inhale and the exhale while keeping the exhale twice as long as the inhale.
There are many different pranayama techniques you can learn. Once you have practiced these exercises for a while, you will be ready to move on to more complex pranayama practices such as Nadi Shodana (Alternate Nostril Breathing) and Kapalabhati (Skull Brightener).
NOTE: if you have asthma or another compromise to your breathing system, please consult a doctor before beginning a pranayama practice.
* According to John Hopkins University, resting adults breathe 12-16 times per minute*. That's up to 23,000 times a day, or more if we exercise.
The Yoga of Breath - A Step by Step Guide to Pranayama, by Richard Rosen
Light on Pranayama, by B.K.S. Iyengar
Science of Breath, A Practical Guide, by Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballentine, MD, Alan Hymes, MD
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