There’s an old adage often used by yoga teachers: without the breath, it’s not yoga.

This is oh-so-true. The biggest difference between yoga and other forms of exercise is its emphasis on the breath. In fact, there’s a whole component of yoga that’s built upon the breath. It’s called pranayama — and it’s what takes yoga from a workout to a form of meditation. Tap in to this important yogic practice with this beginner’s guide to pranayama.

Why yogis practice pranayama

Yogis are all about expanding their prana: the vibrant, energetic force within. Prana is what animates the body. It’s a subtle, intangible force that gives energy and the power of action. Good health is a sign that prana is abundant.

Prana’s physical counterpart is the breath. They’re not exactly the same thing, but we receive prana through the breath, and prana can be expanded by regulating the breath. This is the goal of pranayama.pranayama-beginners-guide-belly-breathing

Yogis use breathing exercises to increase, expand, and stabilize this vibrant inner energy.

Pranayama also purifies the body’s subtle channels so that prana doesn’t get stuck anywhere in your body and can free flow throughout it. This is also important for yoga’s higher goals of self-realization.

Although this application of pranayama might seem a little esoteric, it does have concrete physical benefits as well.

Pranayama strengthens the lungs and improves their functioning. It relieves stress, lowers blood pressure and heart rate, improves digestion, and balances the nervous system. It also trains the mind to focus better in meditation (another very important component of yoga).

In order to reap all of these beautiful benefits, it’s imperative to start with the basics:

First comes belly breathing

So many people are breathing all wrong. You heard right — despite breathing being autonomic, it’s entirely possible to breath incorrectly. It’s a bodily function that many can and often do distort, especially when they’re stressed or anxious.

If you’ve ever watched a baby breathe, you’ve observed proper breathing. Their sweet little tummies rise with each inhalation and gently fall with each exhalation, almost as if there’s a balloon expanding and contracting inside.

Babies take full abdominal breaths, and this is the same method that we should continue with as adults.

Take a moment to notice howpranayama-beginners-guide-belly-breathing you’re breathing right now. Don’t control your breath in any way — just observe.

What’s your belly doing? Is it expanding and contracting?

Or is it your chest that’s moving the most?

Are you breathing through your mouth or through your nose?

Are you gripping your tummy?

Ideally, your belly is expanding and contracting. You’re breathing through your nose and there’s no tension in your belly.

If this isn’t the case, it’s time to relearn the art of breathing. This is important both for the practice of pranayama and for your overall health.

If you breathe shallowly into the chest, you don’t make full use of the lungs and you rob your internal organs of their full supply of oxygen. Plus, the diaphragm doesn’t make its complete downward movement. The organs miss out on the mini-massage that would normally occur with this downward force.

Breathing through the mouth also presents its problems. The nose is designed to filter, moisten, and warm the air we inhale. Mouth breathing deprives the respiratory system of these important processes.

Yet another problem with improper breathing is that it triggers stress and anxiety. The breath and mind are very much related. There’s a natural tendency to grip the belly and breathe shallowly into the chest due to stress or anxiety.

The same thing can happen in reverse. If you grip your belly and breathe shallowly into your chest, you can trigger feelings of stress and anxiety. You essentially subject yourself to completely unnecessary negativity!

Moral of the story: proper breathing is incredibly important. It’s also the first step in learning pranayama, because without this solid foundation, any manipulation of the breath will be harmful rather than helpful.

Pranayama Practice #1: Abdominal Breathing

If you’ve developed improper breathing habits, follow these steps to reset your breath. You can practice this technique for a few minutes each day and also check in periodically throughout the day to observe your breath.

If you’re breathing shallowly or through your mouth, correct yourself. You’ll eventually undo bad habits.

1. Lie down on your back. Spread your feet wide and let them flop open. Take 3 natural breaths through your nose.pranayama-beginners-guide-belly-breathing

2. Consciously relax your abdominal muscles.

3. Place your right hand on your belly and your left hand on your chest. Take a slow, deep inhalation that fills your belly. Your right hand should rise as you inhale.

4. Exhale slowly. Your right hand should fall as you exhale.

5. Continue this practice for several minutes. Concentrate on your breath. If your mind wanders, bring it back to the breath. Once you’re comfortable doing this lying down, try belly breathing while sitting in a chair or on the floor with your legs crossed.

Your chest will also rise and fall during this practice. This is totally normal and totally okay as long as your belly is rising and falling along with it. With each inhalation, the first area to expand is the belly. Next comes the chest, and lastly the throat.

This process happens in reverse with each exhalation.

Pranayama Practice #2: Alternate Nostril Breathing

Also known as anuloma viloma or nadi shodhana, alternate nostril breathing is a practice that gives instant results. It’s incredibly calming, making it the perfect antidote to stress, anxiety, and nervousness.

And it isn’t reserved for the mat only. Alternate nostril breathing can be practiced pretty much anytime, anywhere.

