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You don’t have to be in yoga class to practice Pranayama. These breathing exercises direct the breath and move Prana or energy into and around the body. Pranayama is an important part of a yoga practice, as it can be used during asana and meditation practices as well as on its own. Taking just a few minutes out of the day to consciously breathe, can balance our emotions, calm the mind and energize the body. I have found that for some students of yoga, the practice of pranayama can be as much of a challenge as the physical postures, offering an additional challenge to the mind, as it can be hard for us to just sit and breathe!
The Benefits of Pranayama:
- Increasing the amount of oxygen in the body which allows for healing and relaxation.
- Reducing anxiety, tension and stress and lowering blood pressure.
- Increasing lung capacity and heart and lung health.
- Internal organs, the nervous system and the circulatory system are supported by the regular practice of Pranayama.
Two Types of Pranayama that are Ideal for Beginners:
Abdominal Breathing– This technique is also referred to as Diaphragmatic Breathing, where the stomach expands during the inhalation and draws in (with the diaphragm) on the exhalation. Abdominal breathing can be used during asana, meditation and any other time you want to take a deep and refreshing breath. If you find this breath to be awkward or challenging, keep in mind this is how babies breathe, how humans are meant to naturally breathe. While practicing, resting a hand to the stomach is a great way to “feel” this breath as you balloon out the stomach, moving the diaphragm down. With the exhalation, bring the diaphragm upward, under the ribcage as the stomach draws in and the breath flows out of the nostrils. Breathing in this way helps to maximize the amount of oxygen in the body and helps to keep the body relaxed and the mind clear.
Ujjayi– In Sanskrit, this translates to “the victorious breath”. This technique is recommended for use yoga asana practices as well as in conjunction with other types of pranayama and can be used with the Abdominal Breath. To practice the Ujjayi breath you breathe through the nose and narrow the throat to produce slight hissing or sighing sound. If you aren’t sure how to do this, sigh, keeping the mouth closed. The sigh constricts the throat resulting in the hissing sound. Listening to and feeling this breath helps to keep you in the practice. Ujjayi breath has a heating effect on the body and makes the breath slightly deeper than normal. Both the inhalation and the exhalation are through the nose.
Tips for Beginners:
- Find a comfortable position, which might be lying down, sitting in a chair or slightly propped up on your mat with a bolster, cushion or block under the sit bones.
- Feel the breath by resting a hand to the stomach, chest or throat.
- Stay relaxed, checking on the muscles in the jaw, forehead and around the eyes which can tense when you are concentrating on the breath.
- Pranayama can be comfortably practiced on its own (outside of your asana or meditation practice) with an empty stomach, try for few minutes in the morning.
- Keep at it! It can take a while to get comfortable breathing with these techniques. Try for a few minutes a day and you will begin to feel the capacity of your lungs increase.
These are just two of the many aspects and practices of Pranayama. As you become comfortable with these there are more advanced techniques that include aspects like single nostril breathing and breath retention. Stay tuned for future post that will introduce additional Pranayama practices, and always remember to Breathe!
Ashley Freeman is a registered yoga teacher with the Yoga Alliance. Certified in Raja Yoga, her experience includes private in-home lessons, workplace wellness programs, and group instruction teaching various class formats and yoga styles. Find her on Google+