“Remember to breathe. It is, after all, the secret of life.”
Yoga has become increasingly popular in the West, which is wonderful because yoga offers so many benefits to anyone willing to try it out. Yoga has a rich and nuanced history; it is much more than a system of poses to stretch and strengthen the body, although that is one of its greatest benefits.
This fourth installment of our exploration of the eightfold path of yoga as outlined by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras (written sometime between the second and fourth centuries) takes a look at yogic breath, pranayama.
Let’s start with a few definitions:
Prana = Energy, Life, Breath
Ayama = Expansion, Extension, Breadth
Pranayama = The practice of breath control
When I did my yoga teacher training we were told of an idea that is deeply ingrained in Vedic lore, this is the concept that the number of breaths we are given for this lifetime is predetermined at conception. We are born to use our breath wisely and not waste it away. The breath is meant to be focused on and purposefully regulated to live a long, healthy life.
When was the last time you consciously focused on your breath? Our respiratory system is part of our autonomic nervous system, meaning that it does its job without us consciously focusing on it. Yet, we have the ability to consciously regulate our breathing, thus affecting the regulation and balance of our nervous system. There are traditional yogic pranayama techniques for energizing and/or relaxing the nervous system, creating more clarity and focus, cleansing the nadis or internal channels of the body, clearing the chakras, and so much more. Let’s go over a few pranayama techniques that I have found useful for my students and patients.
Diaphragmatic Breath Check-in
When someone has been in a prolonged state of unconsciously breathing this is a great starting point. Once per hour, take 3 deep, diaphragmatic breaths. This diaphragmatic breath is the expansion of the ribcage barrel, the abdominal cavity protrudes forward and down as the diaphragm lowers moving the organs on inhale and then everything pulls back towards the spine and up on exhale; feel the breath so deeply that the pelvic floor moves up and down with the movement of the diaphragm. The chest and shoulders should barely move.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
This is one of my favorite ways to quickly get into a parasympathetic (relaxed) state. The hand position I find the easiest is the middle and index finger on the forehead and ring finger and thumb block the nostrils. Block one nostril and inhale, switch your block and exhale, stay here and inhale, switch your block and exhale – that was one round. Practice for 5 minutes one or two times a day during times of stress and for general wellbeing.
Remember that there are three parts to your breath:
The Pause Between
Remember the pause!
Notice the hold at the top and bottom of your breath. This suspension, this moment where anything is possible.