Pranayama is the study of controlled breath and is the fourth of the eight limbs, (ashtanga), that makes up Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.
Controlling breath in yoga allows the body to find an inner strength to fulfil postures, (asanas), then create the foundations for meditation. It is a study in and of itself, and is practised seriously by yogis the world over.
But beyond the yoga matt, a little knowledge of pranayama can bring a calming value to all of our days. Here are three simple steps to help you breath in deeply and nourish your well-being.
Equal in & out
Balancing the time you breath in and out doesn’t sound like it would require your attention. But take a moment to notice your normal breathing patterns. Do you hold your breath without realising? Do you gulp air in or force air out unconsciously?
Most of us have uneven and ever-changing patterns of breathing. This is perfectly normal and how the body keeps us alive with autonomic function. Our breath rhythm naturally responds to stress, bodily tension and simple need – we don’t always need that much oxygen if we are sitting or lying down, for example.
Evening out the breath is an easy way to introduce a conscious attention on your breath, the first step to finding control over it. Simply breath in for four seconds, gently hold the breath for one second and then breath out for another four requires a fascinating amount of attention. Aim to breath through the nose throughout but there’s no harm in experimenting and finding the most comfortable way to begin exploring pranayama.
Many of us breath into only a small portion of our lungs. Under stress we tend to breath high into the upper chest. This leads to tight upper backs and shallow breaths. This does our resilience to stress no good at all, so the next general point to take from pranayama is to explore all the places breath travels.
Lie on your back and feel your whole back expand on each inhalation and gently fall back again on the exhalation. After you whole back feels like it is opening evenly in all directions, roll over onto your front and do the same. Then sit up, hug yourself so your hands rest easily on the lower ribs either side of your body and breath in so your hands expand and contract.
This simple physical reinforcement of your breath filling your torso in all direction acts as a reminder for the body of the value of using your lungs fully and efficiently.
A couple of centuries ago, people believed our lungs extended all the way into our legs! Nowadays we know better anatomically, but the image of our lungs filling our body with life-supporting air is one not to be dismissed.
Belly breathing is the relaxation of the stomach muscles so that, as the diaphragm descends during an inhalation, the organs in the lower torso shuffle into a new formation and the belly gently swells out.
Cultivating belly breathing is very good for creating a sense of calm. It grounds us, bringing more of our body into our consciousness and preventing the modern ill of cutting off our body and existing only as brains. Place your hands on your lower belly, as a pregnant woman might intuitively do to support her bump, and encourage your breath to move your belly in and out of your hands. At any moment of stress, having this as a practiced skill is invaluable to bringing you clarity, calm and a centred approach to whatever you’re facing.
These three points are barely skimming the surface of what pranayama might offer us, without ever gracing a yoga matt. But we have nudged the door to that discovery ajar and it is welcoming you in! I hope you’ll read more in this series about the value of our breath to our well-being.