Breath is life.  Our first action we do at birth is to breath in.  Our last living act is breathing out. There are 8.7 million animal species on earth which breath is incredibly diverse ways.  As humans because of our consciousness, we have the capacity to tune and tailor our breathing to balance our bodies, stimulate our hormonal flows and centre our minds.  For thousands of years, Yoga and Buddhism have distilled the practices of breathing to support living with clarity and freedom. And in current research,  neurologists, physiologists and many other health practitioners are learning more about the breathing systems of the human body and bigger breathing systems of our earth.

Pranayama in Sanskrit means breath extension. In the eight limb Yoga path called Ashtanga, breathing is so important that it is the fourth limb in the path.  It is recommended to be practiced after social observances and cultivation of community (Yamas), personal practices of self respect (Niyamas) and physical care and energy health rituals (Asana).

As was described to me by Mary Dunn, one of my Iyengar teachers, to be able to direct the current of energy (prana) connected to the breath, we should develop a strong and balanced body that can hold that current. If we just start pranayama exercises with an unbalanced body, it is like running 1000 watts through a 40 watt light bulb.  The lighbulb  will blow up.  I saw this many times with yoga practitioners in India who did not do the preparatory stages to pranayama.  One young woman triggered herself after participating in a weeklong intensive of pranayama. She had anxiety attacks for a week afterwards.  Another young man had insomnia for two weeks.  Yet, when the preparatory stages are completed, I have witnessed people come alive and live with radiance. Many have insights into their unhealthy habits and conditioning. Most people discover how breathing deeper and properly increases their energy levels and concentration capacity.

The practices to do before starting a pranayama practice are:

  1. Practice Yoga Asana regularly on a daily basis. Work up to practising 5 to 6 times per week.  Daily practice should be consistent, regular and calm with each session lasting 30 to 75 minutes in length. In addition, your asana explorations are intelligent experiments in short forms of stress. You learn to meet stress with curiousity and how to digest it. This leads to mental and physiological adaption to stress responses.  This is why Yoga practice is a powerful tool in our lives because it trains us how to live with more flexibility towards discomfort,  strength and resilience.
  2. Start with supine and standing postures to cultivate skeletal balance and axial extension.
  3. In Savasana (resting pose at the end of each session), practice mindfulness of the breath. Simply be aware of your breath as it moves in and out of your body. Try not to change or manipulate the breath.  Instead, become aware of its natural rhythm and flow.
  4. Acknowledge the breath’s variations and subtlety in your asana and daily life. Let breath awareness becomes a healthy awareness habit.

5. As you become stronger, add in postures that open your side body which promotes lengthening and toning of the diaphragm muscles. Parighasana (the gate pose) and its variations are wonderful to open the torso. Start with side body bends over a bolster.

 

 

 

6. Then progress to supported backbends to open the upper chest, back and neck. This form of Setu Bandhasana (Bridge Pose) is an excellent example.  Work with experienced Yoga teachers to offer you progressive variations and sequences.

 

 

 

 

7.   Slowly and progressively increase the range of motion by adding more back bending variations to your daily practice. In the photo to the right is an example of an intermediate form of Setu Bandhasana (Bridge pose) with chair, wall and bolster support.

To progress steadily and with confidence, work closely with an experience Yoga teacher so they will help you with alignment and technique. The major challenge along the way will be having enough patience to correct body asymmetry and habitual compensation patterns.

End every yoga session with a ten minute Savasana (relaxation pose) infused with easy long breaths.

The next article of the Breath of Life, Part 2 will be on breathing techniques change our body chemistry and support us to overcome negative conditioning. Plus, I will outline practices for beginners which are beneficial for most people.

Thank you for reading, Allison Ulan

B.F.A., E-RYT 500, YACEP, IYAI


References:

Brown, K.W., Ryan, R.M., & Creswell, J.D. (2007). Mindfulness: Theoretical foundations and evidence for its salutary effects. Psychological inquiry18, 211-237.

Iyengar B.K.S., (1998). Light on Pranayama : The Yogic Art of Breathing. 6 – 15 , 53 – 88.

Rosen, Richard (2002). The Yoga of Breath: A Step-by Step Guide to Pranayama. 13 – 24.

Koen de Jong (2018) The Way of the Iceman.

Muzik, Otto Ph.D., and  Diwadkar, Vaibhav Ph.D., Brain Over Body: A study on the willful regulation of autonomic function during cold exposure,  published in the journal NeuroImage (2014)