How does your breath feel today?
Take a moment to notice how you are breathing right now. Is your breath quick or slow? Is it deep or shallow? Now take a deep breath in through your nose, and a big sign out through your mouth. How do you feel now?
One of the biggest misconceptions about Pranayama is that it's just breath control or a set of breathing techniques. In fact, Pranayama is a subtle practice of moving energy by harnessing the power of your breath and it’s done in a gentle, measured approach under the guidance of a qualified teacher.
That relief that you maybe felt when you sighed out through your mouth was energy being release, and your breath is the tool that aided that release.
Now notice what happens in your belly when you breathe. When you inhale, does your belly rise or contract? If you answered that your belly rises, then you’re breathing in a natural way. If you answered that your belly falls or contracts, then you’re reverse breathing. Keep reading to find out why you reverse breathe.
Your breath is such a powerful tool when it comes to your physical and emotional health, and this is what I’ll share with you in this blog. I’ll cover topics like:
What is Pranayama?
The word Pranayama translates to breath regulation. In Sanskrit Prana translates to vital force or life force, and Yama means control.
The practice of Pranayama could also be seen as conscious breathing. In your daily life you are subjected to a wide variety of situations that demand your physical and mental response, and they can be observed in the changing intensity of your breathing patterns. But how often do you observe your breath?
There is a beautiful story in the book Prana and Pranayama, Swami S. Nirajanananda, which describes the importance of Prana:
“The Upanishads tell the following story. Once all the deities that reside in the body – air, fire, water, earth, ether, speech and mind – had an argument. Each claimed that it was superior to all others, declaring, “I sustain this perishable body.” Prana was listening to this debate and ultimately said to them, “Do not delude yourself. It is I, having divided myself into five parts, who supports and sustains this body.” The deities did not believe him. Indignantly, Prana began to withdraw from the body. Instantly, all the other deities found themselves withdrawing too. When Prana again settled in the body, the deities found that they had assumed their respective places. Convinced of Prana’s superiority, all now paid obeisance to Prana.”
If you have been following my blog for a while you will know that I’ve been sharing the elements of Patanjalis 8 limb path. Feel free to go back to the first blog from November, “What are the Yamas? How to put them into practice right now” to catch up.
Pranayama is the 4th limb of Patanjalis 8 limb path, and forms the link between your body and mind.
Are you breathing right?
So lets come back to the idea of reverse breathing. I’ve found that students who try Pranayama for the first time tend to struggle because most of us breathe in reverse.
"The majority of our society walks around every day sucking in their stomachs..."
Let me explain; as you’re reading this, are you sucking in your stomach?
The majority of our society walks around every day sucking in their stomachs, and this could be for a number of reasons; like the fitness world emphasizing that a flat tummy is attractive and the opposite is not, or you could constantly be in flight or flight mode, as we have been for the past few years, which sometimes causes you to hold a lot of tension around your abdomen.
The implications of this action are that you end up altering your breathing patterns amongst other things. Now reverse breathing isn’t wrong or right, rather it is not the natural way that your body breathes.
Natural breathing starts in your nose and then moves to your stomach as your diaphragm contracts, your belly expands and your lungs fill with air. It is the most efficient way to breathe, as it pulls down on your lungs, creating negative pressure in your chest, resulting in air flowing into your lungs.
Here is a short video to show you how your lungs and diaphragm work together.
How can Pranayama improve your physical health?
You can become conscious of your breath and improve your overall health by forming a habit of practicing Pranayama daily. You don’t need to carve out a specific time or keep track of how often you do this; it doesn’t have to be difficult. You can do this anywhere.
"By increasing the amount of Prana you start to connect your body and mind..."
When you increase the amount of Prana (energy/life force) that flows through your body, you influence almost all of your organs and physiological systems.
By increasing the amount of Prana you start to connect your body and mind, which helps you feel calm, more in control and could give you a boost of energy, or help you to get to sleep, depending on the technique.
The affects of Pranayama on your respiratory system
You can formulate a healthier process of respiration by exercising the muscles of respiration and your lungs through the processes of deep, rapid, or slow breathing. Your chest is opened to its fullest extent, strengthening your respiratory muscles, and your lungs stretched, making them more elastic.
This prepares your respiratory organs and muscles to work efficiently throughout your day, allowing for a larger amount of oxygen to be absorbed.
The affects of Pranayama on your digestion
During Pranayama your stomach, pancreas, liver, bowels, and kidneys are all massaged by the diaphragm and abdominal muscles.
This results in healthier bowel movements and elimination, and can help you to decrease your risk of constipation and increase well-functioning digestion.
The affects of Pranayama on your Cardiac health
Pranayama allows for increased circulation as the muscles of the heart are gently massaged.
The practices reduce stress put on your cardiac system by day-to-day life. Breathing with slow, deep and long breaths allows your heart to rest.
How can you use your breath to improve your emotional health?
Your breath is the closest thing to you. It is tangible and controllable, your inhalation and exhalation sustains you, calms you, and is affected by your thoughts and activities.
