Take a deep, long breath in through the nose, fill up the lungs .... and a cleansing exhale out through the mouth ... Hhhhaaaaa!
Breathing is one of the most underrated actions of our body, a subconscious, automatic effort, yet so powerful as without it there's no life. But it becomes such a powerful tool once we start to utilise it consciously.
As discussed in my first post, Yoga is "the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind", therefore breathing plays a huge role in achieving that mind body balance, the stillness, the peace of mind, the lightness, and ultimately reaching Samadhi. The breath awareness, combined with yoga postures (Asana) allow the body to move fluidly, consciously, with purpose, staying grounded and present, making Asana a moving meditation. During the physical yoga practice, it is always encouraged to breathe in and out through the nose. Why is that? Scientifically, breathing in through your nasal passage increases the production nitric oxide, which improves your lungs’ ability to absorb oxygen, then transport it throughout your body, including inside your heart. Also, because the nasal passage is narrower than the mouth, it will automatically slow down the rhythm of your breath, and could significantly lower your heart rate, leading to improved energy levels while practicing Asana.
The way we breathe will also impact out lives on and off the mat. Conscious, deep inhales through the nose, (with a small pause at the top) and long smooth exhales through the nose (with a small pause at the bottom) have several benefits in your everyday life, some of them listed below:
-Improves posture as you strengthen your diaphragm muscle
-Improves sleep patterns and recovery periods (Reduces snoring and apnoea)
-Lowers heart rate
-Leaves you feeling calmer and more peaceful in reaction to stress
In Yoga, the science of breathing and all the breathing exercises associated is known as Paranayama. In Sanskrit "Prana" means life force, something that flows continuously from somewhere inside us, while "Ayama" is translated as "to stretch" or "to extend". In modern world world , Pranayama is often described as "breathing exercises" or awareness of the breath, practiced with the goal of keeping the mind calm, yet focused and alert. Pranayama, practiced together with Asana form a moving meditation, preventing our practice from being purely physical mechanical and preparing the body and mind for seated, deeper meditation. In The Heart of Yoga, T.K.V Desikachar, (son of T. Krishnamacharya, the father of modern yoga) explains that our state of mind is very closely related to the quality of the prana, the energy within us. As we can influence the flow of prana using the flow of our breath, the quality of our breath and the breathing exercises will influence our mental state and the other way around.
Out of the multitude of Pranayama exercises, detailed below are 3 of the most utilised in modern yoga practice:
1. Ujjayi Pranayama (also called Victorious Breath , translates as "what clears the throat and masters the chest area" . It is a classic pranayama practice where we invite a slight constriction at the back of the throat, in the larynx, which will narrow the air passage, creating a slight ocean/breaking waves sound as we breathe. Ujjayi Pranayama is encouraged to be maintained for the entire duration of the asana practice, as it improves concentration, helps you to maintain a rhythm while you practice asana and stimulates the energy channels in the body, bringing mental clarity and focus. While it is best to learn Ujjayi under the guidance of a teacher, more details can be found here.
2. Nadi Shodhana (also called Alternate Nostril breathing) is a technique for lengthening both the exhalation and the inhalation, as we breathe alternately only through the nostrils, bringing equal amount of oxygen to both sides of our brain. The effect is cooling, calming for the mind and helps bringing awareness into the present moment, therefore it is often practiced at the start and/or the end of the yoga class. Practice Nadi Shodhana also off the mat if you're feeling a bit anxious or stressed, it will bring balance to the mind and emotions, also rejuvenates the mind; increases intellect, balances blood pressure and stimulates the digestive fire and metabolism. Avoid this Pranayama if you're having a cold or if your nose is blocked. Learn how to practice it here.
3. Kapalabhati - (Skull Shining Breath or Breath of Fire) is a more advanced, cleansing breathing technique. It consists of a steady repetition of forceful exhalations followed by passive inhalations.
A very powerful breathing technique, Kapalabhati builds fire in the body, strengthens and tones diaphragm and abdominal muscles, cleanses your respiratory system, purifies, rejuvenates, and invigorates the mind and body.
Inviting Kapalabhati in our everyday life: in the morning as it is so energising and invigorating or whenever we're feeling a case of the mid-day slump come on.
Practice this pranayama on an empty stomach and seek guidance from a teacher if you are new to this practice. Do not practice Kapalabhati if pregnant, or suffer from high blood pressure, acid gastric issues, heart disease, or abdominal pain.
Lastly, a reminder that everything starts with the breath. Whether it’s our yoga practice, or your everyday life, there's multiple/better perspectives to every situation, if we just take a moment to breathe consciously. Breath is life force, we cannot leave without it, and once we become conscious of our breath, even the simple action of following the inhale and the exhale and staying connected to that rhythm will have an incredible impact on our lives.
In the meantime ...
Breathe In, Breathe Out.