Breathing Yoga : This Article focuses on breath expansion and control, known as pranayama. The way we breathe has a profound effect on the quality of our lives. Our breath affects the body, mind, and emotions. Shallow breathing deprives the body of oxygen and the life-giving force, prana. When we breathe deeply, our respiratory, circulatory, digestive, and nervous systems function better. Our minds become clearer, and our concentration improves. Stress, anger, and tension dissipate.

Through a variety of breathing techniques, hatha yoga uses pranayama to help us more fully oxygenate and purify our bodies, to slow and calm our minds, to steady our emotions, and to balance our energies. The breath can be divided into four parts: inhalation (puraka), retention or holding the breath in (kumbhaka), exhalation (rechaka), and finally, suspension or holding the breath out (bahya kumbhaka). Inhalation brings nourishment and energy, holding the breath allows prana to fully enter and energize the body, exhalation cleanses the system and quiets the emotions, and suspension extends the benefits of exhalation by further calming your entire being. Full, deep breathing that includes all four stages— inhalation, retention, exhalation, and suspension—properly fuels, energizes, cleanses, balances, and relaxes the entire system.

The 12 exercises included in this chapter encourage conscious Breathing Yoga, which engages the diaphragm, the large dome-shaped muscle that enables us to breathe. When we inhale, the diaphragm lowers into the abdominal area, drawing air into the lungs; when we exhale, the diaphragm rises up, pushing the air out. Diaphragmatic breathing allows us to fill our lungs completely, bringing in a fresh supply of oxygen, and then expel all the stale air as we exhale, promoting health and well-being.

Many of these breathing exercises include counting to help you slow and lengthen the breath and to encourage you to focus on your breathing. If you are new to pranayama, try to make your exhalation as long as your inhalation; eventually, see if you can slow your exhalation so that it lasts longer than the inhalation, an effective way to thoroughly calm your body and mind. The exhalation should also be longer than or equal to the retention of the breath that follows inhalation.

Most of these breathing exercises may be done from a supine position (lying on your back), in a comfortable seated position on a mat or a cushion on the floor, or seated in a chair. When in a seated position, allow your sitting bones to sink into the chair or cushion. Your pelvis is level, and your shoulders are relaxed and down away from the ears. Your chin is parallel to the floor and retracted slightly. Gently press out through the crown of your head. If you are seated in a chair, your knees may be slightly higher than or even with the hips; if they are not, place your feet on a cushion (see introduction to seated poses, page 89). If you are seated on the floor, you may wish to sit in Easy pose (page 90) or Half Lotus (page 90). Your eyes may be closed or downcast.

If any part of the exercise bothers you—if you’d rather not count, or if the count is too long or too short, for instance—make whatever adjustments you need. Some breathing exercises use sounds as a way to calm the body and mind. Although you may feel self-conscious, this is a great way to focus and concentrate on your breath. If you have trouble breathing or have a cold or bronchitis, wait until you feel better before you do any deep breathing exercises. If you suffer from heart disease or asthma, consult a physician first.

Before you begin, start by focusing on your “normal” breathing pattern. Sit or lie in a comfortable position. Close your eyes. Observe your breath. Try not to change or judge; simply observe. Does the pace of your breath seem rapid or slow? Is it even or uneven? Does your inhalation last longer than your exhalation? Do you hold your breath? What parts of your body move when you breathe? Do you notice any areas of tightness or tension? Do you breathe more from your chest or your belly? Do you breathe through your nose or mouth? Does observing your breath make you uncomfortable? Answers to some of these questions may not come right away; sit with them for a while and see what arises. Focusing on your breathing can also become a form of meditation, another way to focus and alleviate stress.

Once you become more familiar with your breathing pattern, the following exercises will help you explore ways to use your breath to feel stimulated or relaxed. As you breathe deeply, acknowledge the miracle of your breath—this amazing life-giving force that we so often take for granted.

