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Follow Your Breath: 7 Healing Pranayamas

It’s obvious that breathing is essential to stay alive. We don’t even need to think about. We’re designed to do it automatically. And because we don’t really need to think about it, most of us breathe improperly and insufficiently.

Chest breathing, which is how most people breathe, is designed to happen when we feel danger. Our heart rate increases, muscles tense, and we begin breathing rapidly.

Proper breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, delivers greater oxygen to red blood cells, some of which can be cut off during chest breathing, and releases carbon dioxide, keeping it in the right balance with oxygen.

Learn the basics first. Inhale slowly through the nose by first filling the diaphragm then the top of the lungs. Exhale very slowly through the nose, fully forcing stale air out at the bottom of the breath and using the full capacity of your lungs.

If you want to know if you’re breathing properly, place one hand on your chest and the other on your upper abdomen. As you breathe, see which hand rises more than the other.

1. Ujjaya Pranayama (Ocean Breath)

Ujjayi (pronounced oo-jai), commonly translated as victorious breath, is an ancient breathing technique that has a balancing influence on the entire cardiorespiratory system and releases feelings of irritation and frustration.

It helps calm the mind and body and concentrates and directs breath to the area you focus on, giving it extra power.

Ujjaya stretches out the duration of the breath cycle by using the back of the throat like a pressure value to regulate the flow of air.

You must learn to remain relaxed and open without rushing to gulp the next inhalation. Go slow and steady.

  1. Take an inhalation that is slightly deeper than normal. With your mouth closed, exhale through your nose while constricting your throat muscles. If you are doing this correctly, you should sound like Darth Vader from Star Wars.
  2. Once you are comfortable with the exhale/outflow, begin to apply the same toning of the throat to the inhale/inflow.
  3. If you have difficulty mastering this, try doing it with the mouth open and create a “haaaa” hissing sound achieved with the throat closed.
  4. When you are able to control the throat on both the inhale and the exhale, close the mouth and begin breathing through the nose.

Try shifting into Ujjayi breath whenever you find yourself becoming aggravated or stressed, and you should notice a prompt soothing effect. Focusing on Ujjayi breathing will help you stay centered.

Ujjayi is also useful when you’re doing aerobic exercise such as running or cycling to improve respiratory efficiency.

Experiment with this breathing technique when you are working out and see if your body and respiration work more efficiently.

2. Sama Vritti Pranayama (Equal Breathing)

This technique calms the body and helps the mind focus.

  1. Close your eyes and focus on your breath.
  2. Slowly inhale through the nose to a count of four, then release slowly through the nose to a count of four.

If you are doing a Nei Gong or Tai Chi exercise, match the length of your inhale and exhale to the length of the movement. The length of each may change, but keep the inhale, exhale, and duration of the movement equal to each other.

3. Dirga Pranayama (3-Part Breath)

This technique brings attention to the present moment and helps to calm and ground the mind.

Continue for 10 breaths during breathing practice, then adjust to match any movements you are engaging in.

  1. Begin by observing your natural breathing. Inhale deeply through the nose, filling the belly with your breath. Expand the belly (diaphragm) with air like a balloon.
  2. On each exhale, expel all the air out from the belly through your nose. Draw the navel back towards your spine pushing out any remaining air.
  3. On the next inhale, fill the belly up with air, but this time draw in a little more breath and let that air expand into the rib cage causing the ribs to widen apart.
  4. On the exhale, release the air from the rib cage first then the diaphragm, pushing the last remaining air out by forcing the naval back towards the spine.
  5. On the next inhale, repeat the steps above, this time filling up a bit more into the upper chest causing the area around the heart (which is called the heart center) to expand and noticeably rise.
  6. On the exhale, let the breath go first from the upper chest, allowing the heart center to sink back down, then from the rib cage, letting the ribs slide closer together. Finally, let the air go from the belly, drawing the navel back towards the spine.