Think about it, when you’re scared, you hold your breath, when you are excited your heart rate increases and so does your breath.
You experience this daily, yet most of us ignore our breath.
Let’s come back to the short awareness of breath practice that you tried at the beginning of this blog. Notice your breath again, try not to control it, simply notice how it feels.
Bring your awareness to where you feel your breath in your body. Is it in your belly, chest, hands, or throat? Set a timer for 1 minute and simply notice your breath, no control.
How do you feel now? For that 1-minute you were completely present, nothing else existed but your breath, or perhaps it was the longest minute of your life. Haha!
The point is that your breath can be so powerful for your emotional health, and even though you were focused on your breath, what you were actually witnessing was your current energy, the vibrations in your physical body.
"These kinds of mindfulness practices help you to regulate your emotions, improve concentration and focus."
This focus is known as mindfulness, and although you weren’t doing any technique during this time you were completely present. These kinds of mindfulness practices help you to regulate your emotions, improve concentration and focus.
You will also find that Pranayama reduces stress, and helps to you feel calmer. I find 3-part yogic breathing to be particularly helpful for this. Here is a short video I created a while back if you’d like to give it a try.
What are the benefits of Pranayama?
There are so many wonderful benefits to Prayanama:
· decreases stress
· improves sleep quality
· increases mindfulness
· reduces high blood pressure
· improves lung function
· promotes relaxation which allows your body to repair itself
· supports brain function, helping you to feel more focused
3 Myths about Pranayama
1. Pranayama relieves Anxiety
I would like to address one important bit of misinformation that has circled in the yoga world, and this is the idea that Pranayama can help to reduce anxiety.
Whilst I believe this to be completely true, the context is what matters most. Sometimes Pranayama can exacerbate anxiety if the practitioner is unfamiliar with the technique. As someone who suffers with anxiety, I know that learning something new whilst I am feeling anxious makes me feel worse, and can cause disruptions in my emotional wellbeing.
The solution here is to slowly introduce techniques in small stages and at times that you’re not necessarily feeling anxious. Something as simple as breath awareness is a great place to start. This way when an anxiety attack arises you can come back to something that you know and are familiar with.
2. You have to sound like Darth Vader when you practice Ujahi Breath Have you ever been in a yoga class and the person next to you sounds like Darth Vader? Haha! You were probably practicing Ujahi breath. This breath is sometimes referred to as ocean breath or victorious breath.
So are you doing it “wrong” if your breath doesn’t sound like the ocean? No. The sound is a consequence of the muscles in your throat engaging. As I’ve said in previous blogs, we are tangible beings, and sometimes we need to physically experience something in order to feel like we are experiencing something.
I will release a video on Instagram this month that explains how to practice Ujahi breath, so feel free to follow me if you would like to learn how.
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3. Pranayama is just breathing
Maybe you’re thinking I know what Pranayama is; it’s a bunch of breathing exercises where I close one nostril and breathe through the other, or thrust my belly in and out or squeeze my throat till my breathing sounds like the ocean.
Whilst these are the exercises or techniques of Pranayama, there is a little bit more to it. Remember that the word Prana translates to energy or life force and Yama means control.
Therefore Pranayama is a subtle practice of moving energy (Prana) by harnessing the power of your breath and it’s done in a gentle, controlled (yama) fashion under the guidance of a teacher.
A short and easy Pranayama practice to start today
I find that the most effective Pranayama technique for someone who has never tried it before is diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing. This breathing method should be cultivated during daily life until it becomes a spontaneous habit for you.
You might find it challenging to breathe in the way at first as our lifestyles hinder us from breathing naturally due to tension, poor posture and tight clothing, but try to stick with it.
Natural abdominal breathing:
Lie on your back and relax your whole body. You can do this by starting to notice all the parts of your body that make contact with the floor and allowing each part to be heavy.
Allow your breath to be spontaneous and try not to control it.
Bring your awareness to your diaphragm and visualize it as a sheet of muscle below your lungs. The best place to focus your awareness is at the base of your sternum/chest.
As you breathe in visualize your diaphragm flattening and pushing downward on your abdominal organs below it…your belly should rise.
As you breathe out, your diaphragm relaxes. Feel it moving upward again to resume its position beneath your sternum...your belly should fall.
Don't force your breath in any way, allow it to run rhythmic and smooth. The movement of your diaphragm should feel natural and comfortable, without any resistance.
Place your right hand on your belly, just above your navel, and left hand on the centre of your chest.
Your right hands moves up with inhalation, and down with exhalation.
Your left hand should not move with the breath.
Set a timer for 10 minutes per day and try this for at least 7 days. Notice if anything changes for you in the way you breathe or feel.
I hope that this blog helped to demystify some of the question marks that you had around Pranayama and show you how something as simple as your breath can help you feel physically and emotionally better every day.
I would love to hear from you in the comments below or feel free to connect with me on any of the social media channels.
"Breathe in deeply to bring your mind home to your body." Thich Nhat Hanh
Love and Light