The breath is the source of energetic awakening in our body. Outlined in the fourth limb of the eight-limb path of yoga, pranayama is the extension and suspension of breath. Derived from the Sanskrit word prana, it translates to breath or life force.
Though we are constantly breathing all the time and we all but rely on our breath for our very survival, we hardly take heed of it. As a result, our breathing is typically shallow and varied, depending on our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual state.
Pranayama — or breathwork — helps us become more mindful of the breath. In yoga, our breath is the bridge between the mind and the body. As we deepen our practice, we slowly find that our breath nourishes, guides and steadies our asana practice, allowing the mind and body to flow as one.
Today, scientific studies have found that pranayama can reduce stress and increase the parasympathetic activity that is responsible for the body’s rest and digest state, cultivating feelings of invigoration and alertness. In fact, pranayama has also been adopted as therapy for those suffering from mental illnesses such as depression and panic attacks.
Here are two pranayama techniques to try:
- Nadi Shodana
Nadi is a Sanskrit word for “channel” or “flow” and shodhana means “purification.” Breathing through the right nostril energises us while breathing through the left nostril calms and cools us. Alternate nostril breathing activates both energies to achieve balance and purify the prana.
Studies prove that breathing through the right nostril stimulates our left brain (the logical brain) while breathing through the left nostril activates our right brain (the creative brain).
How to do it:
- Sit in a comfortable cross-legged position.
- Assume the Chin mudra with your left hand, with your index and thumb touching, and place it on your left knee. With your right hand, assume the Vishnu mudra and place it on your right knee. Bend your index and middle finger to your palm, keeping your ring and little fingers straight and outstretched as well as your thumb.
- Start by using your ring finger to close your left nostril, and inhale deeply on the right nostril for 6 counts.
- Use your ring finger and thumb to pinch your nose and close both nostrils shut, and hold the breath for 12 counts.
- Release and open your ring finger, with your thumb closing the right nostril, and slowly exhale through your left nostril for 12 counts.
- Then, inhale on the same left nostril for 6 counts. Pinch nostrils shut and hold for 12 breaths. Release your thumb, use your ring finger to close your left nostril and exhale for 12 counts through your right nostril. This is one round.
- Repeat for 20 rounds.
Kapalabhati breathing is known for purifying, rejuvenating and invigorating the mind and body. Comprising a series of passive inhalations and active, forceful exhalations to pump breath out from the belly, it helps to stimulate the digestive system and expel toxins from the body.
Kapalabhati breathwork should be done on an empty stomach — try it first thing in the morning when you wake for an energizing boost. Do not practise kapalabhati if you have your period, are pregnant or have abdominal pain.
How to do it:
- Sit in a comfortable cross-legged position, with your hands resting on your knees. Take a few deep, cleansing breaths before you begin.
- Inhale deeply through the nose.
- Exhale in 20 spurts of breath through the nose, expelling and pumping air out from the diaphragm and belly area, taking shallow inhales throughout. The movement should be at your diaphragm and belly.
- Repeat 3 to 4 times.
“When the breath is steady and undisturbed, the mind is also steady and undisturbed. By consciously controlling respiration, the yogi attains steadiness of mind.” — Hatha Pradipika 11:2
By focusing on our breath, it allows our nervous system to take a break from our body’s fight or flight mode. With it, we can achieve a still body and a calm mind in a world that is anything but.
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