Many people have chests that are constricted from poor posture and a lifetime of insufficient breathing. They simply cannot relax their lungs enough to bring in more breath.

If you have trouble with expanding your chest and diaphragm, do 3-Part Breath while lying on your back on the floor.

4. Nadi Sodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing)

This method is traditionally thought to balance the two sides of your brain and to clear the nadis, which are energy channels that run along the base of the spine to the crown of the head.

Research has shown that this breath can reduce blood pressure. If you are congested, expect this pranayama to move the mucus out.

At any given moment, one nostril is more open than the other. Your pituitary gland, which is considered to be the master gland, serves as the thermostat to control this.

The body generally switches between nostrils every 2 1/2 hours.

  1. With the index finger of the left hand, close the right nostril and inhale deeply.
  2. At the completion of the inhalation, close the left nostril with the thumb and release the right nostril, exhaling fully.
  3. Now inhale through the right nostril, then close it and release the left nostril, exhaling fully.
  4. Repeat the pattern for 10 rounds, then inhale deeply and relax.

You might only make it through a few rounds of this breath. Work up to doing 10 rounds. You can also take a break and then resume the exercise.

If you ever begin to feel light-headed, release both nostrils and breathe normally.

5. Shitali Pranayama (Cooling Breath)

This technique soothes and cools the spine in the area of the fourth, fifth and sixth vertebrae. This in turn regulates sexual and digestive energy.

This breath is often used for lowering fever and cooling off anger.

It rejuvenates and detoxifies when practiced regularly. Fifty-two cooling breaths a day are recommended to increase life span.

  1. Curl the sides of the tongue upward and protrude it slightly past the lips.
  2. Inhale deeply and smoothly through the tongue and mouth, hold the breath for 5 seconds, then close the mouth and exhale through the nose.
  3. Continue for as long as 5 minutes at a time. Inhale and hold the breath. Exhale and relax.

If you have difficulty rolling the sides of the tongue inward, fold them in as much as possible.

6. Kapalabhati Pranayama (Skull Shining Breath)

This technique is cleansing, invigorating, and warming. It consists of rapid, forced exhales followed by passive inhales.

  1. Take two or three deep inhales and exhales through the nose to prepare.
  2. Inhale to a comfortable level, and then exhale sharply and forcefully through the nose, drawing the belly in as you exhale.
  3. Let the inhale happen passively, and continue this cycle of forceful exhales and passive inhales at a fast pace, so that the belly is pumping continuously.
  4. Do three rounds of thirty breaths each, coming back to deep inhales and exhales between each round.
  5. Come back to normal breathing if you feel lightheaded at any time.

7. Prana-Apana (Breath of Fire)

You will visualize this prana as light-energy entering you as you inhale.

The focal point of Breath of Fire is at the navel. The breath is rapid (2-3 breaths per second) and is continuous and powerful with no pause between inhalation and exhalation.

You will not hyperventilate as long as you do not use the upper chest.

Breath of Fire cleanses the blood, the mucous linings of the lungs and all cells. It expands lung capacity, strengthens nerves, warms the body, and activates the brain.

  1. Exhale through the nose, pushing all air out by pulling the navel and abdomen toward the spine.
  2. Inhale, releasing the inward pull of the navel to allow the breath to automatically return to the lungs.

It may be helpful at first to put the hand on the abdomen to feel the inward pull and relaxation.

Although this is a very balanced breath with no emphasis on the exhale or inhale, focus primarily on the exhalation, which will create the sound of a steam engine.

  • Feel it renewing your body, your mind and your spirit. Feel your gratitude for this breath.
  • Visualize the apana (outgoing breath) leaving as you exhale. See and feel the energy that has served you, but is no longer needed. Bless it as it leaves you and welcome a new breath.

The average learner will achieve 2 breaths per second. If this is too much for you, do just one accurate breath per second. The key to Breath of Fire is to not engage the upper chest in the exercise.

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