Updated: Aug 18, 2021
Breathing is the very foundation of life and Yoga. However, the majority of us doesn't really know how to breathe, or to use breathing to our advantage, especially in challenging, potentially stressful situations.
I often say in my classes that learning how to breathe and control our breathing is power. Indeed, when we are conscious of our breathing, we can take action, slowing it down or speeding it up, to face and appropriately deal with varied circumstances.
As a rule of thumb, if you slow down your breathing, you'll feel calmer and more relaxed, because you activate your parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the "rest and relax" system, is responsible to restore the balance of our organism and allows you to decelerate. If on the other hand, your breathing is faster, you'll increase your energy levels and feel more active and awake.
Just by being aware of this basic concept, you can already tell how transformative consciously controlling how breathing can be - if you need a boost of energy, you can choose an exercise that leads to an hyperoxygenation of your body; if you feel stressed and need to calm down, breathe in and breath out slowly, deeply.
As someone who has struggled with anxiety before, you can imagine how empowering it was for me personally, to learn how to breathe and control my breathing. Below I share a few of my tips and tricks to help you take advantage of the very foundation of life - the breath.
1. Learn to breath "through the diaphragm"
This is probably the most useful tip I can give you and it's guaranteed this will help you feel calmer and more relaxed.
Have you ever noticed how we tend to draw in a large abdominal breath and sigh when we are feeling particularly stressed? We do this mostly unconsciously but there is a reason why sighting helps us cope with challenging situations.
This has to do with the fact that the lower part of our lungs - just above the diaphragm - has a much bigger capacity to absorb and store oxygen than any of the others (3 to 5 litres, as opposed to 0.5 to 1 litre). The greater the quantity of oxygen traveling to the brain, the more oxygenated this organ will be so the calmer we'll feel. We'll not only feel calmer, we'll also tend to think a lot more clearly, be able to make better decisions and be more creative.
So, simply put, if we learn how to use the lower part of our lungs - with the conscious help of the diaphragm - to breathe in and out, we will be absorbing a greater quantity of oxygen, which will in turn, oxygenate our brain and relax our mind.
Despite the immense amount of benefits breathing in through the diaphragm has, unless one has studied music or acting in the past, the vast majority of us seem to use only the upper part of our lungs (the thorax) to breathe and are not even aware of how to draw in a breath using the diaphragm.
Below is a simple exercise that you can do daily to increase your awareness of the diaphragm and start using the lower part of your lungs to breathe.
Lay down on your back, and bend your knees, placing the plants of your feet on the floor, in a comfortable yet firm position. Place your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your abdomen. Breathe in, ensuring that only the abdomen is moving up as you inhale - notice how your left hand rises with your abdomen and your right hand stays put in your chest, unmoving. When you breath out, your abdomen empties and your left hand moves down, your right hand should, once again, stay put.
Once you've grasped this movement, attempt to do the same exercise, in a sitting position.
(Check how we've integrated this exercise in a 20 minute Yoga practice to help you reduce stress in our previous blog post here.)
I have to be honest, the first few times you attempt to do this, isolating and breathing only through the lower part of your lungs may not be the most intuitive, but I can guarantee you that with practice, you will start gaining control of your diaphragm and the way you breath will change, without you even noticing, forever.
2. Do small retentions of breath after you inhale
When we look at it, breathing is but an exchange of energy at a cellular level - incoming oxygen (and the Prána - bio energy - derived from it) is exchanged with carbon dioxide and water.
When we hold our breath and our lungs are full, we're allowing more time for these exchanges to happen, which maximises the quantity of oxygen - and Energy - that we absorb per respiration cycle.
So, in a nutshell, small retentions of breath increase the efficiency of these exchanges and allow us to absorb more energy, helping us feel more active, motivated and restored.
Below is another exercise you can do daily for 5 to 10 minutes, to optimise your breathing process and feel more energetic.
Sit down on the floor with your legs crossed - or, if unable to, upright ona chair; rest your hands on your knees - or, if you're a seasoned yoga practitioner, place you hands in Jñána Mudrá (tip of the index touching the tip of the thumb, forming the shape of a ring, the remaining fingers are stretched). Start by exhaling completely, getting rid of all the residual air you have in your lungs. Now inhale for 5 seconds and retain with your lungs full for another 5 seconds, then exhale for 10 seconds.
As you become more and more comfortable with this exercise, you can increase the amount of time you're holding you breath in slightly, but bear in mind that unsupervised retentions should not be longer than 15 seconds.
3. Alternate your breathing to stabilise your mind
Our body is made up by three main energy lines - Nádí (similar concept as meridians in acupuncture), two of them - Idá and Pingala, pass through our nostrils and heavily influence our nervous system.
Idá, also known as the lunar (Chandra) Nádí, is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system, the one that orders our body to "rest and relax". In women, Idá passes through the right nostril and in men, through the left.
Pingala, also known as the solar (Súrya) Nádí, absorbs Prána - bio energy, in the form of negative ions - restoring our body and increasing our energy levels. In women, Pingala is connected to the left nostril and in men, to the right.
By alternating our breathing and consciously using one nostril instead of the other we are directly influencing our nervous system, controlling our emotions and calming our mind or increasing our energy.
Below is an alternate breathing exercise that you can do to balance your emotions and energy levels, since it uses both Idá and Pingala.
Sit once again in a crossed leg position - or upright in a chair. With your right hand in Jñána Mudrá (see above for instructions), cover your left nostril if you're a woman and your right nostril if you're a man. Start by exhaling completely, then inhale through the nostril you have uncovered for 5 seconds. Hold your breath in for 5 seconds and swap nostrils when you exhale - exhaling for 10 seconds through the right nostril if you're a woman and through your left if you're a man. Inhale through this same nostril, count to 5, changing nostrils just before you exhale.
We hope these exercises help you become more aware of your breathing and take the first steps in learning how to control it for your advantage. Let us know in the comments below if you've given these a try!
All the tips and tricks you read above are versions of Pránáyáma exercises - energetic and neuro-vegetative breathing exercises, one of the 14 technical disciplines we cover in our Yoga Sámkhya classes. The effects of these exercises are a lot more powerful when used in conjunction with the other Yoga techniques, which is why we specialise and teach the full Yoga.
Click here to learn more about Yoga Sámkhya or try our 14-day free trial here.