Breathing practices have been used for centuries by various contemplative traditions. Tibetan Buddhists, Sufis, Yogis and many others have benefited from sustained attention to the breath. Modern science has documented the effects of the breath on our nervous and endocrine systems, noting how the breath can be used directly to shift these systems when attended to properly. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of various ways to manipulate the breath for a desired outcome. One of the most common uses of Pranayama is to develop concentration. Concentration is an essential part of training the mind to hold our attention on any one thing. Yogis know that this ability to keep the racing thoughts at bay and bring our awareness to the present moment is essential for mental, emotional and spiritual growth. Breathing practices tether the mind to the breath giving the mind a strong focal point to concentrate on. They are a great way to train the mind towards a meditation practice.
How we breathe is directly correlated to the state of our nervous system. When the nervous system is activated into a sympathetic fight, flight or freeze state, for example, we might notice we are holding the breath or taking short quick breaths due to fear. As opposed to when we are fully relaxed in a warm bath we might notice that smooth deep breaths come easy. When assessing our own nervous and subtle body systems the breath is a great indicator of what is going on. Studies have shown that we can affect our nervous systems by manipulating the breath. Using Pranayama to balance the nervous system and relieve stress is one of its greatest benefits.
The yogis have developed Pranayama practices to relax, excite, balance, cool, heat and slow down the breath to name a few. This is done by attending to where are breath is located, the length of the breath, the amount of time we are brething for, etc. Within all these variables the possibilities are endless to find the right breathing practice to meet a practitioner’s needs at any given point in time. Some of the most simple breathing practices have profound effects and can be done by anyone. Here are a couple of Pranayama practices to work with and see how they personally affect your body and mind.
Belly Breathing (Diaphragmatic Breathing)
Lie on the floor face down. Make a pillow with your hands and either rest your forehead down or turn your head to the side. Feel the breath move in and out of the belly. The floor will put pressure on the belly when you inhale and the belly expands, the pressure will release as you exhale and the belly deflates. Pay particular attention to how the lower back moves when the breath is moving in and out of the belly. Concentrate on the movement of the belly and the back. Take as many rounds of this breath as you’d like. At least 5 are recommended. Setting a timer and doing it for 5 minutes would be beneficial.
Sama Vrtti (Even paced breath)
This practice can be done lying on the floor or sitting upright in a chair or seat of meditation. The idea is to pace the breath to have the same length of inhale to exhale. Typically practitioners count to themselves a 4 count inhale and a 4 count exhale. It doesn’t matter what the count is, it could be 3, 4, 5 or 6, what’s important is that it is the same for the inhale and exhale. Typically the inhale is the shorter side of the breath so whatever the count is that makes an easy full inhale would be the count you’d want to choose. Concentration is developed by continuously counting the pace and the nervous system is balanced by the even steady breath. Set a timer for 5 minutes to notice results.
Posted by: Jenny Hayo, 8 Limbs teacher and Teacher Training Instructor
Join Jenny for her annual Introduction to Pranayama, Wednesdays 5:45-7:00pm at 8 Limbs Capitol Hill, March 4-April 8. You’ll learn why and how to practice the fourth limb of yoga. Your nervous system will thank you!