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Three Simple Breathing Exercises

Prāṇāyāma is a tool in the yoga repertoire for calming the nervous system and working with the mind.  Prāṇā means Energy / Life Force.  Yāma means Control / Restraint.  When we practice Prāṇāyāma, we are consciously directing our energy away from anxious, busy mind and towards wisdom and clarity.  Many people feel calm and centered after just a little breathing practice. 

Western science has studied the effects of pranayama.  We now know that relaxed, even breathing catalyzes a cascade of changes in the body.  The sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight/freeze) is quieted.  The parasympathetic nervous system (rest/digest/heal) is activated.  The body releases hormones associated with relaxation and well being and every organ receives the message and responds in kind.  Studies have shown a wide range of benefits, including quicker injury recovery, improved cardiovascular and immune function, decreased pain and anxiety, and more.


Guidelines

Breathing exercises should be done at your own pace with relaxed and even breath.  In Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, it is recommended that each inhale and exhale be about 5 seconds.  If that helps, you can use that as a guideline.  If it distracts you, just follow your own intuition.


Sama Vṛtti Prāṇāyāma

Sama means the same or identical, straight, entire, whole and complete.  Also, similarly or in the same manner.  Vṛtti means action, movement, function, or operation, a course of conduct or method.  


Practice lying down, sitting up, or really anywhere.


Instructions:


  • Inhale a comfortably full breath.  It should not feel so full that you feel any strain or anxiety.

  • Exhale as slowly as comfortable.

  • Inhale as slowly as comfortable.

  • There might be a natural pause for a few beats at the top of the inhale.  And also at the top of the exhale.  Let them be.

  • Repeat as many of these breaths as you like.


Dīrgha Prāṇāyāma -  Three-Part Yogic Breath

Dīrgha is a Sanskrit word meaning long and/or deep.


Imagine your lower belly, middle belly and chest are a jar.  If you pour water into a jar, it fills the bottom first, the middle, and then the top.  And if you pour it out, the top layer of water empties first, then the middle, and finally the bottom of the vessel empties.  Now imagine your lower abdomen, middle abdomen and chest are the jar.  You will fill this jar with breath.


Practice lying down or sitting up.


Relax as much as you can in whatever position you are in.  Bring your awareness into your breath.


Instructions:


  • Inhale a comfortably full breath.  It should not feel so full that you feel any strain or anxiety.

  • Exhale as slowly as comfortable.

  • Inhale into your lower abdomen, then middle abdomen, then chest.

  • Slowly exhale from the chest, to the middle abdomen, then the lower abdomen.

  • Repeat as many cycles as feels intuitive.

  • Allow any natural pauses to exist.

  • Optional:  count in your mind 1, 2, 3 then 3, 2, 1.



Alternate Nostril Breathing - Nāḍī Śodhana Prāṇāyāma 

Nāḍī means Energy Channel.  Śodhana (pronounced Shodhana) means Purifying or Cleansing.  In the yoga tradition, this exercise is thought to balance two major energy channels and prepare the practitioner for higher levels of spiritual awakening.  Many people find the combination of concentration and a physical action to facilitate focus and calm.

Practice Sitting up.


Instructions from Light on Yoga, BKS Iyengar:

  • Right hand

  • Ring finger gently blocks the left nasal bone 

  • Exhale through the right nostril completely (this is the prep)

  • Inhale slowly, steadily and deeply through the right nostril

  • Use thumb to block the right and exhale through the left

  • Inhale through the left

  • Exhale through the right

  • Practice 8-10 Cycles


Hand Position 1:  Face your palm towards you and fold your index and middle fingers towards your palm.  Now the ring finger and thumb can be easily placed on either side of the nose.


Hand Position 2:  Place the tips of the index and middle fingers on the center of your forehead.  This symbolizes stimulating your “Third Eye” energy center, which strengthens spiritual connection.


While practicing today I remembered a Rabbi friend of mine told me that a Hebrew word for breath also means spirit.  The Hebrew word is ruach.  The Book of Genesis says God made man from mud and put skin, muscles, bones, etc. in place, but the man was not a "living being" until God breathed into his body.  To be alive we first inhale God’s Spirit and then we exhale praise.


I wonder how many other wisdom traditions across peoples consider breath and spirit interlinked? Does breath work make you feel more connected to spirit?


Happy Yogaing!


Here is a link to another post about the 8-fold path of yoga, which includes pranayama.



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