Life and breath - the benefits of breathing exercises
by Katie Byrne
Most yogis have, at one point or another, been told to "switch on their ujjayi breath" during a particularly strenuous part of the sequence. Otherwise known as 'Ocean Breath', ujjayi is a breathing technique that is in and out through the nose, with an ever so slight constriction of the glottis at the back of the throat.
What's fascinating about this type of breathing is that it is calming and energising at the same time.
It gives practitioners the presence and stamina to go deeper into certain postures, just as it reminds them that they must first achieve calmness of mind it they want to achieve anything at all.
Ujjayi breathing is known as Ocean Breath because it sounds a little like the lapping waves of the ocean.
If you want to try it, start by sending the breath down to your belly, then into the lower chest and finally up to your chest and throat, before breathing out slowly and mindfully.
Inhalations and exhalations should be longer - much longer - and deeper than usual breathing.
With practice, you'll strengthen your diaphragm and increase your lung capacity. You'll also have a technique in your toolbox to help you stay centred when life gets topsy-turvy. (Personally speaking, it's something I've come to rely on both on and off the yoga mat.)
Nasal breathing, I hasten to add, has advocates in both holistic and medical circles.
Patrick McKeown, author of The Oxygen Advantage, believes that many of us are mouth breathing when we should be nasal breathing. Furthermore, he believes that we can lose weight, sleep better and increase our libido (it has to do with nitric oxide) when we change the way we breathe.
Once you've harnessed nasal breathing, it can be used in many different ways. The most simple is breathing in and out for the same number of counts, otherwise known as 'equal breathing'.
Or you could try breathing along to one of the many mini mantras that Thich Nhat Hanh suggests. "Breathing in, I calm my body and my mind. Breathing out, I am at ease" is a good place to start.
Hanh describes breath as "the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts", and he has another mantra that is particularly good for centring the body when it feels like your knees could buckle beneath you: "Breathing in, I am aware of my body. Breathing out, I am aware of my body." Simple, but very effective.
4-7-8 breathing is another great technique to have in your toolbox. Some people say it helps them fall asleep in 60 seconds. I can't vouch for its benefits in this regard but it definitely calms the nervous system and grounds the body.
This time you're breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.
Close your mouth and inhale through the nose for the count of four, being aware that you want to utilise your lung capacity within those four seconds and making sure that the tip of your tongue is placed lightly against the ridge of tissue behind your upper front teeth.
Hold your breath for a count of seven and then exhale completely through your mouth, making a 'whoosh' sound, for the count of eight. Do four of these cycles in total.
Bhramari Pranayama, or 'Bumble Bee Breath', is another easy yet effective technique. It has an uplifting effect and is also said to inspire new creative ideas. However, it's best done in private as it looks - and sounds - a little odd.
Gently place your fingertips over your closed eyes and use your thumbs to hold your ears closed. Take a long, deep in-breath and, on the out-breath, make a humming sound in the throat. This should sound like a bumblebee - or a lawnmower if you have sinus trouble! (On the plus side, it is also said to relieve sinus problems.) Do this for six rounds and take a moment to notice any changes that have occurred in your body afterwards.
4-7-8 breathing and Bumble Bee Breath are forms of pranayama (yoga breathing exercises). There are many of these exercises across the various schools of yoga.
Some of them, like alternate nose breathing, are a little complicated; and some of them, like Breath of Fire, are quite intense.
Elsewhere, Bhastrika, or 'Bellows Breath' can make you feel lightheaded at first (it's also contraindicated for a number of health conditions), but it will certainly give you energy when you're feeling sluggish.
Tantric breathing shouldn't be overlooked either. Unfortunately most of us imagine Sting in an impossibly complicated Kama Sutra position when we think of Tantric sex. In actuality, the philosophy is largely based on breathing techniques that make perfect sense.
The pranayama are worth exploring, even if you've never set foot in a yoga studio. However, even just a simple breathing practice will put you in good stead.
Mind, body and spirit can't be in harmony without mindful breathing. In fact, you might even say that breath is spirit itself.