One of my favorite moments teaching yoga is right at the beginning when students take their seats. Sometimes they look at me and I can feel their eagerness, their bodies ready to take the shapes and forms of the asanas. Other times half the class is lying down in savasana, looking more ready for a nap than anything else. Whatever the energetic state of my students, I look forward to having them sit in sukhasana (easy pose), close their eyes and bring their awareness to their breath. With each inhale and exhale, I can feel burdens beginning to lighten and attention to the present coming into focus.
As we tune into the breath, we take notice of the areas in the body the breath might not be reaching, and we are able to notice the quality of the mind state. Those first few minutes in class are precious moments of settling into stillness. Once we begin moving, the breath and heart rate increase and it is easy to forget inhaling and exhaling all together. As much attention as we give to our bodies through asana, it is just as important to give our breath attention through pranayama.
Pranayama, which means “to extend the vital life force” or “prana” is a practice of breathing techniques ranging from simple to those appropriate for only advanced practitioners. While it is always best to practice under the guidance of an experienced teacher, there are a few pranayama practices appropriate for beginners and are helpful for aliments such as anxiety and restlessness, and can help increase focus and assist in finding peace of mind.
Here are a few simple practices to try on your own.
Samma Vritti: Equal inhalation and equal exhalation
How to: Lay on your back, bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor. Bring your hand to your abdomen and tune into your natural breathing. After a few rounds of breath, begin a slow count to 4 as you inhale then also count to four as you exhale. Experiment with increasing or decreasing the count.
Benefits: Creates a quality of balance and calms the nervous system.
The Long Exhale: 1:2 breathing practice: gradually increasing the length of your exhalation until it is twice the length of your inhalation
How to: Begin by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart. Come into Samma Vritti Breathing (equalizing your inhale and exhale). Once you have found an even breathe, gently begin increasing the exhale 1 to 2 seconds. Without forcing the exhale, continue to increase once every few breaths. Keep going until your exhalation is twice the amount of your inhalation as long as you are experiencing no strain or discomfort. For example if your inhalation is 4 seconds, your exhalation will be 8 seconds. If you feel yourself gasping for breath or pushing beyond your capacity, decrease the ratio (for example 3 second inhale, 6 second exhale). The idea is to tap into your parasympathetic nervous system but this wont happen if you are feeling agitated and strained.
Benefits: Reduce insomnia, sleep disturbances, anxiety and relaxes the nervous system.
Nadi-Shodna: Channel Cleaning Breath
How to: Sit in a comfortable seated position, gently close your right nostril with your thumb. Inhale through your left nostril, then close it gently with your ring finger. Open the right nostril and exhale slowly. Then keep the right nostril open, inhale, close the nostril and open and exhale slowly through the left. This is a complete cycle of nadir shodhana. Repeat 3-5 times, then release into normal breathing.
Benefits: Lowers heart rate and reduces stress and anxiety, said to synchronize the two hemispheres of the brain, purifies the energy channels and nadis of the body to allow prana to flow easier.
Seated yogi image from Shutterstock.