Pranayama – 3 Breathing Exercises to start with.
Pranayama or breath control is an ancient technique and one of the main components of yoga. The term Pranayama is made of two Sanskrit words. The first word is ‘Prana’, meaning life force and the second is ‘Yama’, meaning to restraint or to control. Pranayama is typically defined as a set of practices used to control the prana (life force) by means of your breathing patterns, such as to hold your breath or to practice deep breathing.
I believe that breath is the place where our life force resides and that it is the most vital function of life (I wrote more about breathing in meditation here: https://www.themeditationbay.com/post/breathing-and-meditation). When you start practice it you will realise that Pranayama is much more than just taking deep breaths, it is actually a concentrated effort that focuses on controlling of your breath pattern which effectively changes the energy flow in your body. For this reason, Pranayama is the fourth limb (step) of yoga and it is mentioned beside asana and meditation in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.
When you realise how you can influence the rhythm, sound and depth of breath, you will understand the power of Pranayama and its benefits:
· It can reduce anxiety; it decreases the feeling of stress and overwhelm
· lowers or stabilises blood pressure
· It lowers heart rate
· It increases energy levels
· It promotes muscle oxygenation and relaxation
· It prepares for effective meditation practice
What makes Pranayama special is the fact that it can be practiced anywhere and at any time, it can be used whenever needed to reduce the stress or anxiety even while performing other tasks without having it noticed by anyone. I believe that the best way to start practicing Pranayama is by noticing your breathing patterns during the day, see how your breath changes in different circumstances, how you breathe when you are stressed, in small events like when you are crossing a busy road or even when you are worrying about something. While you watch your breath, you will realise that you can reduce your stress level by engaging in this task only, even without changing your breathing flow. You can think about using Pranayama as short meditation practice, when you notice that your breath gets shorter, make an effort to exhale fully. This will create the need of a deeper inhale, be conscious of your breathing.
Developing the skill of conscious breathing became very useful for me in many situations, from dealing with stress, using it as a tool to practice mindfulness up to performing in physical activity much easier and more effective. Below I recommend 3 breathing exercises to start with:
1. Nadi Shodhana - alternative nostril breathing.
Using this breathing technique will help you to manage stress in your daily life. These techniques helps relax the body and mind; by practicing you will become more mindful of the present moment.
· Sit in a comfortable position with your legs crossed.
· Place your left hand on your left knee.
· Lift your right hand up toward your nose.
· Exhale completely and then use your right thumb to close your right nostril.
· Inhale through your left nostril and then close the left nostril with your small finger.
· Open the right nostril and exhale through this side.
· Inhale through the right nostril and then close this nostril using your thumb.
· Open the left nostril and exhale through the left side. This is one cycle
· Continue for up to 5 minutes.
· Always complete the practice by finishing with an exhale on the left side.
2. Bhramari – Bee Breathing
This is the calming breathing practice, world Bhramari comes from Sanskrit and it means ‘bee’; it is called this way due to the bee-like buzzing sound created during the exhale. As it is known for its soothing effect on busy minds it can be used as on-spot remedy in any stressful or overwhelming situation.
· Sit comfortably, with the back tall and shoulders relaxed.
· Start by taking a few natural breaths, and close your eyes (as long as closing them doesn't produce more anxiety).
· Keeping the lips lightly sealed, inhale through the nostrils.
· Exhaling through your nose make the sound of the letter M, essentially a humming sound.
· Sustain the sound until you need to inhale.
· Then repeat: Inhale through the nose, then hum like a buzzing bee as you exhale.
· Continue by inhaling as needed and exhaling with this sound for several minutes.
· You can practice as long as it feels good.
3. Dirga Pranayama – three part breath
It is one of the first breathing exercises in yoga classes. Again it calms the mind and brings your attention to the present moment which helps settle into meditation, it can be performed anywhere as it doesn’t require special positions, mudras or sound.
· Sit in a comfortable position or lie on your back.
· Rest one hand on your belly and one hand on your rib cage.
· Close your eyes, and breathe deeply but naturally.
· Feel the lift of your belly and the expansion of your ribs on your inhalations; and the slight compression of your ribs and drop of your belly as you exhale.
· Next, bring your bottom hand to your chest, just below your collarbone. Breathe all the way into this area and allow your chest to rise slightly; then exhale and let it go.
· Now, engaging three parts – fill up your belly, rib cage and upper chest while inhaling;
· Then, on exhalations reverse the flow, notice how your chest drops, ribs contract, and belly lowers.
· Continue for as long as you can keep focus on three stage air flow.