Most yoga classes you go to these days end with savasana (deep relaxation), a closing and maybe an OM. The ancient yogis knew that “regular people” couldn’t just sit down for meditation without preparing the body and the mind. The asanas (poses) and pranayama (breathwork) were introduced to make the body agile for sitting, and to help quiet the nervous system, prepping us for a deeper meditative experience.
There are many pranayama practices designed to effect the nervous system, to heat and cool the body along with the development of breath capacity.
As beginner yogis, we are taught how to breathe slowly, fully and completely. Time is spent in class lengthening the breath, deepening the breath and retaining the breath. Over time these practices not only have physiological effects, but just as important, they affect the “internal quality of the mind.” Sometimes I call this the “internal environment.”
We all walk into class frazzled about one thing or another. Our nervous systems are very activated and our stress levels are very high. It takes a lot for us to be able to finally sit and focus. So, we move through a series of asanas (poses) where we work out some of that nervous energy and focus on the coordination of breath with movement. Afterward, we are more able to focus without moving the body, and can sit and just concentrate on the breath alone.
The ancient yogis figured out and understood how to design different breath practices that would physiologically, emotionally and psychologically affect us. For instance, ujjayi (oojiee) breath, sometimes called ocean breath, or “Darth Vador breath” can quickly warm the body from the inside. On the other hand, Sitali breath can instantly bring cooling sensations deep into the body. So obviously, we use the appropriate breath for the appropriate season here in New York. Valoma breath increases breathing capacity, teaches us how to relax around holding the breath in or out and slows the length of the breath. All breath practices positively effect the nervous system, thereby lowering blood pressure, slowing the heart rate, increase oxygen absorption, and create deeper states of calmness.
Many teachers and students these days spend less and less time concentrating on the breath, and I feel this is unfortunate. I sometimes think of breath practice as the second stage of a yoga practice. It takes a level of patience and a commitment to the time needed to stay with it. The “results” of the practice are more subtle and therefore harder for the beginner yogi to detect.
There are many stumbling blocks to developing a pranayama practice. See if you can identify with any of these: “I don’t have much time to practice yoga, so the little time I have I want to move and sweat.” “I don’t really feel much after I do breathwork in class.”
“When my teacher “makes me do” breathing practices I start to get really bored and start to fall asleep.” “When my teacher tells me to focus in on the breath, I start to get anxious.” “Holding my breath in creates a lot of constriction in my chest and I have an enormous need to exhale and breathe back in.”
I recently attended a yoga therapy symposium where the opening speaker, a doctor and scientist from Italy discussed his studies on yoga, oxygen and respiration. He taught basic yoga breathing techniques to “non-yogis” who had chronic disease like diabetes, heart disease etc. The slow, balanced breathing they practiced every day balanced their nervous systems, lowered their blood pressure, increased their breath capacity, increased oxygen intake and absorption. Therefore, the use of yoga as “treatment” for these chronic diseases resulted in an improvement of the primary conditions usually seen with these diseases.
One of his major points was about the type of breath practice used in the research. They weren’t able to teach more complicated yogic breathing for many reasons, so they stuck with a basic inhale for five seconds and an exhale for five seconds. It was very simplistic and yet with this simple technique, major changes took place. Imagine what might be happening when we learn more complex and advanced pranayama techniques.
So the next time you are in class, or practicing in your living room, take 10 minutes to slow down your breathing, deepen it and balance the inhale and exhale. Either sit comfortably on the floor, in a chair or on your back. Prop yourself up with pillows if you feel the need to alleviate any body sensations that come up from sitting for an extended period of time.
This is how basic the breath practice can be:
- Allow your body to relax, surrender into the chair or floor, and begin to bringyour awareness to the quality of your breathing.
- Simply watch yourself inhale and exhale naturally and comfortably.
- Notice the length of the breath, the depth and the pace of the inhale and exhale.
- As you begin to relax, your breathing will naturally lengthen and slow down, but it may not get deeper.
- Now begin to consciously count how long your inhale is and how long the exhale is. Slowly begin to lengthen the breath so that eventually you can inhale and exhale for the count of five.
- Keep your rate of breathing slow and even.
- If this count causes any anxiety or constriction, start with a count of three and then eventually build up to a count of five.
- Continue this practice for 10-15 minutes.
- Over time see if you can lengthen the amount of time you devote to this practice to 30-60 minutes.
- If over time you are very comfortably inhaling for five and exhaling for five seconds begin to lengthen the exhalation and make it a little longer then the inhale. Work towards exhaling for seven-eight seconds and possibly longer.
It has only been in the last decade that the medical profession in this country has begun to study and acknowledge the effects of yoga, specifically pranayama. The more I read and hear about the medical findings being reported on the impact of yoga on psychological and physical disease, the more it confirms what I already know personally from my own experience and my students' experience.