Three Breathing Techniques to Improve Life
The effects of life in the big city tend to show up in our breathing patterns. Chronic upper-chest breathing, practically an epidemic, results in chronic oxygen deprivation, brain fog, compromised immune function, stimulant dependence, the sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight response and a host of physical insults to the body.
Our whole life shows up in our breath, including dysfunctional breathing patterns. The good news: If we can correct breathing patterns, we can improve our quality of life.
The breath is our link to all the parts of us. Prana is the life force present in the air we breathe and that is alive within each of us.
Pranayama, one of the eight limbs of yoga, is an integral part of the practice. The suffix -ayama means expansion. So one meaning of pranayama is expansion of life force. Through the practice of pranayama we become more sensitive to subtle flows of energy in the body, remove blocks to the flow and learn how to increase, store and direct it at will.
Pranayama is best learned under close guidance from a qualified teacher. Many widely available techniques are not suitable for beginners. Some have contraindications. That said, here are three techniques that are safe and useful for most anyone from beginner to advanced. Those with heart trouble should consult a doctor before practicing.
First, some general guidelines:
Practicing pranayama right after asana practice is ideal. Asanas prepare the body to absorb prana and aid in the proper distribution of prana in the physical and subtle body. If not after asana practice, practice pranayama before, not after, meals.
- Visit the bathroom.
- Clear your nostrils.
- Practice in a clean, well-ventilated space
The top of the pelvis should be level. This decompresses the lower back (lumbar spine), making sitting more comfortable and pranayama more effective Sit comortably erect, allowing for the natural curves in the spine. (See photos for additional guidance).
Posture: Now sit tall, but not stiff. Let your shoulders melt down, away from your ears, and bring the back of your skull in line with your sacrum, the bony part of your low back.
Take a few easy, deep breaths while searching for a balanced, centered posture. This will make your practice more comfortable and bring awareness to a more internal space, a prerequisite for optimal pranayama practice. Keep your face soft. It’s good to practice with eyes closed or with soft gaze.
Breath: With each inhalation, keep the abdomen firm below the navel, relaxed above the navel. This increases intra-abdominal pressure, massaging the abdominal organs. Inhale only to about 85 percent to 90 percent of full capacity. Don’t overstretch lung tissue. With regular practice, alveoli, or air sacs, in the upper lungs will become more open and receptive. As you feel the difference, begin to increase the volume. Never strain.
Practice #1: Viloma PranayamaViloma A:
- Sit tall. Before starting, become familiar with your pulse. Keep your thumb or fingertips on the pulse until you are familiar with the rhythm. Exhale completely.
- Inhale one third of the way through the nose for two heartbeats. Hold the breath for two beats. Continue inhaling another third for two beats and then hold for two beats. Again, inhale for two beats. At this point most people will have taken a complete breath in. Now hold the breath for five beats.
- Slowly and smoothly exhale through the nose. At the end of complete exhalation, begin another round. Do five rounds.
- With Viloma B, the breathing increments are on the exhalations. First, inhale completely. Hold for two beats, exhale one third of the way and retain for two beats, and so on until exhalation is complete.
- At end of exhalation, hold the breath out for five beats. Inhale completely, then start another round. Do five rounds. Five rounds of Viloma A followed by five rounds of Viloma B constitute a complete Viloma pranayama practice. Following the practice, rest in savasana before resuming activity.
Benefits of Viloma pranayama:
- Corrects unconscious dysfunctional breathing patterns.
- Gradually normalizes slightly high blood pressure (Viloma B).
- Opens up the alveoli in the lungs for better oxygen exchange.
- Ideal pranayama for those without an experienced teacher.
- Enhances mind-body integration; awakens the intelligence in the body.
- Releases stress, brightens outlook.
Practice #2: Sama Vritti PranayamaSometimes called “square breathing,” this practice consists of four phases: inhalation (puraka), holding breath after inhaling (kumbhaka), exhalation (rechaka) and holding breath out after exhaling (kumbhaka). Each phase is completed over the same amount of time.
First get centered. See “How to Sit.”
Breath: Take three easy, deep breaths. Then exhale completely. Hold the breath out for a count of five. Inhale smoothly for five, hold the breath in for five, then exhale for five. This completes one round. Consistent rhythm, presence and effortlessness are key. If this practice is not easy, go back to Viloma A and B for a couple of weeks, then try again.
Benefits of Sama Vritti pranayama:
- Safe if you maintain effortless practice throughout.
- Balances sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system function.
- Redistributes prana, strengthens and recharges physical and subtle body.
- Cultivates good health and psychological well-being.
Special applications: Yoga teacher Earline Wilcox, who is 81 years old, says Sama Vritti is her favorite pranayama sequence, partly because it is portable.
“When I’m waiting in a long line or stopped on 285 and tired of counting 18-wheelers creeping by, with Sama Vritti I feel a sense of coherence, calmness and well-being,” she says.
She credits a balance of pranayama, asana and meditation for her youthful vitality.
Practice #3: Change the breath ratio.During deep, prolonged inhalation, pressure is created in the thoracic cavity, stimulating the sympathetic nervous system, resulting in temporary increase in heart rate and blood pressure. Deep prolonged exhalation activates the parasympathetic nervous system, resulting in a temporary but immediate drop in both heart rate and blood pressure.
Posture: Sit quietly. Gradually lengthen the breath. Once you’ve established a rhythm of long, comfortable breathing, put two fingers on the outside of your larynx and feel your pulse. If your breath is smooth and deep, you will be able to feel your pulse increase as you inhale and decrease as you exhale.
To instantly lower blood pressure and heart rate, activating the restorative effects of the parasympathetic nervous system, lengthen the exhalation without strain. Establish a breathing ratio of 2:3. For example, inhale for a count of six and exhale for a count of nine. Maintain that consistently for a minute or so. Then see if you can comfortably move on to a 1:2 ratio, with the exhalation twice the duration of the inhalation. Sustain that to cultivate parasympathetic function. It is helpful for anxiety. This practice is contraindicated for depression.
A breathing ratio of 1:1 provides energy and a dynamic balance.
To instantly counter depression or lethargy, activating the stimulating effects of the sympathetic nervous system, do this:
Lengthen the inhalation. Go to a 3:2 ratio: for example, inhale for nine and exhale for six. Stay there for a while. If you are comfortable and feel it’s beneficial, go to 2:1. This is contraindicated for anxiety.
These practices are safe and effective if done as described, never forcing or straining. Monitor the effects, and if there’s discomfort, come back to normal breathing.
When practicing with adjusted breathing ratio, use only parasympathetic or sympathetic as needed. Do not switch back and forth. Practice for 10 complete breaths, then finish with five breaths using a 1:1 ratio.
Special applications: Newly certified yoga teacher Hülya Sogut finds all three of these practices bring her more in alignment with herself, independent of whether the technique is energizing or calming. Best for her is that each practice in its own way is a great prelude to meditation. For her, a complete practice must include asana, pranayama and meditation.
It’s always good to rest two or three minutes after even a short pranayama practice.
Commit to a daily practice. Even five or 10 minutes a day of pranayama will bring noticeable results, and the benefits are cumulative and real. Enjoy!
Contact Graham Fowler, founder of Peachtree Yoga, at [email protected]