Why is the breath so important in yoga?
Besides keeping you alive, the breath helps you connect with the energy within. This increased awareness and focus helps you join (the very definition of yoga) with the present moment and reduces stress and anxiety.
You can notice how your emotions are reflected in your breath. If something is scary, for example, you may gasp or hold your breath. The reverse is also true. As you begin to control your breath, you will have greater control over yourself and your emotions. B.K.S. Iyengar states, ‘Regulate the breathing, and thereby control the mind’.
Controlling and being aware of your breath supports the parasympathetic nervous system, which activates a relaxation response. Alternatively, shallow, rough and unsteady breathing that may come naturally to most people generally triggers the sympathetic nervous system, which is the ‘fight or flight’ response.
Pranayama is yoga’s practice of breath control. It translates to the extension of prana(or vital life energy). These practices are typically more advanced and are best taught in a class by a certified yoga instructor, however there are a few simple breathing techniques that can be used anywhere at anytime to control your body and calm your mind.
Here are three ways you can easily get started:
The first step with any conscious breathing is to become aware of where you are with your breath.
Breathing through your nose, begin by just noticing if you are breathing quickly or shallowly. Watch your inhalations and exhalations. Is one longer than the other? Are they smooth? Are the textures and temperatures of the air the same?
Don’t try to control the breath here, just watch what is already occurring for a couple of minutes. Just becoming aware of your breath tends to slow it and the mind down and can help you enter the present moment.
Once you become aware of your breathing you can begin to gently manipulate it and as you do, you will reduce stress, quiet the mind and improve self-awareness.
You can try this anywhere at any time, but first try to do it in a comfortable seated position with your spine elongated from its base to the crown of your head. As you inhale feel the expansion of the abdomen, then take a slight pause. When you exhale feel the slight contraction of the abdomen, then take a slight pause.
Now that you are aware of these mechanics, gently but more actively expand when you inhale and more actively contract with you exhale. Carry on with this for another five to ten breaths.
In this breathing technique the exhalation is longer than the inhalation (up to twice as long). It helps reduce insomnia and relaxes an anxious mind. As it promotes restfulness, it is best not to practice this first thing in the morning unless needed for anxiety.
A good time to first try practicing this is just before going to sleep while you are lying in bed. Begin diaphragmatic breathing, expanding and contracting the abdomen on inhalations and exhalations, and place your hand on your abdomen. Count the lengths of your inhalations and exhalations. First work on making them even and of the same duration.
Then begin to gradually increase the length of the exhalation, but do not let your exhalations last more than twice as long as your inhalations. For example, with an inhalation of four seconds, exhalation should not exceed eight seconds. After five to ten rounds of your elongated exhalations, end with a minute of relaxed and natural breaths.
This should be comfortable, so do not push yourself too hard to lengthen the exhalation. If you do happen to push too hard and become uncomfortable, return to more normal breathing for a minute.
These are great ways to begin connecting with your breath. As you become more comfortable with these techniques, you will become more aware of your breath throughout the day and will also feel more connected to your inner self and the present moment.
Give them a try and let us know how it went!
Meera Watts is a yoga teacher, entrepreneur and mom. Her writing on yoga and holistic health has appeared in Elephant Journal, CureJoy, FunTimesGuide, OMtimes and others. She’s also the founder and owner of SiddhiYoga.com, a yoga teacher training school based in Singapore. Siddhi Yoga runs intensive, residential trainings in India (Rishikesh, Goa and Dharamshala), Indonesia (Bali)
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