Most of us are born breathing. Some of us need a helping hand, a slap on the bum or medical intervention but after that our bodies take over and we tend to not give breathing a second thought. Maybe you've done a bit of meditation, maybe you played sport and had a coach tell you the importance of breath, perhaps you've had a child and learned about hypno-birthing and breath, maybe you've done a yoga class and tried to follow the breathing instructions of the teacher. Perhaps you were successful and are a master breather or maybe you felt totally confused and lost and this whole breathing thing just left you frustrated! FFS I know how to breath, I'm doing it right now, why do I need to learn how to do it differently?
You do. If there is one tool that you spend 5-10 minutes a day working on THIS IS IT! It helps to reduce stress, anxiety and worry. BUT you're not going to be a prana master after one session. You WILL start to feel the benefits right away but you will need to continue to practice and work at it to unlock all of the full potential of this ancient practice. We can use sanskrit and talk about philosophy and spirituality of pranayama but we are going to start from a much more simple place. Breathing in. And breathing out.
HOW DO WE BREATH
Right so we are born doing it but how many of you actually know how the body breathes? What is happening? You probably have a better idea how your car works than the inside of your body.
INHALE - INSPIRATION
Inspiration is the process in which air enters the lungs.
Diaphragm (key muscle in breathing) – flattens, creating more space in the thoracic cavity (upper half of the torso where the lungs live).
External Intercostal muscles – (key muscles that move the ribs for breathing) elevates the ribs and sternum, extending the space available for the lungs to expand and fill with air
EXHALE - EXPIRATION
Expiration is the process of breathing where the air leaves the lungs. It is initiated by relaxation of the inspiratory muscles:
Diaphragm – returns to resting position, which rises back up filling the bottom the the ribcage making the space in the thoracic cavity smaller
Internal Intercostal Muscles – relaxes to depress (bring inwards) the ribs and sternum, reducing the size of the thoracic cavity.
The relaxation of the inspiratory muscles results in a decrease in the volume of the thoracic cavity.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF BREATHING PRACTICE - PRANAYAMA
There is no exhausted list here. Many of the benefits are scientifically proven (I love a bit of science) and many are subjective but with so many positive effects why wouldn't you want to give it a go?
It helps you relax, lowering the harmful effects of the stress hormone cortisol on your body.
It lowers your heart rate
It helps lower your blood pressure
It helps you cope with the symptoms of PTSD
It improves your core muscle stability
It improves your body’s ability to tolerate intense exercise (CO2 training)
It lowers your chances of injuring or wearing out your muscles
It slows your rate of breathing so that it expends less energy
It helps with digestion
It helps with building a stronger immune system
It helps with healthy eating habits and weight loss
It helps to improve parasympathetic nervous system function, calming the fight or flight response
If this practice is continued the long term effects are cumulative and compounding in a positive way. You will see yourself automatically dropping into your focused and deep breathing at stressful times because your body knows how to combat the sympathetic nervous system reaction. And over time, long-term (chronic) stress, even from seemingly minor inconveniences like traffic, issues with loved ones, or other daily concerns can cause you to develop anxiety or depression. Some deep breathing exercises can help you reduce these effects of stress.
You hear yoga and you probably automatically think of the postures, flexibility and graceful movement. That is ONLY the tip of the yogic iceberg. A big part of this yogic path involves Pranayama practice. The Sanskrit word pranayama translates to ‘regulation of life force energy’ (prana). It involves a series of deep breathing exercises and other techniques that aim to control inhalations and exhalations, and sometimes include breath retention. This is that stuff that I said we need to PRACTICE!
TYPES OF PRANAYAMA BREATHING TECHNIQUES
1. Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana) made popular by Hilary Clinton in her stress management campaign. This breath is often used to help create balance in the body and mind. It involves the alternation of the right nostril and left nostril. You cover one nostril with your thumb and breathe in, hold the breath at the top, transfer pinky finger or index finger to cover opposite nostril and breathe out of the other. You then breathe in through the uncovered nostril, hold your breath transfer the thumb back onto that nostril and breathe out. Rinse and repeat folks!
2. Ujjayi or Oceanic Breathing. This breathing technique is probably the most common used in a yoga class, less common in hot yoga. It can also be called Victorious Breath, Hissing Breath, or Ocean’s Breath. To achieve this breathing technique you need to gently constrict the back of the larynx to create an audible sound as the air travels down and up the throat. This sound is easier to achieve on the exhale so feel free to focus on the exhale first. Ujjayi is an excellent breathing technique for calming the mind and body. It is often used at the start of a class to gently warm the body up and get you ready for your physical practice.
3. Kapalbhati - Skull Shining Breath. This one isn't as scary as it sounds and is sometimes referred to as bellows breathing. The reason for this is because in this breathing practice you focus on a very active exhale where in most breathing the exhale is more passive. This is a great one for building up muscle strength in the belly. The reason for skull shining reference is that one of the effects of this can be lightheadedness and therefore if you have high or low blood pressure it might be one that you skip out. This breath is generally quick and repeated for 20-40 breaths. Struggle to sleep? I use this to help me sleep if my brain is so active. I do 30 Kapalbhati breaths - hold breath - followed by 45 - hold - followed by 60 - hold - then say goodnight!
4. Bhramari or Humming Bee Breath. Looking for something really sensory? This is it babes! To do this you need to block your ears and eyes with your hands/fingers. You may want to do this one on your own or with someone you feel comfortable with. With each exhale you want to create a sweet and soft humming sound, like a bee, this create a wonderful vibration from the inside of the body which makes you mindful and present. Do this as long as you enjoy the vibrations and the sound. Feel free to change up the length and pitch - create your own humming symphony!
WHEN TO PRACTICE There is no right or wrong answer to this. I would say when you first start practicing pranayama set aside a small block of 5-15 minutes each day so that you ensure you do it. Whatever suits you best, first thing in the morning or perhaps before bed. Eventually you will be able to do these breathing techniques without guiding videos or prompts and you will naturally fall into the breath that feels right to you.
LET'S GET STARTED! Lucky for you I am starting a 10 day BREATH THE STRESS AWAY challenge! All you need to do is make sure that you are on my mailing list and that you sign up for the challenge. It will be starting on MONDAY APRIL 27th and you will receive an email each day for 10 days with a new breathing technique video. We will weave different breathing techniques together much like a vinyasa class but with our bums on the mat each day! You get to keep these videos and practice them as often as you'd like! I look forward to taking you on a breathing expedition and would love to hear your thoughts and experiences as we go!