Stay With Your Breath
Yoga techniques that will transform the way you think about breathing
March 31, 2021 | Published by O2
If you’re reading this, pause whatever you’re doing for a moment and close your eyes. Take a deep inhalation through your nose and let it back out slowly through your mouth. Now open your eyes and notice how it felt. Was your breathing shallow? Laboured? Was it difficult to take a deep breath? Is your heart beating fast or slow? You might not realize it, but what you just did is truly profound. From cognition to digestion, breathing affects every system in your body; the simple act of taking a deep breath can have an incredible impact on your body and mind. In a recent post, we explored just how important breathing is to your health, and offered some deep breathing techniques you can try right now.
We know that simple exercises like these play an important role in controlling your sympathetic nervous system – the part of the body that affects your breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. For thousands of years, humans have understood this importance. Many ancient practitioners used breathing techniques in their meditation practices. They realized that by controlling their breath they could affect their mental and physical health in many positive ways.
Ancient Yogis understood this perhaps better than anyone else.
Many people think that yoga is all about balance, flexibility, and strength, and while those are all important, they’re secondary to breathing in yoga (also known as breathwork). Before science even existed yogis knew that by controlling their breath they could balance their physical, mental, and even emotional well-being. But now that science has confirmed what our ancient counterparts already knew, we understand just how beneficial yoga can be. As it turns out, Yoga is much more than another form of exercise – and it’s all in the breath.
Pranayama practice: breathing in Yoga
Breathing is to yoga as water is to rain. Without breathwork, yoga would just be another form of exercise. In fact, Pranayama, or breath control, is one of the eight limbs of Yoga, and is just as important as posture or concentration. Pranayama can mean different things based on different interpretations, but one interpretation is: prana (life force) and ayama (expansion), or expanding the life force using the breath.
It’s clear that ancient Yogis understood what science now knows: that by controlling your breath you can control many aspects of your body and mind. If you’ve ever let out a long sigh after a stressful day at work, or tried a guided meditation app you’ll know just how powerful your breath can be in relieving stress.
Like anything, pranayama takes practice, but after a while you will find yourself turning to it in times of stress or when you just need to feel grounded to your environment. Here are four breathing techniques you can try, which each help in different ways:
1) Alternate Nostril Breathing
Alternate nostril breathing, or nadi shodhana, takes a bit of practice and can feel awkward at first, but it’s been known to help calm the nervous system and reduce anxiety. It’s a great technique to try if you’re feeling anxious before bed, or when you’re feeling particularly stressed at work. To perform this technique:
- Sit up straight in a cross-legged position
- Take your right hand in front of your face and lower your three middle fingers, so your pinky and thumb are facing up (in a hang ten position)
- Take your thumb and seal your right nostril
- Inhale through your left nostril and pause your breath
- Remove your thumb from your right nostril and seal your left nostril with your pinky
- Exhale through your right nostril
- Inhale through your right nostril
- Remove your pinky from your left nostril and seal your right nostril with your thumb again
- Exhale through your left nostril
And that’s it! You can do this as much as you need to feel grounded and calm. At first it might hurt your brain, and feel a bit like patting your head while trying to rub your belly, but over time you will get the hang of it.
2) Ocean Breath
Ocean Breath, or ujjayi, is a calming and energizing breathing technique that can be great for when you’re feeling angry, upset, or overwhelmed by your thoughts. To perform ujjayi breathing:
- Focus on your breath without changing it at all. Do this for a few breath cycles
- Begin to deepen the breath by taking a deep inhalation in through the nose
- With your mouth closed, exhale through your nose, making sure it’s equal in length to your inhalation
- As you breathe in and out you should feel a slight restriction to your breath
- Focus on controlling your breath with your diaphragm
- You should make an audible sound, almost like snoring or the sound of ocean waves gently crashing to shore
The noise you make doesn’t need to be loud, but should at least be audible to you. As you breathe in and out, this sound becomes an anchor for your mind, allowing it to focus and calm. While focusing on your breath, your body and mind can begin to relax. As its name suggests, there is an ebb and flow to ocean breath, and it can be incredibly relaxing and meditative when done right.
3) Lion’s Breath
Lion’s breath, or simhasana, has many benefits. It can feel a bit embarrassing at first if you’re self-conscious, so if that’s the case you can try it on your own if you’d like. It’s known to promote relaxation in your facial and neck muscles, and is a popular breathing exercise among singers and vocal performers, as it stimulates your vocal cords and diaphragm. To perform lion’s breath:
- Find a comfortable seated position, either in a chair or on the floor
- Place your hands on your knees, using them to brace yourself
- Inhale deeply through your nose
- Stick your tongue out as far as it will go, stretching it down towards your chin
- Exhale forcefully out through your mouth
- While exhaling make a “haa” sound from your belly
- Breathe normally for a few breath cycles before trying it again
You can try this a few times, but be careful not to over-exert yourself. While it may feel a bit strange at first, lion’s breath is a great way to let go of your inhibitions and shake off any self-consciousness you may have in other parts of your life. It can also help invoke a sense of pride and bravery within you. It’s also pretty fun if you let it be!
4) Breath of Fire
If you’re feeling tired in the morning or having trouble getting energized during the day, breath of fire, or kapalabhati, is a great breathing technique to try. It’s revitalizing, and is thought to help ease congestion. Its practitioners also say it can help with digestion, so give it a try next time you’re feeling bloated after a big meal. Unlike the previous techniques we mentioned, it’s important not to try kapalabhati if you’re feeling stressed or anxious, as its rapid-breathing technique might make the problem worse. To try it:
- Sit comfortably in an upright position and rest your hands on your lower belly
- Before you begin, take a deep breath in through your nose and out through your mouth
- Take a deep breath in through your nose, imagining your breath travelling down into your belly, allowing it to expand
- In a quick motion, exhale rapidly and forcefully outward
- The exhalation is short and quick, but very active, while the inhalation is short and passive, meaning your exhalations should be more forceful
- Your stomach should move rapidly with your breath
Breath of fire can feel almost like hyperventilating if performed incorrectly, but when performed properly it is a controlled form of breathing. One analogy is that it should sound like a bike pump pumping up a tire. It’s also a great way to warm up your body and mind when you’re feeling chilly.
Breathing can be transformative
While Yoga isn’t for everyone, you don’t need to perform downward dog or child’s pose to add pranayama breathing techniques into your daily routine. It’s no exaggeration that these techniques can help change your outlook, your well-being, and your physical health if performed correctly and practiced routinely. Most of them can be performed sitting at or next to your desk, and require only a couple of minutes out of your day. Give breathing a chance, and who knows how it could change your life. If you don’t believe us, check out this video: