The breath, pranayama, is a major aspect of yoga practice. It’s the forth limb of yoga and is integrated into any yoga class or video you’ll ever take (at least it should be). But why is the breath so important from a medical standpoint?
Obviously we need oxygen to live. But different breathing techniques offer us so much more than that. How many times have we heard that if we’re anxious we should just take deep breaths and count to ten? How many of us do it? Chances are you’ve at least tried it at some point in your life, even if it’s not part of your regular routine. And guess what? Most of us feel at least a little better afterwards.
A recent study provided breathing exercises to study participants to observe the effects of slowed breathing on heart rate, blood pressure, perceived stress, body mass index (BMI), and waist-hip ratio2. They found that in 12 weeks, slowed breathing resulted in significantly decreased heart rate, blood pressure (both systolic and diastolic), and perceived stress. Just with breathing! Though no significant change was seen in regards to BMI and waist-hip ratio (darn). But all those benefits with just breathing?! What’s not to like about that?
Let’s go over some types of breathing techniques:
Abdominal diaphragmatic (A-D) breath: This is where you should start. Master this breath to incorporate it into your basic yoga postures (e.g. child’s pose, corpse pose, happy baby, cobra, etc.). This breath helps with relaxation, sleep management, stress management, and emphasizing appropriate use of your diaphragm (just to name a few benefits). Tip- sometimes it helps to place one hand on your abdomen, and your other hand on your chest. This helps cue you to localize your breath to your abdomen. You should not feel your chest rise and fall with your breath, just your abdomen.
- To complete: Get into a comfortable and supportive position, with your spine in a neutral position. All breath work should be done via your nostrils, not your mouth. Exhale. Inhale so your abdomen rises, before exhaling again to a normal resting abdomen position.
- Trial counting to 3 on your inhale/exhale, though PLEASE feel free to modify this breath to more/less counts. Listen to what your body and do what feels best for you.
Three-part breath: This breathing technique helps with breath regulation, stress response, and with even out your inhale and exhale. The 3 parts identified in this technique are your abdomen, lower ribcage, and upper ribcage. Tip- sometimes it helps to place one hand on your abdomen, and your other hand on your chest, to feel your torso move with your breath.
- To complete: Get into a comfortable, supportive position (ideally laying down on your back), with your spine in a neutral position. All breath work should be done via your nostrils, not your mouth. Exhale. Inhale 2 counts into your abdomen, progressing 2 counts into your lower ribcage, and lastly inhaling 2 counts into your upper ribcage/clavicles. Reverse this order on your exhale. Progressing your exhale 2 counts from your upper ribcage/clavicles, 2 counts from your lower ribcage, and 2 counts from your abdomen.
- PLEASE feel free to modify this breath to inhale/exhale 1 count vs 2, or increase to 3 counts! This is all about you. Listen to your body and what works best for you.
Alternating nostril breath: This is excellent for relaxation or when you need to focus. People will often use this breath not only in their yoga practice, but also in day to day tasks (as necessary). Note– You do not need to physically hold your nostrils down to get the benefits of this breath. Just imagining the air going in/out of your nostril’s allows you to reap the benefits of this technique.
- To complete: Get into a comfortable position. Using your right hand (palm facing towards you), cover your right nostril with your thumb and your left nostril with your ring finger. Your index and middle fingers should be relaxed into your palm, with your pinky extended by your ring finger. Exhale without blocking either nostril. While blocking the right nostril with your thumb, inhale completely through your left nostril. Release your right nostril while blocking the left. Exhale completely through your right nostril. Continue this cycle as long as you feel is necessary.
- You can vary which nostril you inhale/exhale through depending on what you are hoping to gain from this technique. Inhaling through your left nostril is meant to assist with relaxation. Alternatively, inhaling through your right nostril is meant to assist with focus.
Transversus abdominus-assisted thoracodiaphragmatic TATD breath: Wow. That’s a mouth-full. And very medical. Let’s call this your “power breath” instead. Why? Because when you incorporate it into your practice it makes you feel powerful, and helps you accomplish more complex poses! This is (in my opinion) an advanced form of the breath. It’s difficult for a lot of people to practice and incorporate into their poses, but it SO important if you want to advance in your yoga practice. This is something that is considered a foundation in medical yoga techniques, and therefore something that will be without-a-doubt be addressed if you decide to work with me.
- To complete: Engage your transversus abdominus muscle while your ribcage expands and your pelvic floor draws upward. Yes, that sounds complicated. Try this- You know the feeling when you pull in your stomach while putting on a tight pair of pants? I know I’m not alone in knowing what this feels like! THAT is exactly what this breath should feel like. Note- this does not mean holding your breath. You should be able to breathe comfortably and feel your ribs expanding with every inhale.
- It is very challenging to engage this breath throughout your practice when you’re a beginner, but it is SO worth it when you progress in your practice. Observe your breath often and when you lose your “power breath” and return to A-D breath, just take a step back and try again. You can do it!
Feel more relaxed and in tune with your body just reading this post? Me too! Now can you imagine the benefits you’d get if you combined different breathing techniques WITH physical activity (aka yoga)? Contact me today and let me help you get started!
- Garner, G. (2016). Medical therapeutic yoga: Biopsychosocial rehabilitation and wellness care. United Kingdom: Handspring Publishing Limited
- Sunil Naik, G., Gaur, G.S., Pal, G.K. (2018). Effect of modified slow breathing exercise on perceived stress and basal cardiovascular parameters. International Journal of Yoga, 11(1), 53-58.