The breath, or prana, is a vital part of yoga as it connects the mind to the present moment. When we’re focused on the air coming into and out of the body, our mind is less likely to wander, allowing us to fully integrate into the asana and that particular moment. Prana also allows us to delve deeper into each pose, exploring areas where we thought we were unable to reach.
For example, when you’re practicing a forward fold, we can use the inhale to lengthen the spine and create space, while using the exhale to move slowly into the space we created, even if it’s a fraction of a centimeter. Poses are not static and using the breath allows us to feel the pose. When we hold the breath, we block the prana, or the energy (because without breath our body will shut down), to our lungs and cells.
Besides integrating the breath into each asana as well as the movement between each asana, we can practice pranayama, or control of the breath. Pranayama exercises are an important part of any yoga practice, whether you’re fully concentrating on the breath throughout your practice or practicing pranayama.
Below are three breathing exercises that will help you explore the benefits of moving and focusing on the breath.
Forward Fold with Breath Awareness
Sitting on the edge of a blanket so your pelvis tilts forward, extend your legs out in front of you and rock from side to side to firmly root into your sit bones (your sitting bones in your glutes). Keeping your hands at your sides, flex your feet and unlock your knees, inhale to five as you lengthen the spine, and as you exhale to seven slowly start to tilt forward, walking your fingertips alongside your legs. Instead of rounding the spine, focus on keeping the spine long, reaching the heart towards the toes. Keep lengthening as you inhale and fold a little bit deeper as you exhale until you’ve reached your “personal edge.” Allow your head to relax and keep an internal focus on the breath. Stay here for at least 20 breaths, possibly feeling yourself open up a little bit more to fold a little bit deeper. When ready, lift your spine up on an inhale.
Sitting on a blanket, a bolster, or a cushion, close the eyes and begin to notice your natural spontaneous breath. Notice if the breath is shallow, deep, forced, or comfortable. Sit with this breath for a minute. Bring your hand to your belly, inhaling to five as you feel your belly expand like a balloon, then exhale to five as you feel your belly pull back towards your spine. Continue with this breath for a few minutes. Now bring your hand to the side of your ribs, focusing on bringing the inhale into the lungs as your ribs expand outward on the inhale (still to five) and hug into the mid-line during the exhale (still to five). Follow this breath for a few minutes. Keep your one hand on your ribs and one hand on your belly. Inhale into your belly, then into your ribs, each for the count of three for a total of six. Then exhale, hugging the belly in first, then hugging the ribs in, each for the count of three for a total of six. Follow this breath for a few minutes for full yogic breath.
This pranayama exercise allows us to expand our lung capacity as we bring awareness to what a full inhale and exhale feels like in our body. As your pranayama practice grows stronger, you can lengthen the counts.
Quite possibly one of my favorite breathing techniques, Bee Breath may seem silly, but it is extremely effective in calming the mind, and releasing agitation and stress. Begin by finding a comfortable seat, closing the eyes, and noticing your natural spontaneous breath. After a few minutes, with your spine tall, place your index fingers on the cartilage between your cheek and ear to close off any external sound. Keep your elbows out to the sides of your body, parallel with your shoulders. Inhale to six and as you exhale, make a loud, high pitched humming sound like a bee. Practice 6-7 rounds and then come back to your comfortable seat, noticing any sensations that arise.
Practicing pranayama daily can help you stay in the present moment, reduce anxiety and worry about the future and past, and allow you to find a sense of calmness. It can be done anywhere, whether you’re in your car at a red light (instead of looking at your phone, follow your breath), taking a shower, or even standing in line at the grocery store. As you become more aware of your breath, you’ll find that it helps you open up your body in your yoga practice and in your life.
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