In many ways, our diaphragm muscle is the key to finding stillness and connection in every moment. This powerful thin domed sheet of skeletal muscle separates our thoracic and abdominal cavity, contracting to create a vacuum that allows air to be pushed into our lungs about 23,000 times per day. As we learn to control our breath, we learn to control our life.
While many meditators and yoga practitioners integrate the art of breathing, or pranayama, into their formal practice, these tools can be used almost anywhere and at any time to help us find the strength and grounding that we need in our daily lives. Pranayama may not come easily to everyone, but the principles are straightforward and everyone can learn to engage with these practices. Don’t worry if you find these practices difficult at the start—slow and steady wins the race and with just a few minutes of regular practice you will quickly get the hang of things. Like anything else, pranayama requires practice.
The following four practices can be used separately or combined together into a five-minute pranayama routine to begin your daily mindfulness or yoga practice. Used separately, they provide powerful tools that can be drawn upon in any situation. Each of these can be practiced in traditional meditation pose, or at any point during the day. Although these instructions offer guidance on these traditional practices, the most important thing is to always trust your own body and stop immediately if the practice becomes too intense for you.
Practice 1: Durga Pranayama (‘Full Yogic Breath’)
In our daily lives we have a tendency to breath through the chest in what is known as costal breathing or ‘rib breathing’ and when we’re agitated or worried our breath quickly retreats into our chest, creating shallow breaths. Fortunately, we can easily move to slower, deeper breaths by consciously engaging our diaphragm.
To begin, place one hand on the stomach and one hand on your chest. On your next in-breath, allow your stomach to expand outward as the lungs fill fully with air. Notice the hand on your stomach naturally moving outward. As you continue to inhale, feel the breath filling into the upper part of your lungs creating expansion and a very gentle bend in the upper back as you fill the lungs to their full capacity.
To exhale, begin by releasing the breath in your upper chest, feeling the hand placed there drawing in to your spine. Next allow the lower abdomen to pull in, releasing the air fully and drawing the hand placed on your stomach toward your spine. Repeat as many times as desired, allowing the rhythm of the breath to emerge naturally from the rise and fall of the abdomen and chest.
Practice 2: Kapalabhati (‘Shining Skull Breath’)
This pranayama is a powerful energiser but can be very intense, so exercise caution in your practice and rely on your own connection to your body and breath to know your limits. Steadiness and ease are the aim of all pranayama, so stop if it becomes too much—traditionally kapalabhati should be avoided by pregnant women or those with high blood pressure. Begin by placing one hand on your abdomen and breath in with a full yogic breath, expanding the abdomen outward. Now, with a pumping action draw your abdomen sharply inward to create a brief, forceful exhalation. The force of the exhalation will create an involuntary inhalation. Repeat 5 or more times.
Practice 3: Nadi Shodhana (‘Alternate Nostril Breathing’)
Breathing through the mouth offers a short and powerful way to fill the lungs with oxygen, but the natural purifying features of the nose paired with our tendency to breath more slowly through the nose means that engaging nostril breathing is a powerful way to calm and regulate the body and mind. This powerful pranayama is traditionally performed by resting the thumb and ring finger gently on the outside of the nostrils. Begin by inhaling and then gently closing the right nostril with your finger; exhale fully through the left nostril. Leaving your finger in place, inhale through the left nostril before carefully closing that nostril and exhaling through the right. Repeat 5 or more times, alternating between nostrils.
Practice 4: Sama Vritti Pranayama (‘Box Breathing’)
Sama vritti pranayama or ‘box breathing’ is a popular breathing technique that has been adapted into many different physical and contemplative practices. This practice recognises the four elements of the breath: the inhalation and exhalation as well as the brief, often imperceptible pauses that come each time the breath changes direction. These four parts of the breath create the ‘box’ breathing as we count equal time:
Inhale: 4 Hold: 4 Exhale: 4 Hold: 4
There are also several variations of this traditional 4-4-4-4 count that can be used as needed throughout the day to recharge or relax:
Inhale: 6 Hold: 1 Exhale: 2 Hold: 1
Inhale: 4 Hold: 6 Exhale: 8 Hold: 1
Pranayama are helpful practices to connect to the fullness of your breath and the way in which your body and breath are intertwined. Performed together, these four pranayama techniques provide the perfect 5-minute practice to prepare your mind and body for the work ahead, whether that’s an important pitch, a creative session, or a stressful situation. As you continue to work with these pranayama techniques, begin to notice how the sensations of the breath begin to change:
- what does the air feel like?
- where do you feel the sensation in your body?
- what does the breath sound like?
- what minor variations do you notice between inhale and exhale?
- how does your mind or state of being change?
- are your pushing or gripping at any stage?
Life is meant to be cherished, so appreciate each and every breath as it passes naturally through your body.