Our breath is with us all the time, and is vital to our survival, yet we pay it little attention. Our breathing pattern at any one time can be a useful indicator of how we are feeling, in mind and body. We may have developed less helpful breathing patterns/habits over time, so learning how to become aware of our breathing patterns, and learning specific breathing practices can have a beneficial impact on our health and wellbeing, and can be used as prevention, as well as helping us deal with current situations.
What is pranayama or breath work?
Breath work, or pranayama (prana = life force; ayama = control or restraint) is one of the fundamental elements of yoga. According to some of the ancient yoga texts it is to be approached after asana (seated postures) have been perfected and it’s also the fourth limb of ashtanga yoga. There are around 10 classical pranayama techniques, some more straight forward than others. Each one is said to have particular benefits but overall it is said to steady the mind in preparation for meditation, and removes veils clouding our wisdom (see ‘Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’ and the ‘Hatha Yoga Pradipika’).
What happens when we breathe?
Before we get to the pranayama practices, here’s the science bit.
When we inhale we draw air into our lungs. The air travels through our bronchial tubes and eventually reaches the alveoli which are only one cell thick which allows oxygen to be passed through to the red blood cells on the other side. The oxygen is then carried round the body where it is used to covert glucose into energy (through aerobic cellular respiration). During exhalation, the waste carbon dioxide moves in the opposite direction from the body through the alveoli in our lungs and out the nose or mouth. There’s a simple video of this on YouTube from the Khan Academy.
When we are doing strenuous activity, our heart will pump faster to get more blood going round the body. At the same time our lungs will try to breathe harder and faster to get more oxygen in to help create more energy. As a result our breath will become short and shallow.
The same pattern can be seen when we are stressed, anxious or worried. In the short term this is fine, perhaps before an interview or test, or if we’re running or exercising hard. But if we are mainly breathing with a shallow breath, we are not drawing in enough oxygen for the body’s needs. A short and rapid breath can indicate that the mind and body is stressed, so learning how to be aware of this and how to actively change the breathing pattern can be beneficial.
Why is a long slow and deep breath helpful for our health and wellbeing?
A long, slow and deep breath which fully utilises the diaphragm is much better for us that short or shallow breathing. And it also stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which as I’ve blogged about previously, is our ‘rest and digest’ response, the opposite to our ‘fight or flight’ response, particularly when the exhale is longer than the inhale. Long exhales also stimulate the vagus nerve, which is increasingly being recognised as vital for our health. See this BBC article about the importance of a slow breath.
The summary of all this is that it’s good to breathe mainly with long, slow and deep (LSD) breaths, and with a long exhale. Ideally in and out through the nose.
Learn some beneficial breathing pranayama practices
So which pranayama practices and other breathing techniques can we learn and practice? The best ones are:
- diaphragmatic breathing (belly breathing) – audio available below
- the golden breath – audio available below
- ujjayi (victorious)
- bramari (‘bee’ breath)
- 3-4-5 breathing pattern – audio available below
- ratio breathing with longer exhale e.g. 1:2
- ‘coherent’ breathing rate of 6:6 (i.e. 6 seconds to breathe in, 6 seconds to breathe out)
Only follow these practices if you have no respiratory health issues. If you are in any doubt check with a medical professional first.
Diaphragmatic breathing (aka ‘belly breathing’) – guided audio track
For some reason, our natural breathing pattern which uses the diaphragm and lets the abdominal area and rib cage expand upwards and outwards as we inhale, has been slightly lost, so if someone is given the instruction to ‘breathe in’, many people will instinctively suck their tummy in. Try it for yourself. Breathe in and notice what happens to your belly. If your belly move inwards towards your spine, you might like to spend some time practising diaphragmatic breathing. With practice you will then find that your natural breathing pattern through much of the day uses the diaphragm correctly, giving you better oxygen exchange and inducing feelings of calm. (NB we’re not actually breathing ‘with the belly’, but the focus on the physical belly is one of the best ways to be activating the diaphragm muscle.)
Golden breath – guided audio track
This practice is from Uma Dinsomore-Tuli and although is particularly helpful for pregnant women, it is also appropriate for other people. It can be useful to help ride ‘waves’ of pain or strong sensations, as well as dealing with stressful situations or prior to something like an interview, performance or a difficult meeting. The practice features a long, relaxed exhale. Try not to force or blow the breath out hard on the exhale.
3-4-5 breathing pattern – guided audio track
For this controlled breathing practice you count the length of the inhale, the retention (hold the breath), and the exhale. The inhale will last for a count of three, the hold for four, and the exhale for a count of five. This practice is featured in Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s book ‘The Four Pillar Plan’.
Some of my blog posts about pranayama
- sitkari – a cooling technique for hot days
- ‘victory and surrender’ pattern (using ujjayi and the golden breath)
To find out more about other pranayama techniques go to Yoga Basics and for a more in-depth review of how pranayama is approached differently among six different yoga traditions or styles, read this article on Yoga Journal.