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Welcome back to the 8 Limbs of Yoga! Today we look into the fourth aspect of a yogic life, Pranayama.
Prana is the universal life force that we can enhance and control with the use of our breath. Through control of our breathing pattern, we can either uplift or calm our energetic states. The fascinating aspect of this is that physiologically it corresponds with our autonomic nervous system. Our breath is the direct link to calm the body and mind by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. This helps us calm the hell down.
It amazes me sometimes how the ancient yogis understood how the body works and put it into practice. For instance, if you observe an EKG, you’ll notice that during exhalation, the heart rate will slow ever so slightly. In the yogic tradition, the calming breathing technique focuses on an increased exhalation duration, directing slowing the heart as well.
Three part breath is one of my favorite pranayama exercises, and I tend to bring it into play all day long.
The majority of people breath into the middle or upper portions of their lungs. This is ineffective for several reasons:
~This does not stimulate the diaphragm appropriately and may lead to low back pain.
~ It does not use the full capacity of the lungs.
~. Upper lung breathing may stimulate anxiety.
~ Proper use of the diaphragm will stimulate the vagus nerve leading to a low-level activation of the parasympathetic nervous system.
~. Your ribs do not activate to their full capacity.
So naturally, we should practice breathing into the full volume of our lungs. Try this beginner technique:
- Find yourself in a comfortable position. Cross-legged on the floor, seated in a chair, laying down…however you feel comfortable today. Lengthen the back of your neck, gently pull your shoulder blades back and lengthen your spine.
- Breathe normally for a few moments, and just take note of your typical breathing pattern.
- Start to deepen the breath by allowing your belly to expand with each inhale. This will encourage the diaphragm to engage to its full capacity, and pull air into the bottom portion of your lungs.
- Think of your lungs as three parts: the lower, middle and upper portion of lungs.
- With each inhale imagine pulling air into the bottom, the middle and upper portion of the lungs. In that order. With each exhale, empty the lungs in reverse order, Upper, the middle and lower portion of the lungs, pulling your abdominal muscles in gently towards your spine. Slowly.
- Spend several minutes with this breathing technique. Then spend a few moments in silence, in the same position, not manipulating your breath, and note how you feel. How has that changed your energy?
Alternate Nostril Breathing to Address Energy Imbalances
This is a fun one to experiment with, and can even be used in conjunction with the above 3 part breath.
- Find yourself in a comfortable position as described above and spend a few moments with the Three-Part Breath technique.
- Take your right hand with your palm facing towards you. Flex your pointer and middle finger into the palm of your hand. Now place your thumb on the right side of your nose and ring finger on the left side.
- If you’re feeling slightly anxious follow instruction 4, or if you feel like you need an energy boost then follow instruction 5.
- Use your thumb to close down your right nostril as your inhale deeply through your left nostril. After filling your lungs, pause as you switch fingers: opening the right nostril and closing down the left nostril with your ring finger. Exhale fully through your right nostril. Pause. Switch fingers. Begin again.
- Use your ring finger to close down your left nostril as you inhale deeply through your right nostril. After filling your lungs, pause as you switch fingers: opening the left nostril and closing down the right nostril with your thumb. Exhale fully through your left nostril. Pause. Switch fingers. Begin again.
Not only is breathing a necessity for life, but it is an imperative tool for energy focus and wellness. If you don’t have the time to sit for a formal pranayama practice, you can add a few minutes at the end of your yoga practice. Practice in the shower. Practice in the bathroom. I’ll sometimes take a few minutes in my car during my lunch hour to prepare for the afternoon. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but I know that by integrating a few minutes of focused breathing techniques you’ll see huge improvements in your overall wellness.
Exercises: Play around with these two breathing techniques for a week, and note how your energy changes after each session.
Wondering where all these ideas are coming from? Study along with us!
Try these translations of the Yoga Sutras.