Through our struggles and through our joys, day and night, through sickness, age, and in health, the breath is always right there by our side. It truly is our most dependable partner/ friend. We don't even have to remind it of what to do, even when we are asleep, it is always
there looking out for us.
Because the breath is something that is automatic, it could be easily overlooked, forgotten about, and left to do its thing... but something truly magical happens when we make this automatic process a conscious process. When we take the reins and start to work with the breath, we hold the key and gain direct access to our physiology, our psychology, and our vital energy. Yes, it is that powerful!
When the breath is left to its own devices, it will simply follow orders from the nervous system. This isn't a problem if we are relaxed and calm; the nervous system will instruct the breath to be deep and slow, and it will naturally develop a harmonious rhythm, in turn, contributing to the harmony of the rest of the bodily systems. But what if we are not relaxed? What happens when we are bombarded with work calls, emails, pets, and children misbehaving, political and social disruptions? Our nervous system switches to the response of fight/ flight/ freeze and the breath, in turn, become more rapid, shallow and its rhythm more sporadic.
The good news here is that this phenomenon works both ways. The breath is influenced by the nervous system, but the nervous system is also influenced by the breath. So, even if we are not particularly feeling calm and relaxed at that moment, just by mimicking a calm and relaxed breath pattern, slow, rhythmical and deep, we will in turn start to feel more calm and relaxed. Not only does our nervous system change, switching off its sympathetic response to the parasympathetic response, but this also means that we see changes in our physiology. Our heart rate is slower when the breath is slower, when there is a smooth rhythm to the breath we alter our heart rate variability, the frequency of our brain waves, our blood pressure, and even the hormones that are secreted by the endocrine system will be influenced, just to name a few changes. All, in turn, making us feel more serene and possibly even happy and content.
There are so many ways we can play with breath control. Here are some examples of some pretty powerful pranayama techniques all packing some wonderful benefits to our physical, mental/ emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. Practice them for as long as time allows. Start with short practices and then aim for longer practices of 20 -40 minutes.
A good place to start. Simply just bringing our attention to the breath already has a calming effect. Take a few slow, deep breaths, sensing the journey of the breath in and out of the body.
Full Yogic Breath ( 3 Part Breath)
In this technique, we control the way the breath fills the lungs. We start by inhaling all the way down into the belly. Here we are using the bottom portion of the lungs first and dynamically activating the diaphragm. Next, we feel the breath move into the ribs, then all the way to the chest. The key here is to not use up all of your breath just filling the belly. Leave enough breath to spread evenly into the 3 parts, belly, ribs, and chest. Hold the breath for a moment at the top, then exhale in any order.
Once we get comfortable with the Full Yogic Breath, we can start to explore ratios between the four stages of the breath - inhalation, retention ( holding the breath at the top of the inhale), exhalation, and suspension ( the hold at the bottom of the exhalation when the breath has completely emptied.) There are many variations of ratios you can play with. Find a number you are comfortable with first, then you can begin to lengthen the different stages. Here are some examples:
Box Breath: 4:4:4:4, keeping all stages equal in length.
4:7:8 In this breath, we inhale for 4, hold for 7, exhale for 8 counts. There is no suspension at the end.
4:4:8:16 Here we are practicing longer exhales and suspension of breath. A more advanced pranayama technique
These are just a few examples and the counts are just references, they should change the more experienced you become. Try playing with different ratios. Please don't practice breath retention if you are pregnant or have severe hypertension.
Some pranayama techniques require us to breathe in through a valve we form either in the throat such as ujjayi pranayama (victorious Breath or ocean breath) or the mouth such as in sitali ( curled tongue) or sitkari ( through the teeth). In this way, there is a vibrational quality to the breath, the breath is easier to lengthen, and is often used in heating ( ujjayi) or cooling ( sitali, sitkari).
To perform ujjayi breath, try to imagine you were breathing in through a valve at the back of the throat. You should feel the muscles tense around this area, just as you do if you were trying to fog up a mirror with your breath. It is easiest to feel this with the mouth open at first, then eventually we can create this valved breath even while we breathe with the mouth closed, in and out through the nose. There will be a sound to this breath, some say it sounds like the ocean or Darth Vador, and you will want to keep this sound both way, on the inhale and the exhalation. Keep it soft and gentle as it can become too overheating and easily bring up aggression if not careful.
