Breathing is a key part of yoga practice. Whilst we all breathe tens of thousands of times every day without thinking about it, yoga breathing brings this day-to-day normality and life function into consciousness. From there, we can become aware of our own breathing techniques, and most of the time we realise that we aren’t doing a very good job! Breaths we take are typically shallow and irregular. During moments of stress this is heightened further. Learning more about yoga breathing can help your yoga practice and your general well-being.
Yoga breathing – Pranayama
Pranayama (breathing) is the fourth of the eight limbs of yoga according to the Pantanjali Yoga Sutras. Pranayama, often shortened to simply “prana’ means “to extend the vital life force”.
In Pantanjali’s teachings, he describes coming into consciousness with breath and the objective is for breathing to be made long and smooth.
Typically we tend to take short, sharp breaths from the top of the lungs, with incomplete exhales. Taking longer breaths, with full exhales, activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which can help to calm in times of stress.
Practicing pranayama can also help with promoting good sleep, to ease pain, increase focus and simply to quiet the mind and enjoy life in the present moment.
Breaking unconscious breathing patterns can help bring a new element to your life, inside and outside the yoga studio.
Yoga sutras and yoga breathing
In the Yoga Sutras it describes the journey to enlightenment, of which pranayama (breathing) is one of the elements to help lead the way, along with the asanas (postures) and dharana (concentration).
This increased focus and concentration is not the end result, it is one step on the path. It allows a greater personal connection and understanding through heightened awareness. It also allows you to become more in-touch with your true Self.
Ultimately, connecting with your true Self allows you to see what you really want from life, and, what you don’t want too. This includes being able to all those parts of your personality and life that are ever changing; thoughts, emotions, jobs, that often cause unnecessary anxieties.
Pranayama is a mechanism to help you reach dharana, this deep concentration, which leads on to dhyani, or in other words, meditation.
All these elements allow this connection to your Self, which can have incredible benefits to your life as a whole, being able to quiet the mind and listen with your heart.
Yoga breathing exercises
Pranayama encompasses the practice of many breathing techniques, which vary in complexity. It sounds bizarre but some yoga breathing techniques should only be facilitated alongside an experienced yoga teacher. This is to ensure they are performed correctly.
However, other pranayama exercises are perfectly safe to use alone to connect with your yoga practice, or just to gain clarity and a positive state of mind.
By practicing yoga breathing techniques on a regular basis, you may start to notice when your breathing is shallow or you unintentionally hold your breath during a regular day. Pranayama should bring your attention to your breathing and to your mind and body in general.
When you breathe well, you tend to also sit well and hold your posture better too. Taking a deep inhale can naturally make you straighten your spine, pull your shoulders back and lengthen your torso.
Try this basic yoga breathing technique to get started.
Yoga breathing – basic awareness of breath
To carry out this basic yoga breathing technique, designed just to bring your focus and awareness to your breath, lie comfortably on your back with your knees bent so your feet are flat on the ground.
- Place the palm of your hand on your abdomen and draw your focus to the natural rhythm of your breath, without making any efforts to change how you would breathe normally.
- Become aware of your own breathing technique and how it feels, without judging yourself. Is it staggered? Is it shallow? Is it sharp?
- Now, consciously, try to smooth the breath by taking inhales and exhales of the same length. Make them full breaths without forcing either the inhale or exhale. Add a slight pause at the end of the inhale and exhale and really focus on it.
- Feel your abdomen rising and falling with the inhale and exaggerate the movement by expanding and retracting the abdomen. Do this for up to 12 breaths.
Practice this yoga breathing technique every day and you should start to notice an increased awareness to your breathing and a more still mind.
If you have moments of stress whether that be at home, at work, studying, practice bringing your breath back to this smooth, rhythmic pace, and you should feel more relaxed and able to tackle the issue.