Why is breathing important? Well we all know that it keeps us alive!
But why is it important to breathe better? And how do I know what is better? How can I improve my breathing?
Coming from someone with a few allergies and constant sinus problems, I know the struggle. In the post we will look at how to improve your breathing and how you will benefit from it, even if you are not a yogi.
Yoga consists of 8 limbs, you can read more about it in my post Beginner Yoga – A Guide to Understanding. Pranayama (The 4th limb) is Sanskrit for controlled breathing – regulating the breath through exercises and techniques.
When we focus on breathing, the control of breathing shifts from the brain stem to the more evolved, cerebral cortex. The thoughts and emotions are bypassed and the whole mind can experience focus and calm awareness. Emotions create tension in muscles, stiffness and blockages. Awareness of breath helps manage emotional disturbances and makes the energy free flowing.
As a Yogi, Pranayama is a very important part of the practice. Our body’s requirements of oxygen or “pranic” energy changes according to our physical, as well as our mental activities. Focusing on your breath while making movements also helps in controlling the movements, which reduces the chances of injury. This is why breath to movement is so important in our practice.
Generally the movements which involve expansion of the chest should have inhalation associated with it and the movements which involve contraction of the chest should have exhalation associated with them. The second guideline is if you are making movements against gravity, then inhalation is recommended and with the gravity, exhalation is recommended.
As we all know, breathing is essential. Most of us breathe into our chests (you might be thinking yes that’s the point right? Actually no!). You might be shocked to know that we need to breathe into our bellies. This is called diaphragmatic breathing – where each breath goes straight to the lungs and fills our bodies with oxygen. This should be your goal even if you are not practicing yoga. As babies, we breathe into our bellies naturally, but as we get older we stop doing this for several reasons (mainly because we want flat bellies and not round bellies like babies).
Why Belly Breathing?
Diaphragmatic breathing has several benefits for everyone, even non-yogis:
– Alleviates stress, anxiety, depression, hypertension, asthma, headaches, neurological- and gastric problems.
– Calms the mind and body.
– Improves confidence.
– Better blood circulation.
– Improved heart health.
– Improves concentration.
– Improves organ function.
So I think it is safe to say that you need this in your life right now.
Now that you know what Pranayama is and the importance of it, let’s take a look at the respiratory system. I found a very useful and detailed article about the Respiratory system that you can read if you are interested in all organs involved, their purpose and the route of air through the body.
The nose and mouth are the two places where air enters the body, in Pranyama we use both interchangeably. Pranyama will improve respiratory system health but there are other things you can do in cooperation with pranayama techniques. I have quite a few problems with breathing through my nose due to allergies and living in a polluted city.
I wear a mask when I go outside and I have an air-purifier in my apartment, but I am still not always protected from polluted air. I have recently started rinsing my nose once a week with a saline solution and diffusing eucalyptus and peppermint oil at home as well as adding a few drops to my mask. This has drastically improved my respiratory health. So if you are like me and have some respiratory problems, this can really help keep your nose and throat clear.
With an open nose and throat, let’s take a look at some easy breathing techniques.
I have previously written posts that include some techniques and I recommend you do them first, as they are a great place to start. The first one was about Kundalini(breath of fire) in my post Beginner Yoga Exercises – Greeting the Sun and the second about Pranic Rhythmic Breathing in Beginner Yoga at Home – Free for All. In addition, we will look at 1 new technique here.
Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana)
Nadi Shodhana is Sanskrit for channel purification. This technique has its very own long list of benefits:
- Infuses the body with oxygen.
- Lowers heart rate.
- Reduces stress, anxiety and depression.
- Helps release toxins and purifies the body’s channels.
- Helps to balance hormones as well as the masculine and feminine energies.
- Supports a balanced and clear respiratory system.
- Helps to alleviate respiratory allergies.
- Calms and rejuvenates the nervous system.
- Enhances concentration, mental clarity and alertness.
- Brings balance to both hemispheres of the brain.
- Helps regulate body temperature.
- Prepares the body for deeper meditation.
- The best time to practice Nadi Shodhana is in the early morning on an empty stomach. Clean your nose before you start and keep a tissue nearby. Find a comfortable sitting position, you can sit on a blanket, pillow or yoga mat.
- Sit tall with the crown of your head reaching up and your sit-bones grounding(remove the flesh from under). Back, neck and spine in one straight line – lengthening. If sitting upright is difficult, make sure you support your back by placing a pillow or blanket under your sit-bones.
- Close your eyes and just observe your breathing for a few breaths. Now try to slow down your breathing by deepening the in- and exhalations, but not holding the breath. Breathe into your belly (using your diaphragm) Just breathe slowly and steadily. This will help clear the airway and awaken the energetic body. Once your breath is natural, relaxed, full and open – you can start the exercise.
- Using the right thumb, softly close the right nostril, and inhale as slowly as you can through the left nostril. Once you feel that you have inhaled fully into your belly, close the left nostril with your ring finger. Pause. Release the thumb and open the right nostril, exhale slowly and fully through the right nostril – pause at the bottom of the exhalation. With the right nostril open, inhale slowly, then close it with the thumb. Pause. Release the ring finger and exhale through the left nostril. This is one round.
- When breathing, focus on the path of the breath through the body, you are meditating and this will help you.
- You can practice for 5 minutes, if you feel comfortable, you can continue. Practicing for 15 minutes a day can be extremely beneficial and rewarding. Once you are finished, remain seated with your eyes closed, releasing the nostrils. Take a few more deep breaths through the nose and observe how you feel. I like to chant om afterwards as well.
There are many variations of this technique. Some more advanced methods incorporate breath retention and specific duration ratios for the inhalation and exhalation. The above instructions are meant to provide a suitable introduction for beginners. If you would like to know more, please let me know!
Breath – the Elixir of Life
As I said earlier, breathing is so important! Whether you are a yogi or not, everyone can benefit from these exercises. These type of breathing exercises are a form of meditation and a great place to start if you are finding difficulty in meditating as well!
Breath will help you improve in your practice, but also in your life. My next step is starting the Wim Hoff method, stay tuned for more on this technique.
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