Breathing Yoga : ALTERNATE NOSTRIL BREATH

Although we may not be aware of it, we normally breathe in one-to two-hour cycles; first one nostril, then the other is dominant. (If you’re curious, check which nostril is dominant by closing off one nostril and breathing through the other; reverse, and compare the airflow from each.) Prolonged breathing through one side can drain our energy. Anuloma Viloma, an ancient breathing technique, has a profound stilling effect on the mind and restores the proper balance to our breathing pattern, which equalizes the energies and pathways of the nervous system. Placing your index and middle fingers on your forehead stimulates the “third eye,” our center of intuition and connection to the higher self. Practice Alternate Nostril Breath whenever you seek a calm, clear state of mind.

•             Before you begin, you may wish to use a tissue to clear your nostrils. Sit comfortably in a chair or on a mat, keeping your spine straight.

•             Place the index and middle fingers of your right hand on your forehead, between the eyebrows. Your thumb rests on the right nostril; the ring and baby fingers rest on your left nostril. If you prefer not to place your fingers on the forehead, curl the index and middle fingers toward the palm instead.

•             Inhale and exhale. Close the right nostril with the thumb; inhale through the left nostril for a count of 5.

•             Close both nostrils; hold your breath for a count of 5. (If holding the breath causes discomfort, reduce the count or eliminate altogether.)

•             Lift the thumb; exhale for a count of 5 through the right nostril.

•             Inhale through the right nostril for a count of 5, hold for a count of 5, close your right nostril, and exhale through the left nostril for a count of 5. This completes 1 round.

•             Repeat for 4 more rounds.

Breathing Yoga : EXPANSIVE BREATH

This rejuvenating, expansive breath opens the chest, promoting a sense of wellness and fulfillment. The movement also helps relieve tension in your back and keeps your spine flexible. Do this energetic breathing exercise when you feel cold, tired, or run down. It can also double as a warm-up to any yoga session.

•             Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Hold your arms straight out in front of you with palms together at chest height. Make sure your shoulders are down and away from the ears.

•             Open your mouth and inhale through the mouth as you fling your arms open and back, bending the wrists so your fingertips point away from you. Lift the chin slightly. Your eyes look upward.

•             Exhale completely through the mouth as you begin to come forward, tucking your chin, and bending at the waist and knees. Hands may be clasped together in front of the chest, or they may rest on your thighs.

•             Let your head hang so that there is no pressure on your neck.

•             Repeat this cycle 12 times at whatever pace feels best for you.

Breathing Yoga : BELLY AND CHEST BREATHING

(Kuksa Pranayama/Uro Pranayama)

Although this breathing exercise may be done from a seated position, it might be easier to feel the movement of your breath while lying on your back. Make sure you are comfortable so that you can attend to your breathing and not be distracted by discomfort in your neck or lower back. This exercise allows you to fully experience diaphragmatic breathing and purify and oxygenate your system. An added benefit is tension release and anxiety relief, resulting in a feeling of calm and serenity.

•             Lie on your back (although you may sit if that is preferable). Place a blanket or bolster under your knees if you feel any strain in the lower back and a small pillow under your neck if you feel any tension at the back of your neck.

•             Close your eyes. Place your hands lightly on your belly. Focus your awareness there.

•             Breathe in slowly. Feel your belly begin to expand and round. Your chest should not move. If you’d like, count to 5 as you inhale.

•             Exhale slowly and feel your belly begin to flatten. If you’d like, count to 5 as you exhale.

•             Rest for a few seconds and repeat 6 more times.

•             Move your hands so that they rest on your upper chest.

•             Shift your attention to the middle of your chest. Inhale and imagine the breath expanding into the front, sides, and back of the chest. Feel your rib cage expand.

•             Exhale completely.

•             Continue breathing in this manner 6 more times, counting inhalations and exhalations if you wish.

•             When you’re done, compare how you felt when you did Belly Breathing with how you felt when you did Chest Breathing in Breathing Yoga.

