One of my favourite expressions is “Yoga is the union of mind and body, and breath is the bridge.”Connection with the breath is the foundation of yoga and is an invaluable tool in the process of becoming aware of the inner essence of our physical body, and the inner essence of who we really are. Krishnamacharya, a renowned yogi and the teacher of Iyengar, Desikachar, and Pattabhi Jois maintained, “Breath is central to yoga, and any practice that disrespects the breath is without life, because breathe is life.”
Breath is probably one of the best ways to bring stillness to the mind. Our ability to control our breath; the rate at which we breathe, and how deeply we breath, is intricately tied to our ability to exert control over our thoughts feelings and behaviours. Essentially, we can use breathing practices to help regulate how we feel and move through the world. We have all, at one time or another, experienced how our state of mind can affect our breath, and how our breath can affect our state of mind. When we become agitated or anxious, our breath often becomes short, constricted, and rapid. When we are calm and relaxed, our breath is long and deep. The really neat thing is, that by controlling breath, by causing it to become long and deep, we can calm our mind. This relationship has been recognized by modern medicine and breath is commonly used as an anxiety management technique. Breathing practices are also used as a tool to cultivate greater mental control over our emotions and our reactions to them. The use of slow and conscious breathing balances the nervous system, initiates the relaxation response and grounds us. The nervous system is further balanced as we use our breath in coordination with the yoga postures and movements. In yoga, this practice of breath control is called Pranayama.
Breath can be the connection between poses, it can be our connection to the present moment. Breath is where yoga begins . Breath is the bridge between body and mind. Breath is Life.
A Basic Approach to all Breathing Exercises
The following is adapted from Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans by Suzanne Manafort and Daniel J. Libby
Become comfortable on your mat. If you wish close your eyes. Start by simply watching your breath. Notice how breath feels today. It may feel deep and rich, or it may feel shallow and light. There is no right or wrong, so just observe. The purpose is to observe, without judgement, what today feels like. Bring your awareness to the the base of your nostrils, right where the breath enters. Notice the sensation of it entering and exiting. Notice that it may be cool as it enters and warm as it exits. Draw your awareness deeper and notice how the breath feels on the inside of your nostrils. Perhaps it feels soft. You may also notice that it swirls on the way in. Now draw your awareness even deeper. Feel how your breath makes it way in through the nostrils and all the way to the bottom of your lungs. Maybe notice how your abdomen rises and falls as you deepen your breath. Now experiment with making your inhalation a and exhalations take a little longer. Perhaps you will notice that your breath has lengthened and deepened. Find a comfortable rhythm and stay with it. Watch how your lungs expand when you inhale and condense when you exhale. The next time you inhale and your lungs expand, imagine oxygen filling every single part of your body, bringing in energy and life. Stay with these sensations and allow the breath to wash through you and nourish you. If you like, focus on any area of your body that may need attention. Maybe its your whole body. As you inhale, feel new and fresh oxygen wash through you. When you exhale release all that is unneeded, unwanted or waste. Stay with your breath, watching rhythm, watching length and depth, noticing how it connects to and nourishes your body. If you would like, focus your attention on that aspect of breath that appeals most to you, and lock your awareness on to that. It may be the sensation of breath entering or leaving the body, or it may be the rise and fall of your abdomen. Just follow what seems most interesting in the present moment.
Below are three types of breath practice that are commonly taught as pranayama during a yoga class, and which, of course, you can integrate into every pose of your personal yoga practice.
Ujayi – Victorius Breath
Don’t be put off by the loud sound of your breath when practicing this technique. You will know you’re performing it correctly when you hear a hissing sound at the back of your throat. To begin your practice sit up tall in a position that’s comfortable for you.
- Place your hand in front of your mouth, and imagine that it is a mirror. Open your mouth, and exhale a hot sound as if you were fogging up the mirror. That breath comes from the back of your throat.
- Now close your mouth, and try to breathe in a similar way, as if you were again fogging up that imaginary mirror. You will notice a hissing sound coming from the back of your throat. This is the beginning of practicing the Ujayi breathing technique.
- Complete about 8 to 10 breaths cycles, inhaling and exhaling with the slight constriction in the back of your throat. When done correctly, Ujayi sounds like the ocean and it is often called Ocean Breath. During the execution of Ujayi pranayama the mouth is closed and there was a slight constriction of the throat as you inhale and exhale. Throughout the entire practice, try to match the length of your inhales with your exhale so that your breath is seamless. If this fees comfortable for you, begin lengthening your breath to a count of four, inhaling on a count of four, and exhaling on a count of four. You can then lengthen your inhalation and your exhalation to a count of five or six.
Three Part Breath
Three-part it is a great breathing technique for beginners, and it is also one that all of us can use in times of stress. When you feel overwhelmed by stress or fear, you begin to breathe rapidly and shallowly. Three-part breath can help you remain calm by slowing down your breath. It is a technique that teaches us to use the full capacity of or lungs. When we breathe, we bring breath in from the top of the lungs to the bottom. Think of the lung as being divided into three sections, the top lungs, the middle lungs, and the bottom lungs. We can bring breath into these sections one at a time, first the bottom, then the middle, then finally the top. Or if you would like, you can bring it into the top, the middle, then the bottom. It is your choice. Experiment with both and then pick the order that works best for you.
- To practice three-part breath you can begin in a sitting posture, but to get the most calming effect lie in savasana and close your eyes, letting your body and facial muscles fully relax. Concentrate for a moment on the natural rhythm of your inhalations and exhalations.
- Inhale deeply through your nose, filling your chest cavity so that your belly expands for a count of two and then pause for a moment.
- Continue to expand your belly as you fill the next third of your lungs to another count of two.
- Continue to expand your belly as you fill the final third of your lungs to another count of two. Pause and then exhale as smoothly as you can for a count of six. Repeat five times before beginning a yoga session.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
By practicing alternate nostril breathing, you can create more balance between your right and left nasal passageways. As humans, we don’t always breathe through both of our nostrils equally. As a result there is usually one side that is more dominant. It is said that practicing three-part alternate nostril breathing will help to purify the energetic channels of the subtle body so that prana, or life force energy, can move through you more easily. This breathing technique will also help calm your mind, relieve stress, and help to prepare for seated meditation.
- To practice alternate nostril breathing, start by finding a comfortable seated position.
- Inhale once deeply and then exhale slowly.
- Close off your right nostril with your right thumb and inhale through your left nostril.
- Use your ring finger to close off both nostrils and hold the breath.
- Keeping your ring finger on your left nostril, exhale out of your right nostril.
- Inhale through your right nostril, and then close off both nostrils and pause to hold the breath.
- Exhale out of your left nostril. This is one round of three alternate nostril breathing.