Hatha yoga is best known for its postures which stretch, invigorate and relax your body. Yet the scholarly and scriptural literature of hatha yoga suggests that breath practices are just as important as postures, if not more so. Breath control practices, called pranayama, are the central way a practitioner purifies his physical body and energetic body (body of prana, a kind of energy). With breath, a student also builds strength and stamina, controls his mind, and achieves clearer perception, which is the primary goal of all yoga. We can view yoga poses as training for breath control, as a conditioning program so that the student’s breath control techniques will work as they are designed to. Incidentally, pranayama is also much older than poses, asanas, which date from around 800 CE. The first written record of pranayama practices is in the Atharva-Veda (2000 BCE), which mentions pranayama-like practices.
A yoga student’s first breath-related goal is to slow down her breath and to adjust her inhalations and exhalations so they are of the same duration. The student’s second breath-related goal is to use her new-found breathing skill to alter her awareness, to achieve happier or clearer states of mind. Slowing her breath, you see, is the way she slows down her constant mental turmoil. Her mental turmoil, according to yoga theory, obscures her view of reality; it makes her view of things foggy and even distorted.
Try this easy yoga breathing (pranayama) technique. I think you’ll be amazed how rapidly it calms and energizes you.
Denver yoga teacher Tyrone Beverly demonstrating diaphragmic yoga breathing.
Photo credit: Photo by Leslie Goodman, Goodman Photography.
Guidelines for yoga breathing
Since normal breathing is automatic and therefore effortless, breathing on purpose (called voluntary breathing) will feel weird to some people. It takes a little while to get used to. If you feel the need to get more air, such as to breathe faster, or if you feel agitated, tense, dizzy or uncomfortable you should abandon the control for the moment and let your breath be automatic. When, after a minute or two, your breathing feels normal and comfortable again, you may start the breath control once more. Don’t attempt it a third time. Yoga breathing, and any other kind of voluntary breathing, should only be done occasionally (one or two times per day) and only for short periods (15 minutes maximum). As with all yoga practices, I recommend learning from a living teacher.
Diaphragmatic yoga breath
Lie on a firm, yet comfortable surface, such as a thick blanket folded in two, lengthwise. Lie on your back with your knees bent or straight, whichever you like better. Place your hands over your lower rib cage, so your little fingers are just below your lowest ribs. Rest your elbows on the floor. Close your eyes. Relax your weight into the floor, sensing the places where you feel pressure against the floor. This releases your most easily accessed tensions. Stay with this focus for a few minutes.
Shift your attention to your breathing sensations. Put your main focus under your hands in your lower chest. Now intentionally send your breath under your hands, so that your belly puffs up toward the ceiling when you inhale, and drops down toward the floor when you exhale. You can feel the movement of your belly with your little fingers, and in your belly itself (see photos).
If this doesn’t happen, or if this movement is slight, notice your upper and middle chest, which will likely be moving noticeably with each breath. See if you can keep your upper chest still, while you use only your lower chest and your belly to draw in the breath. Drop your belly toward the floor as you exhale. Then as soon as you start the next in breath, release your belly and let it puff up toward the ceiling. Although you don’t actually breathe in your abdomen, your abdomen’s movements are a key to releasing your diaphragm.
Continue breathing in your lower lungs (or attempting to), in this fashion, focusing under your hands and feeling your breathing sensations, for five to 10 minutes. When your mind wanders and you are no longer focusing on the exercise, just bring your focus back to what you are doing.
After about 10 minutes, return to effortless breathing, noticing how this transition feels. After a minute, stretch and take some deep breaths. Then roll on your side and sit up.
Sit quietly for a few minutes noticing how you feel. Then resume your daily routine and see if you feel more energy or more mental clarity. Try this practice every day for a week and I think you will agree that there is indeed a connection between respiration and mental states, as King Bhoja asserted 1000 years ago.