• Bren

Intro to Yoga Breathing Techniques

Pranayama loosely translates to controlling the breath. What pranayama traditionally focuses on is the breath retention, which require building skills leading up to that.

Breath retention practices are an advanced technique that should be supervised by someone experienced.

I will not be explaining breath retention here so much, but rather providing some introductory information for someone who is curious to begin practicing pranayama.

Pranayama is the fourth of the eight limbs of yoga. There are several traditional methods of controlling and retaining the breath mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (1350CE), some of which are still used today as a method to control the energy in the body and to affect the nervous systems.

It is important to note that students of pranayama must be patient and work with careful focused attention. Advancement must be done gradually, ideally under supervision of an experienced practitioner.

One must thoroughly master the beginning stages of breath control before moving on. Please be smart and safe and do not rush.

Cleansing Pranayama Practices

One's pranayama practice, and many times one's yoga practice, should begin with cleansing. There are a couple common cleansing pranayama practices.

A Modern Cleansing Breath

Sitting or standing comfortably, inhale through the nose. Pause briefly, then exhale through the mouth. I find this works anytime as a nice mental reset. Additional option to raise the shoulders towards the ears on the inhalation, and drop the shoulders down during the exhalation. You might repeat this three times. Notice your fresh perspective.

Kapalabhati and Alternatives

Kapalabhati Pranayama translates to Shining Skull Breath. This cleansing pranayama is said to vibrate every tissue in the body, to relieve asthma, to cleanse the respiratory system and clear the bronchial passages.

Kapalabhati is performed seated with an emphasis on the exhalation. The exhalation is forceful and contracts the abdominal muscles to thoroughly expel all stale air from the lungs. The inhalation is passive.

Exhalations are done in 3 rounds of 11. One breath per second.

I will share a video demonstration of this on my instagram @practicewithbren

Kapalabhati is not suitable for people that are pregnant.

There are a couple alternatives for Kapalabhati, as beginner techniques and/or for people that are pregnant.

One option is Crowbeak: Kneeling on the shins, hands relaxed, purse the lips (like the shape of a beak). Inhale through the nose, then slowly fold forward towards a child's pose position by hinging at the front of the hips, while expelling air out the mouth in bursts.

Do not inhale between bursts of exhales - exhale in bursts all the way down and then inhale through the nose as you bring the torso upright. Repeat for a total of three times.

Another option is Woodchopper: Standing with feet a little wider than hips, soft knees. Inhale through the nose as you raise the arms up overhead and look up; exhale audibly out the mouth and swing and fold forward and down (like you are chopping wood). Repeat.

Balancing Pranayama Practices

Dirgha Pranayama aka Full Yogic Breath aka Three Part Breath

This breathing technique helps to develop the necessary breath and body awareness needed for further pranayama studies.

Begin either lying down or seated with a long spine. Bring one hand to the belly and the other hand to the chest. Breathing freely, start to feel the body rising up to meet the hands. Now send the breath into the lower lungs, a sensation of filling the belly. Feel this with the lower hand, and repeat for a few breaths. Next send the breath into the middle lungs, feeling the space between the hands fill up and expand. Spend a few breaths here, expanding the rib cage. Then send the breath into the upper lungs, feeling the top hand rise and fall with the breath. Imagine expanding between the collarbones.

Now that you have gotten in tune with what breathing into each of these areas feels like, let's put them together. You are welcome to keep the hands on the body if that is serving you.

Inhale into the lower lungs, then middle, then upper lungs. When ready to exhale, do so in that same order, exhaling first from the lower, then the middle, then the upper lungs. You can think 'inhale belly, ribs, chest, exhale belly, ribs, chest.'

Repeat this pattern. See if you can count 10 breaths like this.

Please become familiar with this before moving on.

Sukha Purvak or Beginner's Alternate Nostril Breathing

Alternate nostril breathing especially helps to balance or 'reset' the nervous system and when practiced regularly reduces the body's stress response. It typically slows the heart rate and can lower blood pressure.

What a good tool to have in one's toolbelt for potentially stressful situations!

Sukha Purvak translates from Sanskrit as 'easy, comfortable' which I understand to be in relation to Anuloma Viloma, a form of alternate nostril breathing that involves breath retention. I would like to emphasize that easy and comfortable here mean without strain, not without effort.

To practice Sukha Purvak, we will be blocking one nostril at a time, and we will do this with the ring finger and thumb of the dominant hand. Move the index and middle finger out of the way by either curling them into the palm or crossing the index finger behind the middle finger (pictured below).

Sit up nice and tall, feeling grounded and present and aware. Block the left nostril and inhale through the right nostril only. Now block the right nostril and exhale through the left nostril only. Inhale through the left nostril, block the left nostril, and exhale through the right nostril. This is one round.

I will share an instructional video on my Instagram @practicewithbren

Keep the breath as smooth and steady as you can. You might practice 10 or 20 rounds in one sitting.

Once you are very used to this pattern, you could introduce a pause after the inhalations and exhalations. Inhale, pause, exhale, pause, repeat.

If you are practicing 20 rounds of this comfortably, multiple times a week, then you can begin to gradually add breath retention. (A topic for another day.)

That does it for our introduction to pranayama.

What breathing techniques are you interested in trying?

Thanks for reading and let me know how I can help.

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