THE GOAL OF LEARNING new breathing patterns is to break our unconscious ones, which tend to be “tense, shallow and erratic,” yoga therapist Kate Holcombe writes in Yoga Journal. The use of breathing patterns practiced in yoga, known as pranayama, have an immediate goal of focused concentration; the ultimate goal is to experience “clearer perception and a greater connection with your true self,” Holcombe explains.
By practicing these breathing patterns, “you can reduce all of the mental noise – the agitation, distractions and self-doubt – that prevents you from connecting with … your true self,” she says. When you’re connected with your true self, it becomes easier to see what choices or decisions might be right or wrong for you.
Pranayama means to control and expand the vital life force or prana, which can be damped down by stress and fatigue, causing us to take quick, shallow breaths that provide insufficient oxygen. To practice pranayama, begin by lying on your back with one hand on your upper chest and one on your lower ribs. Then breathe. If the hand on your chest moves, or the hand on your ribs doesn’t move at all, you are an inefficient shallow breather.
Diaphragmatic breathing allows you to breathe more fully and more consciously. Lying on your back with one palm on your abdomen, breathe comfortably for a few moments noticing the quality of your breath, Holcombe writes. “Gradually begin to make your breathing as relaxed and smooth as possible, introducing a slight pause after each in-breath and outbreath.” Holcombe suggests consciously expanding the abdomen when inhaling and contracting it when exhaling.
Of dozens of pranayama patterns, the “cooling breath” can improve focus, especially during drowsy moments of your day. For this breathing pattern, sit in a chair or on the floor with your spine “naturally erect.” Open your mouth slightly with your tongue just behind the teeth, inhale letting the air wash over your tongue as your raise your chin toward the ceiling. Close your mouth and exhale through your nose as you lower your chin back to a neutral position.
The “long exhale” or 1:2 breathing practice can help calm you before bed or any time of day, but should be avoided first thing in the morning unless you feel anxious. “The relaxing effects of the practice tend to make it more difficult to get up and go on with your day,” Holcombe points out. “Exhalation that is only slightly longer than the inhalation can induce a calming effect.”
Begin by lying down with one palm on your abdomen and take a few relaxed breaths counting the length of each inhalation and exhalation. If the inhalation is longer, gradually increase the length of your exhalation by one to two seconds every few breaths, gently and without strain, until the exhalation is two times the length of the inhalation. If your inhalation is four seconds “comfortably,” the exhalation should last no more than eight seconds. “Don’t push yourself beyond your capacity,” Holcombe warns. “If you do, you’ll likely activate the… stress response and feel agitated rather than calm.”
The breathing pattern called “ujjayi” or “ocean breath” is most often used as part of a yoga practice rather than by itself. The goal is to build energy, provide a rhythm and meditative quality to the practice and help practitioners “stay present.” Inhalation and exhalation are both done through the nose, with the ocean or rushing sound created by moving air through the narrow throat passage. In stage one, a normal inhalation is followed by a longer, slower exhalation; in stage two, a long, slow inhalation is followed by a normal exhalation.
Among more forceful or complex breathing patterns, “skull shining breath” or “breath of fire” can cleanse the sinuses and improve lung function. It involves taking one deep inhale through the nose and then exhaling in short powerful bursts, about one a second for 10 seconds, and repeat three times. (Because this breathing can increase heart rate, those with high blood pressure or other heart conditions should consult their doctor first.) “Alternate-nostril breathing,” which can clear the mind and reduce stress, is a complex pattern also best learned from a qualified instructor.
In fact, any new breathing pattern will be learned more correctly and with better practice guidelines from someone experienced in pranayama. If my Iyengar yoga class, which has been meeting for more than 10 years, is any indication, repeated practice – with the instructor reminding us to “stand, breathe in, lean forward, breathe out” – is crucial to mastering breathing patterns. It’s also crucial to incorporating them into yoga poses or any movements you want to do while breathing well but not having to concentrate completely on the breath.
For more on how inhaling and exhaling correctly can benefit your state of mind, read Just Breathe.
— Mary Carpenter