Breathing techniques for yoga are designed to sync the mind and body. The practice of yoga focuses on both the physical and mental/emotional disciplines, and the connection between the two is achieved through yogic breathing.
If you have ever taken a Yoga class, or even watched an online video, you know that “inhale” and “exhale” are the two most frequently used words. And, like the rest of us, you have probably thought, “What difference does it make?”
Concentrating on how to twist and bend our bodies into each pose is complicated enough, right? Remembering to breathe at all can be a challenge, never mind doing it at the correct time and in the correct way. If you have found yourself holding your breath while trying to stay balanced during the eagle pose, you are not alone.
But, breathing is a very important element. Some would even argue that it is more important than the poses themselves. Whether you are doing stand-alone breathing exercises or coordinating the breath with the various postures, learning the proper technique is absolutely necessary.
Ancient Yogis realized that in order to function properly, our bodies need adequate oxygen. The best way to achieve this is through deep, slow breathing. Unfortunately, most of us tend to breath fast and shallow.
Things like stress, improper posture, fatigue, obesity, and even simple unawareness can cause us to become “chest breathers”, which means that we only use a fraction of our lung capacity. Even though we may not notice it, we are actually robbing our body of much-needed oxygen. Plus, if we aren't inhaling deeply, we aren't exhaling properly either. This means that we aren't getting rid of carbon dioxide waste as effectively as we should.
So, when we cheat on our breathing, we throw the whole oxygen-carbon dioxide system off balance. And, this can lead to many health problems such as heart disease, respiratory conditions, reduced immunity, sleep disorders, and headaches. Who knew?
Well, apparently the Yogis did because they made Pranayama, or Yogic Breathing, one of the key principles. In fact, breathing is often an exercise all on its own. It can also act as a great preparation for a workout, and many instructors encourage their students to simply sit and practice their breathing before they ever move into their first posture.
Pranayama, also known as Yogic breathing, is basically the science of breath control.
Since breath or oxygen is essentially the “source of life” (for without oxygen we cannot live) then Pranayama is the practice of controlling, or mastering, our breathing.
When we inhale, we breathe in “life source” or oxygen which energizes and nourishes our bodies. When we exhale, we help our bodies release the carbon dioxide waste that it doesn't need.
When you do yoga poses or pranayama exercises, your breathing will be steady, slow, and rhythmic. During the postures, it should be connected to your movements to maximize the health benefits. However, the goal is to learn how to breath properly all the time – to make yogic breathing a habit rather than an effort.
Every style of yoga will have its own Pranayama techniques, but mastering basic breath control is the first step to correct yogic breathing.
Yogic breathing is divided into 3 parts or levels:
This type of breathing isolates the abdominal area and moves the diaphragm up and down on each inhale and exhale. This movement pushes air into the lower lobes of the lungs and gently massages the abdominal organs.
In some styles, this type of breathing may also be called Diaphragmatic Breathing because it isolates the mid-chest area. The focus is to open up the ribs by expanding them forward and out to the sides. This movement pushes air into the middle lobes of the lungs.
This type of breathing isolates the area right below the collarbone. The focus is to pull air into the upper lobes of the lungs which expands the upper chest and helps release tension in the shoulders and neck.
The complete breath combines all three areas – the abdomen, the mid-chest, and the upper chest. Once you have spent some time isolating each area of the lungs, you can put it all together in a slow, rhythmic motion that maximizes the benefits of yogic breathing.
The type of breathing used will vary depending on the pose and the style of yoga being practiced. In some styles, each posture will have a specific breathing pattern. However, there are some general rules that usually apply.
In most styles, you would breathe normally at all other times. But, keep in mind that “normal” breathing in yoga is much different from the way most of us breath throughout our day. Breathing should still be controlled and rhythmic. Sometimes a specific type of breathing is required while holding a pose. For example, performing deep breathing during the corpse pose can help prepare the body for sleep.
Since it is so beneficial, make a point of practicing deep breathing (yogic or 3-part breathing) several times during your day. Taking a few complete breaths while sitting at your desk, watching tv, or before you take a test can be a great way to refocus, calm your nerves, relax tense muscles, and nourish every cell in your body.
There are several different types of Pranayama, and many styles of yoga have their own specific breathing techniques. As a beginner, it can be very confusing trying to make sense of it all. Understanding the difference between Ujjayi, Sitkari, alternate nostril breathing, or the cooling breath can be overwhelming.
But, if you can master the very basic techniques of abdominal, mid-chest (diaphragm), and upper chest breathing, and learn how to both isolate and combine these types, you will be well on your way to proper yogic breathing. As you choose your preferred style of yoga, you will become more familiar with the other types of breathing exercises that are used.
It seems like a lot to learn, but breathing techniques for yoga don't have to be complicated, especially if you just want to add some poses to your fitness program. If you can grasp the general concept of deep breathing and are able to control your breath at each of the three parts, you will greatly increase the benefits of your yoga practice.
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