Alternate nostril breathing is exactly as its name implies: the breath is inhaled and exhaled through one nostril at a time. The goal is to balance the breath between the two nostrils because we actually don’t normally breathe through both at once. We breathe predominantly through just one, alternating between the two around every 90 minutes.

You can test this fact by placing your finger underneath your nose. You’ll notice that the air is flowing predominantly through one nostril only.

If the air happens to feel even through both, you may have caught the junction that occurs every 90 minutes. During this junction, we experience an inner sense of calm. This is exactly the sensation that yogis aim to mimic through alternate nostril breathing.

According to yoga and Eastern medicine, each nostril relates to the opposite side of the brain.

pranayama-beginners-guide-belly-breathingPredominantly breathing through the right nostril signifies that the left brain is active. The left brain has more to do with logical thought processes like routine and planning.

Predominantly breathing through the left nostril, on the other hand, signifies that the right brain is active. The right brain has more to do with creative thought processes and intuition.

When the breath is balanced between the two, the whole brain is active. Other subtle forces are also balanced, such as the masculine and feminine, and the lunar and solar. This all brings a peaceful state that’s especially conducive to meditation.

Alternate nostril breathing is the perfect practice to do before sitting for a meditation session, before sleeping, or anytime you’re feeling stressed or anxious:

1. Sit in a comfortable position either with your legs crossed, folded underneath you, or sitting in a chair with your feet flat on the ground. Sit nice and tall with your shoulders relaxed. Rest your hands in your lap with your palms facing down. Close your eyes.

2. Tuck your right index and middle fingers into your palm to form the vishnu mudra. Your thumb, ring and pinky fingers will be extended.

3. Take an easy breath in. Gently close your right nostril with your thumb. Take an easy breath out through your left nostril.

4. Take an easy breath in through your left nostril. Close your left nostril with your ring finger, release your thumb from your right nostril, and take an easy breath out through your right nostril.

5. Now take an easy breath in through the right, close the right, and take an easy breath out through the left. Now in through the left, close the left, and easy breath out through the right.

6. Continue this pattern for five minutes. Make sure you don’t tense up your right shoulder. pranayama-beginners-guide-belly-breathingConcentrate on your breath. If your mind wanders, bring it back to the breath.

When you’re finished, release your hand and lie down on your back for a minute or two, breathing naturally, observing the peaceful feeling that’s washed over the body.

Pranayama Practice #3: Ujjayi Breathing

If you frequent vinaysa classes, you’re probably already familiar with ujjayi pranayama, also know as Darth Vader breathing, victorious breath, or ocean breathing. This psychic breath has a tranquilizing effect as it mimics deep sleep. It helps the mind to focus during a yoga practice, which is why its used in tandem with vinyasa flows.

Ujjayi also has a soothing effect on the nervous system. This makes it a natural antidote to stress and irritability:

1. Sit in a comfortable position either with your legs crossed, folded underneath you, or sitting in a chair with your feet flat on the ground. Sit nice and tall with your shoulders relaxed. Rest your hands in your lap with your palms facing down. Close your eyes.

2. Take three natural breaths.

3. Inhale. Open your mouth and exhale as if you’re fogging a mirror. You’ll have to contract your glottis–the thin flap of cartilage at the back of your throat. This action will make a Darth Vader-like sound. Now do the same thing as you inhale, but close your lips. You’ll be breathing like Darth Vader on both the inhalations and exhalations.

4. Continue this breath for a minute or two. Breathe slowly and deeply, remembering to fill your belly with each inhalation. Concentrate on your breath. If your mind wanders, bring it back to the breath. With practice you can gradual increase to five minutes.

When it comes to pranayama, take your time.

pranayama-beginners-guide-breathing-deeplyBefore all else, take as much time as you need to learn abdominal breathing. Only once you have this belly breath mastered should you begin to explore alternate nostril breathing, ujjayi, and other pranayama techniques. There’s absolutely no rush when it comes to learning pranayama. It’s an element of yoga that’s meant to be learned over the course of years.

Never strain during pranayama. Always practice with a sense of rhythmic effortlessness. If you feel like you’re short of breath or dizzy, stop and rest in corpse pose (savasana).

Our ancient yogic forefathers warned other yogis of the ominous consequences of improper pranayama. For this reason, pranayama is also meant to be learned directly from a teacher.

Not all breathing exercises are suitable for all students. A teacher will help guide you toward pranayama that’s appropriate for your own constitution and present state of health.

When you do learn to practice pranayama correctly, however, you can take your yoga practice to a whole new level.

By linking the body with the mind, pranayama transforms yoga from exercise to a moving meditation.

P.S. Want to build a home yoga practice but are not able to stick to it?

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Guide to Inspired Life
Julie Bernier

Julie Bernier

Julie helps people find wellness from the inside out. She lives and teaches the ancient sciences of Ayurveda and yoga, and combines the two to help clients naturally restore their inner balance for lasting wellbeing. Julie has journeyed to India many times over to study this wellness wisdom at its source. Although based in LA, her gypsy spirit keeps her traveling to far away lands more often than not.

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