There are numerous breathing techniques that can be used to establish specific states of mind and encourage various physical sensations. For the sake of this blog however, there is really only one: breathing in through the nose and out through the nose; slowly and intentionally.
Placing focus on the breath and lengthening both inhales and exhales will guide you safely and comfortably through any type of yoga class and can even serve to further calm the mind by placing attention on the exact actions – both breath and movement – happening at that very moment. Equally important, this option lends itself most effectively to ujjayi pranayama, victorious breath.
Ujjayi pranayama is a tremendously effective way of controlling breath, body, and mind. It also works naturally to slow and extend inhales and exhales. To incorporate ujjayi pranayama, constrict the glottis (upper opening of the larynx) by partially closing it with the epiglottis (the lid on the throat that closes when you drink water). More simply put, to quote Bikram Choudhury, “Breathe in through the nose, but always through the throat.” This produces a wave-like sound that is pleasant and calming on its own. It is also a pratyahara technique, helping you turn your attention inward to find more meditative states.
Getting Your Breath Back
When you start chasing the breath or breathing more desperately through the mouth, you alert your body to panic. Panic is never useful, least of all in a yoga class. When you notice this happening, it is important to return your attention to lengthening inhales and exhales, and matching each of those to micro-adjustments in your posture. Inhale for length. Exhale for depth.
If the breath has gotten completely away from you and panic has set in, just breathe normally. Don’t try to lengthen and slow inhales and exhales, just let the body do what it does. Your breath may become shallower, but your practice is still happening on your mat. Work with your breath to stay there, returning to more controlled and consistent breath as you move into resting postures like down dog or child’s pose.
“Normal” breathing never really comes into play if you’re dutifully practicing ujjayi pranayama, but it can become necessary when the mind or breath start to wander. Remember, yoga is a practice and part of practice is learning and adapting as you go. It takes effort and intention to maintain calm breath – especially in classes that are more vigorous or particularly hot – but that effort is the basis of a strong and sustainable yoga practice.
If you would like to explore intentional breathing and movement, and their relation to a consistent meditation practice, please consider attending the Moving into Stillness workshop from 1:00 – 2:30pm on Saturday, October 15th.
A Deeper Look at the Science Behind Breath
Your breath controls your body and calms your mind. This is not some advanced yogic teaching. This is physiology.
The autonomic nervous system acts primarily to regulate unconscious bodily functions. Heart rate, respiratory rate, vasodilation and constriction, and reflex actions are all controlled by this division of the peripheral nervous system. However, even though the autonomic nervous system controls unconscious functions, you can consciously alter it through the simple act of controlling the breath.
The autonomic nervous system has two branches:
- Sympathetic – fight or flight
- Parasympathetic – feed and breed / rest and digest
The parasympathetic nervous system stimulates activities that occur while the body is at rest. Digestion and the process of elimination are perfect examples. It also regulates blood pressure and works to slow the heart rate.
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for fight or flight – that necessary reaction to threats both physical and emotional – and while constantly active to help maintain homeostasis, like the regulation of body temperature and blood pH balance, this division of the autonomic nervous system gets kicked into high gear when you breathe irregularly or through your mouth.
Breathing in and out through the nose activates the parasympathetic nervous system. But if this is true, so is the inverse: breathe in and out through the mouth and watch your body and mind prepare to fight…or run. Evolutionarily, this was essential for the survival of the species. In yoga, it is counterproductive and can hinder your growth both on and off the mat.
Learning how to avoid frantic and aggressive reactions through the intentional use of the breath is a fundamental aspect of yoga. Like Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (developer of Ashtanga Yoga) used to say, “Do your practice and all is coming.” Practice daily – even if you can’t make it to the studio – and eventually calm and consistent breathing will just be a natural part of your life. Your body, your mind (and everyone you interact with ever) will thank you for the effort.