Pranayama Breathing

News 20 August 2012

Every class starts with the first breathing exercise, Standing Deep Breathing (Pranayama Breathing). It is a type of breath control that helps you to use up to 100% of your lung capacity. The exercise helps regulate your blood pressure, relaxes the mind, aids detoxification of the body and prevents respiratory problems.

The slow breathing pattern that the exercise promotes is very beneficial for your overall health and serves as a great preparation for any strenuous activity or exercise.

Especially in the beginning of your yoga practice this exercise can feel very challenging in the neck and shoulder area. It also takes a little getting used to for you to inhale and exhale for six counts (not to be confused with seconds: the count may vary in time per breath cycle depending of the rhythm set by the teacher). Even if this is challenging for you, it is important to keep practicing it. The more effort and practice you put into it from the start, the more benefits you will receive, and the more you will thrive during the rest of class. Over time, you will notice that your breathing becomes easier, also in your daily live.

At the end of the first breathing exercise your body is warmed up and awake. You are ready to start the rest of your class!

The background:

  • Prana = Life Force
  • Yama = Control
  • Standing Deep Breathing teaches you to use up to 100% of your lung capacity.
  • Through controlling your breathing pattern you create a bridge between your physical body and your mind, creating a stronger balance between the two.
  • You prepare your body for the practice of yoga by increasing blood circulation and hart rate.
  • You improve the elasticity and strength of the lungs, so you use more of the lungs/alveoli (the alveoli are where the gas exchange of oxygen and CO2 takes place).

The benefits:

  • Promotes mental relaxation
  • Helps sleep disorders
  • Decreases anxiety and irritability
  • Stimulates blood circulation and brings fresh oxygenated blood to every cell in the body

Prevents and helps remedy respiratory problem such as bronchitis, emphysema, asthma and shortness of breath. In Pranayama breathing you always breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. During the breath cycle you move arms and head/neck simultaneously to support the breath going in and out of the lungs. You continuously breathe through your throat, letting the air come in through your nose on the inhale and out through your mouth on the exhale. The air goes from the nose, through the throat to the lungs, and from the lungs, through the throat back out through the mouth. This shouldn’t make too much noise. Both on the inhale and on the exhale it should sound like gas running through a pipe.

See below for a step by step overview of the technique. Please view the illustration for clarification.

The set up:

  1. Start with your feet together, toes and heels touching. Bring the weight on your heels.
  2. Look straight ahead in/towards the mirror.
  3. Contract your leg thigh muscles. Keep your legs strong/contracted throughout the exercise.
  4. Pull your belly in, lengthening and straightening your spine. Keep your spine long and straight throughout the breathing exercise.
  5. Interlock 10 fingers underneath your chin. Cross your thumbs. Thumbs touching your throat.
  6. Bring your elbows close together to start.

The exercise:

  1. On the inhale, slowly bring your elbows up towards the ceiling (it is ok for the shoulders to move up as well).
  2. Keep your fingers interlocked underneath your chin and your thumbs stay against throat. Keep your wrists straight.
  3. During the inhalation keep lifting your elbows higher and higher. Your elbows should reach their highest point at the end of the inhalation, when your lungs feel like they are about to burst.
  4. On the exhalation, push your chin back with your fist (knuckles still at the same spot underneath you chin, thumbs against your throat).
  5. Keep your spine straight and long, only bend your neck. Look up and back.
  6. At the same time push your elbows forward towards the mirror, away from your chest.
    Shoulders down, away from your ears.
  7. Slowly bring your elbows together away from your chest.
  8. Elbows should come together at the very end of your exhalation.
  9. Next inhalation: First separate your elbows, then slowly head down.
  10. Look forward in the mirror again, chin parallel to the floor. Still knuckles underneath your chin, thumbs against your throat.
  11. Bring elbows higher and higher towards the ceiling, reaching your highest point at the end of your inhalation.
  12. On the next exhale, push your chin back with your knuckles, head back. Weight on your heels, legs contracted, belly in etc. etc.

10 Tips to improve your Pranayama Deep Breathing:

  1. From Bikram’s book: “The tricky part here is the breathing – you never knew that a mindless repetitive act could be so complex! Here you must breathe by compressing the throat.”
  2. Go slow. To achieve maximum lung capacity you must continue to breath in and out for the full six counts or as long as possible (you can go longer then you think, don’t give up!).
  3. Weight on heels legs fully contracted. Create a strong foundation. The stronger, more stable you hold your lower body, the more your upper body (including the lungs) will release and open up.
  4. Keep your spine perfectly straight by pulling the belly in (abdominal muscles contracted).
  5. Always keep your eyes open and let your eyes lead the way. Look forward towards the mirror on your inhale, look up and back on your exhale.
  6. Keep your hips slightly forward towards the mirror by squeezing your butt to keep your spine perfectly straight.
  7. Keep your shoulders exactly above your hips. Bring your weight on your heels to keep your balance.
  8. Breathe all the way out. Only when you push all the stale air (CO2) out of your lungs, will you be able to fully fill them with oxygen again, activating more of the alveoli over time.
  9. Know that a pinching feeling in neck and burning sensation in the shoulders are completely normal in the beginning. Over time, when you create more flexibility in neck and shoulders, these feelings will disappear. To experience improvement here it is especially important to continue the exercise when you suffer from neck and shoulder issues/pains.
  10. Know that it is very normal to feel a little dizzy during the breathing exercise. This is caused by the exchange of oxygen and CO2 in the body.