Yoga is great for your physical health, and fitness goals draw many of us to the mat. Some come to class because the elongating poses complement other activities like running, and some are motivated by the family member who can miraculously touch her toes, or the coworker who’s traded her sweaters for halter dresses since discovering Ashtanga. Yoga is a good workout. But if you’re in it for the “yoga butt,” you might be tempted to tune out all the other stuff, like when your teacher starts going on about the breath.
Why does a bodily function we perform involuntarily, continuously, every day, deserve particular attention?
I’d like to make a case for the importance of breath awareness, and the breath practices that can help you make the most of your yoga classes.
Prana and Pranayama
If you’ve been taking classes for a while, you’ve heard of pranayama. Pranayama can be translated as the expansion or controlling of prana, the life force. In layman’s terms, pranayama refers to a breathing technique or exercise, practiced either in conjunction with asana (the physical postures you do in class) or on its own. The breath is both the manifestation of prana, and also its primary source and mover in the body.
As the name implies, prana is a concept inextricable from pranayama, but even if you’re uncomfortable with the idea of chakras and chanting, there are physiological and Western science-approved reasons to pay attention to your breath.
Breathing consciously balances the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, decreases resting heart rate, and reduces stress, all of which affect your physical fitness. In many cases, having a strong pranayama practice and calm control over the breath are the keys to getting into those seemingly unreachable poses people post on Instagram. Check out the pranayama practices below, and see if your body and breath feel better over time.
And, if you’re open to the possibility, you just might start to notice shifts in your mood, mindsets, and relationships too. You’ll be chanting before you know it.
General Guidelines for Pranayama
- Keep yourself warm during practice.
- Don’t practice on a full stomach.
- Unless you’re practicing during a class, a seated or kneeling position is best. Keep the body relaxed.
- Become familiar with your habitual breathing patterns before you start experimenting with new ways of breathing. Be aware of where your breath naturally goes on the inhalation: Do you tend to breathe into your belly, chest, or clavicle area? Are your breaths continuous or jerky? How many counts are your inhalations? Exhalations? Are they even, or is one shorter than the other? Do you tend to hold your breath after the inhalation or exhalation?
- If you have a history of heart-related illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, or high blood pressure, stay away from breath practices involving quick or forceful breaths.
- Make sure both nasal passages are open. Nostril dominance changes about every ninety minutes. If you find one nostril blocked, lie down on the side opposite that nostril. If you’re on your left side, place your right hand under your left armpit; reverse on right side. Breathe until your clogged nostril starts to open.
Also known as belly breathing, this breath relaxes the nervous system. Ideally, it’s the breath you use in your everyday life, but many of us have to practice it.
- Sit in a comfortable, upright position, or lie on your belly with your forearms stacked under your forehead (crocodile pose).
- Throughout, keep your chest relatively still.
- Inhaling slowly and deeply, direct the breath into the belly. The navel will move away from the body on the inhalation and back toward the spine on the exhalation.
- Initially, you may need to gently use your abdominal muscles to move the breath into the belly. When this breath becomes natural, the belly will be relaxed.
A cooling and calming breath, kaki is a great practice to reduce anxiety, hypertension, fever, and insomnia.
- Form a beak shape with your mouth, as if you’re wrapping your lips around a straw.
- Slowly suck air in through your lips.
- Close the mouth and hold the breath in gently.
- Slowly exhale through the nostrils.
- Hold the breath out gently.
- Repeat for 5 rounds.
A breath that’s both balancing and stimulating, this is the one you’ll hear about most in a vinyasa class. It’s great for class because it steadies the mind and regulates blood pressure.
- Take a normal breath in.
- Gently contract the back of the throat, like you’re going to fog up a mirror, but keep the mouth closed. (If you’re having trouble finding this position, try whispering with your mouth closed—that’s the throat constricting.)
- Breathe out through the nose—keep the throat constricted so you sound a little like Darth Vader.
- The sound should be audible to you, but not unnecessarily loud (this could strain your throat).
- Keep the throat constricted as you inhale (this will also be audible, still like Darth Vader).
- There are many forms of ujjayi—ask your regular teacher for specifications, such as whether to direct the breath into the chest or the belly.
This energizing breath is named for a type of bee in India, and its soothing humming sound is great for calming the mind and the nervous system.
- Inhale through the nose.
- With your mouth closed, hum as you exhale slowly and smoothly.
- Traditionally, this pranayama is done with the hands over the ears or the index fingers in the ears.
- Initially, it’s easiest to hum only on the exhalation. Eventually, you may find that you can hum on the inhalation as well.
Sometimes classified as a cleansing kriya or technique rather than a pranayama, kapalabhati can be translated as “shining skull.” It’s one of the most energizing and heating breath practices, and can help warm your body up before class. It’s also helpful for strengthening the diaphragm and abdominal muscles, clearing the sinuses, and aiding in digestion. If you have cardiovascular issues or are prone to anxiety, skip this one, or practice it slowly and gently.
- Sit in a relaxed position with the spine tall.
- Inhale through the nose into the chest. Keep the chest in this position throughout the practice.
- Exhale and draw the diaphragm up and back as you push the air out rapidly (think belly button to spine).
- Let the belly relax as you inhale naturally, then expel the air out again, pulling the belly in.
- Throughout, focus on the exhalation, and let the inhalation happen naturally.
- Start with only a few—you can quickly get out of breath or lightheaded. Work up to 27 rounds (the traditional number of rounds are 27, 54, and 108).
- Begin slowly, and increase speed as practice progresses.