Breathing is such an important part of life – so important that we normally allow it go on in the background, unnoticed. Developing an awareness of how our body breathes enables us to move with greater ease increases our capacity for mindful living and can support health and wellbeing.
Breathing is also an incredibly important part of yoga practice, and is one of the 8 limbs of yoga. Breath is intimately linked to what yogis call Prana – this is the life force that surrounds us. Breathing is one of the ways that we can replenish our own life force – we can literally breathe in more vitality and breath our staleness.
We know breathing can impact the autonomous nervous system – the way we breathe can create more energy and alertness, and can also can create a sense of calm and relaxation. The yoga tradition includes a range of breathing exercises called pranayama to balance the energies (prana) of the body. Some of these techniques can help us develop a better clarity and focus, enhance lung capacity, cleanse the respiratory system and support us to sleep better.
Pranayama are therefore specific tools that can have different impact on the body/mind. Think of them like asanas – they are things we can learn, practice and integrate into our lives. And just like asana practice, there are principles that are useful to remember when learning these techniques, or bringing breath into more conscious awareness during our yoga practice.
Here is a summary of my key principles of using breath in yoga:
Use the nose to breathe as much as possible
The nose is an amazing structure. It has hairs which filter the air we breathe and is therefore the first line of defense for the immune system. Breathing through the nose can also stimulate the olfactory nerves, and these can directly lead to some memory centres of the brain.
When we are practicing our yoga asana, inhaling and exhaling through the nose also helps to slow the breath down, which helps balance the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous systems. There are some particular pranayama that use the mouth for exhaling – otherwise the nose is recommended as much as possible.
Allow the breath to steady first
It is important to remember that just like our body can develop habits that are helpful and habits that are unhelpful, our breathing can be similar. Often many people I speak to about breathing have developed a pattern of unintentional breath holding. Often we hold the breath when we are worried, tense on edge, or as a result of trauma. We can also breathe with just the upper lobes of the lungs, or breathe regularly through the mouth.
None of these are necessarily wrong, but there ay be more helpful patterns. Before we manipulate the breath with new pranayama techniques, it is useful to observe the breath first. It is also not helpful to change the breath too much too quickly, so we want to go slowly and steadily with learning any new breathing techniques.
One of the benefits of breathing is that it regulates the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system - Often the breath will find its own rhythm that is slow and easeful while we watch – then we can start trialing different ways of breathing so we can notice the effects on our own system.
Don’t push the breath.
Aim to slowly develop awareness and use different breathing techniques and notice the effects on you. People respond differently to different techniques – like learning asana and movement practices, it is an opportunity for self exploration and greater understanding of our systems. Just like in asana, I find that the slow steady mindful approach means that I can move within my capacity – some days I may be able to do a stronger practice, and other days I need something more restorative.
Breathing is the same – we can build up our tolerance of stronger breathing techniques slowly, but there still may be days, such as while menstruating or experiencing grief, anxiety or pain that these practices aren’t right for us. Not all breathing practices are right for all people. Some particular contraindications may be heart conditions, asthma, bronchitis or respiratory issues, but also anxiety and dissociative conditions.
Let the breath move you.
When we move mindfully, it can be useful to allow the breath to initiate the movement. Sometimes this might be following the intuitive movement of the breath and allowing the breath to be completely free, and other times it may be using a deliberate breathing ratio or technique within the movement of the body.
It can be useful to know that inhales are generally expansive and will support movement where we open up, think lifting arms, backbends. Exhales are generally contracting and are often used when folding forward, or moving into twists.
When you become more subtly tuned to the breath you will notice that the movement happens within the breath. That you start to breath, then you start to move, and you finish moving and then you finish breathing. And then you pause in stillness.
Ratios are important
Much of our experimenting with breath can be done through changing the ratios of breathing. Any even breath ratio will be 1:1 (ie 4 counts in 4 counts out). At times we can change the ratio, and build up the inhale and the exhale. It is useful to remember that while we can extend the exhalation to up to double the length of the inhalation, the inhalation should always be less than the exhale – this is because it could cause both physical and psychological destablisation.
Play with pauses.
Breath pauses can help calm the nervous system, (after an exhalation) or create more alertness to the system(after an inhalation). My teacher often says that the pauses are where the magic happens – pauses in movement give our nervous system a chance to notice interoceptively how we fell in the body, and pausing the breath also helps to slow our breathing down and creates more mindful awareness. Pausing the breath is not the same as holding the breath. Pauses should feel natural and comfortable, and should not leave us gasping or hungry for air in the following breath.
In Term 3 we are turning our attention towards mindful breathing. Each week we will explore different pranayama technique and will explore the principles outlined here and find ways to breath that support resilience of the system – that is the capacity to respond to stressors and return to a state of balance. Breathing is an impart part of developing resilience. Feel free to join me: Thursday July 22- September 23