Breathing Yoga : BREATH OF FIRE

Kapalabhati, an energizing and purifying breath, literally means “skull brightening.” It aerates the entire system by greatly increasing the flow of oxygen throughout the body, tones the abdominal muscles, strengthens the diaphragm, increases energy, and helps improve concentration. Do not perform Breath of Fire or the raised thumbs alternative if you have high blood pressure, diabetes, or epilepsy or if you suffer from depression or insomnia. If you experience dizziness, consult a yoga teacher for guidance.

  • Sit with your spine comfortably extended. Keep your eyes closed or downcast.
  • Inhale.
  • Exhale vigorously by pulling back your abdominal muscles. This will cause a short, forceful expulsion of air through the nose. Imagine that your exhalations could blow out the flame of a candle.
  • Repeat with a steady, quick series of 20 exhalations.
  • Stop and allow the breath to return to normal. Repeat with another set of 20 exhalations. Gradually increase to 3 sets of 20 exhalations.
Breathing Yoga : BREATHE OF FIRE WITH RAISED THUMBS

In addition to giving you all the benefits of Breath of Fire, Kapalabhati with arms and thumbs raised is a position of power that strengthens the energy center located at the solar plexus, between the navel and breastbone.

  • Sit with your spine comfortably extended.
  • Raise both arms above your head in a V position without bending them at the elbows. Palms face forward, fingers are lightly curled, and thumbs point in.
  • Follow the directions for Breath of Fire.
  • Lower your arms; breathe normally between sets.
Breathing Yoga : CHIN PRESS BREATH

Chin Press Breath stimulates the thyroid, which regulates metabolism, while stretching the muscles at the back of the neck. It improves willpower and concentration and promotes a sense of inner peace. While doing Murcha Pranayama, focus on a goal you would like to meet, knowing that your steady breathing is moving you that much closer to accomplishing it.

  • Sit with your spine comfortably extended. Close your eyes.
  • Inhale through your nose for a count of 5. Lift your chest, moving your head back slightly as you tuck your chin toward your chest.
  • Hold your breath for a count of 5. (Breath count may be modified to suit your comfort level.)
  • Exhale through your nose for a count of 5.
  • Raise your chin so that it’s level with the floor.
 Breathing Yoga : COMPLETE BREATH

It has been said that the breath is the pulse of the mind. When we are tense, our breathing becomes rapid and shallow; this, in turn, heightens our tension level. Practicing Complete Breath will calm your emotions, relieve tension, relax your muscles, and help you concentrate. Complete Breath also purifies the respiratory system as you expel stale air from your lungs and oxygenate your blood cells. As an added benefit, deep breathing helps your complexion by increasing circulation and bringing more blood to the face. It’s simple . . . just breathe (deeply). Relish the feeling of health and serenity that Complete Breath brings.

  • This breathing exercise can be done in any comfortable seated position with the back straight, or in Corpse pose (page 127) with bolsters under your knees to keep the lower back on the floor and to prevent strain.
  • Relax; close your eyes. If you like, you may rest one hand lightly on your chest and the other on your stomach.
  • Exhale completely. Inhale slowly and begin sipping air in through your nose. Allow your stomach to expand like a balloon.
  • Continue to sip in the breath, allowing the air to move into your chest, completely filling the lungs. Sip in one more breath.
  • Hold your breath (retention) for a few moments. Begin exhaling slowly through the nose, down into the chest and abdomen, squeezing out all the stale air from the bottom of the lungs. Hold the breath out (suspension) for a moment.
  • Repeat 5 times.

