In part two of this three-part series on The Science of Breathing, learn how to take advantage of the power of the breath on the mat in various types of poses and with five different pranayama techniques.
RETURN TO Part 1: The Science of Breathing
If you bypass breathwork on your yoga mat, you’re not alone. “Pranayama has really been left behind,” says Max Strom, yoga teacher and author of A Life Worth Breathing. He calls it a classic Cinderella story: Pranayama is often overlooked while the beautiful sister, asana, is the guest of honor at yoga studios. But give breathing a chance, and you’ll realize it’s the true queen, Strom says. Here, five transformative techniques.
Basic Breath Awareness
Begin by noticing where you already are with your breath, says Bo Forbes, PsyD, clinical psychologist and integrative yoga therapist. Do you know when and why your breath is shallow, or what makes it speed up? “This is really valuable information in creating stress resilience,” she says. Plus, just becoming aware of your breath tends to slow it down.
TRY IT… anytime, anywhere. Breathing through your nose, observe the inhalation and exhalation. Which happens faster? Which is longer? Don’t manipulate them. Just watch. Continue for 2–3 minutes.
(Victorious Breath or Ocean Breath)
This classic pranayama practice, known for its soft, soothing sound similar to breaking ocean waves, can further enhance the relaxation response of slow breathing, says Patricia Gerbarg, MD, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College and co-author of The Healing Power of the Breath. Her theory is that the vibrations in the larynx stimulate sensory receptors that signal the vagus nerve to induce a calming effect.
TRY IT… to focus your attention on your breath during asana. Inhale through your nose, then open your mouth and exhale slowly, making a “HA” sound. Try this a few times, then close your mouth, keeping the back of your throat in the same shape you used to make the “HA,” as you exhale through the nose.
Nadi Shodhana Pranayama
This practice of alternating between the right and left nostrils as you inhale and exhale “unblocks and purifies the nadis, which in yogic belief are energy passages that carry life force and cosmic energy through the body,” Cole says. While there is no clear scientific evidence to support these effects, one pilot study found that within seven days of practicing this technique, overactive nervous systems were essentially rebalanced. And a study of 90 people with high blood pressure found Nadi Shodhana lowered blood pressure and improved mental focus.
TRY IT… at the end of an asana sequence to prepare the mind for meditation. Take a comfortable seated position. Close your right hand in a gentle fist in front of your nose, then extend your thumb and ring finger. Gently close your right nostril with your thumb. Inhale through your left nostril, then close it with your ring finger. Open your right nostril and exhale slowly through it. Inhale through the right nostril then close it. Open your left nostril and exhale slowly through it. That completes one cycle. Repeat 3–5 times.
If you inhale fully and then wait 10 seconds, you will be able to inhale a bit more, Strom says. Why? Holding your breath increases pressure inside the lungs and gives them time to fully expand, increasing their capacity. As a result, the blood that then travels to the heart, brain, and muscles will be more oxygenated.
TRY IT… after asana to prepare for meditation. Inhale, inflating the lungs as fully as possible. Hold the breath for 10 seconds. After 10 seconds, inhale a little more. Then hold it for as long as you can. One caveat: For anxious people, breath retention can be difficult. Strom suggests they start with holding the breath for 3 seconds, or as long as they’re comfortable, and work their way up.
(Breath of Fire or Skull-Shining Breath)
This rapid breathing technique is energizing, and activates the sympathetic nervous system. In a study using EEG electrodes to measure brain activity, researchers found that Kapalabhati Pranayama increased the speed of decision-making in a test requiring focus. However, “For people already under stress, I don’t think Breath of Fire is a good idea,” Strom says. “You’re throwing gasoline on the fire.”
TRY IT… to jump-start your asana practice when you feel lethargic, or for brainpower when you’re foggy. To start, take a full, deep inhale and exhale slowly. Inhale again, and begin exhaling by quickly pulling in the lower abs to force air out in short spurts. Your inhalation will be passive between each active, quick exhalation. Continue for 25–30 exhalations.
How to Use Your Breath In Asana Practice
While priorities may differ between styles and teachers, when to inhale and exhale during asana is a fairly standardized practice element. Here, Cole offers three simple guidelines for pairing breath with types of poses.
When bending forward, exhale.
When you exhale, the lungs empty, making the torso more compact, so there is less physical mass between your upper and lower body as they move toward each other. The heart rate also slows on the exhalation, making it less activating than an inhalation and inducing a relaxation response. Since forward bends are typically quieting postures, this breathing rule enhances the energetic effects of the pose and the depth of the fold.
When lifting or opening the chest, inhale.
In a heart-opening backbend, for instance, you increase the space in your chest cavity, giving the lungs, rib cage, and diaphragm more room to fill with air. And heart rate speeds up on an inhalation, increasing alertness and pumping more blood to muscles. Plus, “Deep inhalation requires muscular effort that contributes to its activating effect,” Cole says. Poses that lift and open the chest are often the practice’s energizing components, so synchronizing them with inhalations takes optimum advantage of the breath’s effects on the body.
When twisting, exhale.
In twists, the inhalation accompanies the preparation phase of the pose (lengthening the spine, etc.), and the exhalation is paired with the twisting action. Posturally, that’s because as your lungs empty there’s more physical space available for your rib cage to rotate further. But twists are also touted for their detoxifying effects, and the exhalation is the breath’s cleansing mechanism for expelling CO2.