Sitali breath is performed by sticking out the tongue, curling the edges upward to make a tunnel or straw-like shape. Then the breath is drawn in through this tunnel, cooling down the blood vessels along the way, making a lovely slurping sound. Close the mouth after the inhale, and exhale through the nose. This is a great pranayama technique to do on a hot day!
Can't curl your tongue, don't worry. This next breath technique, sitkari, is similar in the way we draw in a cooling breath, but this time we do it by pulling the breath in through the teeth. As you inhale, keep your teeth closed and pull the air past the teeth, letting the cool airflow into the mouth, over the tongue. Close the mouth and breath through the nose.
In these techniques, we breathe in through one specific nostril at a time, usually alternating them for the effect we are after.
Left nostril breathing (Chandra bhedana)
When there is not enough heat in the system (for example, cold limbs, low blood pressure, depression, low energy), it can help to breathe in through the Right nostril to activate the solar and more energetic side of our energy body. Closing the left nostril, breath in through the right nostril, then close the right and breath out through the left nostril.
Left nostril breathing (Chandra Bhedana)
Likewise, when there is too much heat and stimulation in our system, when we are stressed, anxious or just physically too warm, a cooling breath would be to breathe in the left nostril,and out through the right side. This activates our lunar, moon, yin, and cooling energy.
Alternate nostril breath ( Nadhi Shodhana)
Here, we alternate the breaths equally on both sides which brings a sense of wholeness, a balance between the two energies, and an overall sense of calm. To practice, close the right nostril with the thumb and inhale through the left nostril, hold both nostrils and the breath, breathe out through the right nostril, breathe in again through the right side, hold both nostrils and the breath and breathe out through the left. Breathing in again through left to repeat the process. Finish with the exhale through the left nostril.
Some breaths use sound to enhance their soothing qualities. Since sound is usually made on the exhalation, these breaths naturally lengthen the exhalation.
Try the sss breath. Inhaling through the nose, then as you exhale, make an sssss sound like a snake, or steam escaping from a kettle. Keep making the sound until the breath is completely empty. I find this one particularly helpful in relieving tension and pressure. Think of the way a kettle whistles to relieve the pressure that has built up inside from the steam. Each time you repeat, notice how the body softens and relaxes, even more, each time.
Bhramari breath also uses sound. Here, we make the humming sound of a bumblebee. It is usually performed whilst simultaneously blocking the ears so that the vibration can be felt and heard more intensely. Sit comfortably, take an inhalation through the nose, use your pointer fingers to block the ears, and on the exhalation make a humming sound until all of the breath is empty. Keep repeating.
Finally, we have the kriyas. Kriyas are 'cleansing' techniques and these breaths are said to really cleanse our energy bodies. They can also be very stimulating so practice with care. Never practice these breaths if you are pregnant, have high blood pressure, or are currently in a state of high anxiety ( best to choose the more calming, sedating breaths).
Kapalbhati pranayama (breath of fire or skull-shining breath) is done by forced exhalation. Think about a big abdominal contraction to quickly squeeze all the air out of the body. Then the inhalation will come in naturally and passively. Start with a slow rhythm, such as Exhale 2,3, Exhale,2,3 ( the 2,3 is the inhalation), then you can try Exhale,2, then the quickest, Exhale, Exhale, Exhale. Try to isolate the movement and breath just in the abdomen. Repeat for a few rounds, then rest and bring the breath back to a peaceful, slow, and deep rhythm.
Next, bhastriki breath. Similar to kapalbhati, bhastriki is also a forced exhale, but the inhalation is also forced. By forced, I mean that it is strongly exaggerated. There should be sound happening here and the belly moves dynamically in and out. Think of a pumping action massage the intestines ( great for metabolism and digestion!). Again, start with a slow rhythm, then when comfortable, speed it up. Repeat for a few rounds, then rest and bring the breath back to a peaceful, slow, and deep rhythm. Have you tried all of these pranayama techniques yet? Which is your favorite? If not, you won't be sorry to incorporate these practices into your wellbeing toolbox. Thank you for reading :) Be happy, be well!