February 4, 2019
Translating from Sanskrit "Prana" stands for life force and "Ayama" means expansion. In more understandable words the life force is our breath and pranayama is effectively different breathing practices that help us expand it.
Our breath is intimately linked with our state of mind.
In yoga scriptures it is said that thoughts and breath originate from the same source. By controlling one you automatically affect the other.
A quiet mind means a slower breath. Think of your breathing pace when you wake up in the morning or when you feel very relaxed - it is normally slower and deeper, easy and effortless.
Compare that to situations where your mind is highly stimulated or you’re feeling stressed or scared - the breath tends to be shallow, faster and of different lengths. We might even have difficulty to take a deep breath in or tend to hold it without realising until we finally sigh out.
If yoga could be summarised into one phrase - not doing justice to all the benefits it can have - it is the discipline to quiet the mind.
If the physical practice of yoga asana could be summarised into one phrase - it is to join the breath with movement. The breath is the bridge between our body and mind, the physical and the mental. Without it, we would just be doing fancy things with our body and the practice would be called gymnastics, wouldn't it? :)
It takes one yoga class to experience this close link between the breath and the mind. It’s fascinating how the 60-90 minutes class can take us on an emotional rollercoaster ride, with many ups and downs, frustrations and reliefs along the way.
Too often we get frustrated with poses, forcing our bodies to get into shapes,
clenching our jaw and frowning our foreheads, getting worked up we are unable to do something we think we should. It takes a teacher to remind us of our breath, to realise it’s the first thing that goes away when we start struggling. The more disconnected we are from the breath, the more we want to force the pose, the harder it becomes.
This is where we experience how tuning back into our breath helps to let go, calm down and soften in the pose. You realise that your breath is your guide showing you what your body is ready for and what it needs. If a pose compromises your breathing, you start asking yourself whether it’s worth it. It’s pretty liberating when you start listening to your breath over your ego in a class.
Noticing this intimate relationship we see the opposite causation between the breath and the mind. Since the mind is much harder to control and is over-stimulated by our own thoughts and all that’s happening around us, learning to work with our breath is a powerful tool we can use to balance the mind and gain control over our emotional states.
On and off the mat.
With this in mind, I wanted to share some of the different breathing techniques I’ve learned during my yoga teacher's training and some others I have been practising in the last months.
They’re great to start your day with, add into your existing meditation practice or start one, and ultimately when you're comfortable practise on-the-go. That's the best thing about pranayama techniques - they're available to you wherever you are!
Let’s start with the basic Yogic Breathing, also known as Abdominal breathing or Diaphragmatic Breathing.
Set a timer for 5-10 minutes.
Sitting or lying down on your back, close your eyes and breathe normally for a few minutes, let it be completely natural.
Take notice and check in how you are feeling physically and mentally.
Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly and breathe through your nose.
Bring your attention to the hand on your abdomen and breathe in by feeling the belly expand and push against the hand, collapsing and drawing towards your spine when you exhale.
The hand on your chest remains almost still.
If it helps, imagine your breath filling your body just like water would a glass - filling up from the bottom towards the top and emptying in the opposite direction, top to bottom. Visualise and feel the breath fill your body with this flow.
Throughout the exercise let the abdomen relax and don’t force the breath.
Try to stay present on the breath and if you realise your mind wandered (which it inevitably will), gently bring your focus back on the rise and fall of the belly.
Abdominal breathing enhances the action of your diaphragm, the sheet of muscle underneath your lungs separating them from the abdominal cavity. When functioning correctly it promotes the most efficient type of breathing. During inhalation the diaphragm moves downward pushing the abdomen outward and creates more space for your lungs to expand. During exhalation it moves upward and the abdomen inward.
Interesting fact: this type of breathing is also used by singers as it promotes the best singing performance.
helps utilise the lower parts of your lungs for more efficient breathing
massages internal organs - pancreas, gall bladder, liver, stomach, intestines
improves the flow of oxygen circulation in your body
activates parasympathetic nervous system
quiets the mind
helps relieve stress levels
helps to be present
This exercise is also a great starting point to observe and get to know your breathing better - do you prefer breathing through your nose or mouth, what is the quality and length of your inhales and exhales, is there any resistance to breathing more deeply and slowly?
When I first tried it during my yoga training, I realised that I was breathing in the opposite and completely unnatural way - pulling my belly in on an inhale breathing only through my chest, and pushing my abdomen out on the exhale.
Yet abdominal breathing is a breathing form that is most natural to all mammals and occurs when we are in deep states of relaxation. Just think of a cat, or a dog - if you ever watched them sleep, have you noticed how their whole bodies inflate and deflate like a little ballon when they breath? Similarly, can you think of anything more peaceful than a sleeping baby?
Unsurprisingly I have often felt the need to take deep inhales through the day, but finding it difficult to do so, as if I can't reach the top when inhaling.
It’s taken me a few months of yoga and pranayama practices to start reversing this pattern, and I still have to pay close attention to it.
But I'm keen to hear your experience! Give this exercise a go and observe what comes - how easy or hard it is to stay focused on your breath, what are your thoughts, feelings or emotions, is there any resistance that comes up. Similarly, start paying more attention to your breathing through the day and take note how it relates to the different experiences you are in.
And remember to stop and take a deep breath in when you need to - a few of those can give you a fresh perspective and a little break for your thinking mind.