You may also wish to try a 4-part breath done in a series:

  • Inhale for a count of 5, exhale for a count of 5 (no retention or suspension). Repeat 3 times.
  • Inhale for a count of 5, hold for a count of 2, exhale for a count of 8, and hold out for a count of 2. Repeat 3 times.
  • Inhale for a count of 8, hold for a count of 2, exhale for a count of 10, and hold out for a count of 2. Repeat 3 times.
  • Inhale for a count of 5, hold for a count of 2, exhale for a count of 8, and hold out for a count of 2. Repeat 3 times.
  • Inhale for a count of 5, exhale for a count of 5 (no retention or suspension). Repeat 3 times.
Breathing Yoga : COOLING BREATH

You probably won’t want to perform this breathing exercise in front of a mirror (unless you could use a good laugh). But Shitali Pranayama is an effective way to cool the body and calm the mind while expelling toxins from the system. It is

also said to relieve a variety of stomach and lower-abdominal ailments. Try this type of breathing on a warm day when the heat has you feeling overwhelmed.

  • Sit with your spine comfortably extended.
  • Curl the sides of your tongue to form a straw between your lips.
  • Inhale through the opening created by your tongue for a count of 7. (Breath count may be modified to suit your comfort level.)
  • Withdraw your tongue, close your mouth, and hold your breath for a count of 7.
  • Exhale through your nose for a count of 7.
  • Repeat 5 or 6 times.
Breathing Yoga : HUMMING BEE BREATH

The vibration caused by this exhilarating breath, similar to the one created when chanting Om, helps you release tension by calming the body and mind. Focusing on sound and vibration also helps ground you in the present moment, filling you with peace and contentment. As you do this breathing exercise, imagine you are sitting outside on a sunny day, listening to the soothing hum of honeybees working in a flower-filled garden.

  • Sit comfortably with your spine erect.
  • Close or lower your eyes.
  • Inhale deeply for a count of 7. (Breath count may be modified to suit your comfort level.)
  • With lips parted slightly, hum as you exhale for a count of up to 14.
  • As the momentum builds, see if you can get your lips to vibrate as you exhale.
  • Repeat 2 more times.
Breathing Yoga : SOUNDING BREATH

Also known as Victorious Breath, Ujjayi is a calming breath that balances the nervous system, slows the mind, and stills the emotions. The sound made by this breath could be compared to that made by the ocean, which can have a tranquilizing influence. You may wish to visualize the cleansing, calming ocean when you practice this type of breathing, which expels stale air from the lungs and purifies the respiratory system.

  • Sit with your spine comfortably extended, or lie in Corpse pose (page 127).
  • Exhale completely.
  • Draw in the breath slowly through your nose, allowing the inhalation to fill your abdomen and lungs.
  • Contract the back of your throat slightly and make a soft, hissing sound as you exhale and inhale slowly through the nose. The sound should be audible but not loud, similar to the sound of steam softly escaping from a radiator.
  • Continue breathing slowly, focusing on the sound you make, as you inhale and exhale.
  • Repeat 3 to 5 times.
Breathing Yoga : SUCKING BREATH

Many yoga breaths warm and energize, but Sitkari Pranayama is also a cooling breath, like Shitali, or Cooling Breath (page 27). Because your mouth is open during the inhalation, you may wish not to do this breathing exercise if your teeth and gums are sensitive to the rush of cool air.

  • Place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth just behind your upper teeth.
  • With the mouth open but keeping the upper and lower teeth together, draw the breath in through the mouth for a count of 7. (Breath count may be modified to suit your comfort level.)
  • Close your mouth and hold for a count of 7.
  • Breathe out through your nose for a count of 7.
  • Repeat 5 or 6 times.
 Breathing Yoga : SUFI MOTHER’S BREATH

Breathing Yoga Sufi Mother’s Breath is said to promote a feeling of safety, security, and nurturing. As with all deep breathing exercises, the increased flow of oxygen improves the complexion and cleanses the inner organs by helping to remove toxins from the system. On the inhalation, concentrate on a sense of well-being that enfolds you like a soft, warm blanket; when you exhale, acknowledge someone in your life who has nurtured and cared for you. Feel protected, secure, and loved.

  • Sit with your spine comfortably extended, or lie in Corpse pose (page 127).
  • Breathe in through the nose for a slow count of 7. Hold the breath in for a count of 1.
  • Breathe out through the nose for a count of 7. Hold the breath out for a count of 1.
  • Repeat a few times.

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