I’ll admit, when I first started practicing yoga, I thought it was all about stretching my body into gravity-defying postures while maintaining a zen-like facial expression.
Ten years and one million sun salutations later, I’ve figured out that there might be something to all this talk about “inhaling, and exhaling.” As it turns out, yoga is all about the breath, and you can use it to get into deep meditation and calm the body and mind. The best part about breathing? It’s completely free and our bodies naturally do it all day long.
It would have been useful to know the basics of yoga breath when I started practicing. I’ve put together a list of some of the top techniques you should start integrating today.
In Sanskrit, pranayama refers to the regulation of breathing. Prana is the breath, your life-giving force. But breathing isn’t anything new. Babies are able to perform this underwhelming skill from the moment they are born. We’re all doing it, all the time, and for most people their breathing goes completely unnoticed. It’s a life-force we take entirely for granted. In fact, the average person takes 16 breaths per minute. That’s about 960 breaths an hour, 23,040 breaths a day, 8,409,600 a year. That’s a lot of breathing!
Have you ever been in a scary or stressful situation and noticed that you’re holding your breath? Ever feel a lump in your throat? Feeling short-of-breath is often associated with nervous or anxious feelings. Maybe you’ve experienced hyperventilation during a stressful time.
Now think about how you feel when you’re entirely relaxed. Perhaps you’re laying poolside reading a great book. Your breathing is likely rhythmically slow and steady. It’s the same measured breath we associate with someone in deep sleep.
Researchers have associated regulated, deep breathing with some astounding benefits:
- Reduced anxiety and depression
- Lower/stabilised blood pressure
- Increased energy levels
- Muscle relaxation
- Decreased feelings of stress and overwhelm
I love breathing as a stress-reduction tool because you can use it anytime and anywhere. You’re breathing while reading this article, aren’t you?
1. Deep Belly Breathing
Stressful situations often correspond with a shortness of breath. In fact, so many people live their lives only ever breathing into the very top part of their diaphragm.
The technique of deep belly breath is exactly that: breathing deeply into the lower part of the abdomen, filling air into the lungs and expanding the stomach. To feel this technique, relax your abdomen, letting your belly hang out. Gently place your hand over your belly button. Inhale slowly and methodically – you should start to feel your belly pressing your hand outwards, away from your body, as your lungs fill with air, pushing the rib cage and stomach outwards. Pause, then exhale. As air releases from the lungs their volume deflates, the ribcage draws in towards the body and you feel the navel retract towards the midline.
I love this technique because no one needs to know you’re doing it. Feeling overwhelmed at work? Place your hand over your stomach and take ten deep belly breaths. I promise some of that tension will dissipate.
2. Ujjayi Breath
Ujjayi breath is also known as victorious breath, or ocean-sounding breath. I like to call it “Darth Vader breath” because this breathing technique sounds like you’re taking in air through a creepy black face mask.
No masks are required when practicing ujjayi breath. Instead, the sound comes from a gentle constriction at the back of the throat, making the breath audible.
To get technical, the constriction occurs at the glottis, the circular opening of the vocal cords. When constricted, air passing through the windpipe sounds like the rhythmic waves crashing against the shoreline (or, like someone suffering from a chest cold!).
It’s normal to feel self-conscious when practicing this breathing technique in public. I like to use ujjayi breath when I’m in crowded spaces where no one will notice if I’m breathing more loudly. It’s great on overcrowded Subway cars, packed theatres and busy sidewalks.
3. Square Breathing
Square breathing is also known as sama vritti pranayama, or equal breathing. It’s the perfect technique for calming racing thoughts and focusing the mind.
This square breath technique involves evening out all four sides of the breath…
In addition to the inhale and exhale components of breath, held breath at the top of the inhale and held breath at the bottom of the exhale make up the four sides of this breathing square.
Below are the counts:
Inhale 2 3 4
Hold 2 3 4
Exhale 2 3 4
Hold 2 3 4
Square breathing is most effective when practiced in a peaceful setting. It is important to return to normal breathing if you ever feel dizzy or lightheaded when holding the breath.
Like ujjayi and deep belly breath, square breathing can reduce harmful or ineffective thought patterns. These breathing practices also help to bring the body into a more meditative state. Sweet Escape Yoga suggests a few focused meditation exercises to accompany your square breath practice.
The breath is your life force. Attuning to the body is a tool that is by nature accessible to anyone. Next time your breath starts to shorten, take a pause. Breathe deeply. Inhale, exhale, …