Welcome to the well-being section! Today let’s take a dive into breathing exercises that you can use alongside mindfulness meditation practice.
In an earlier article, I reported on a piece of news regarding the mindfulness movement. I briefly mentioned that some spiritual belief systems bear similarities to modern mindfulness, which I’m currently getting to know.
For example, take these two: the idea of meditation as it is understood in Buddhism (being ultimately tethered to escaping a cycle of death & rebirth), and meditative practices as perceived in Yoga (about having unblocked energy channels). The spiritual aspects between the two aren’t the same, yet the practices are alike. An intentional use of the breath is present in both. That’s fundamentally interesting, no? It’s also reassuring to know how widely-used the practice of breath control is.
That’s almost proof enough that breathwork can actually make a difference. It can truly improve your health, degree of presence, and self-confidence for your deepest-feeling, breathing self.
In the aforementioned article, I only briefly discussed the technique that is breathwork. And unlike my career, breathwork is about to get a big break. That was a joke.
This week is a bit about the yogic practice of pranayama, but it’s mainly about the handful of techniques you can try right now or at any time. Just as mindfulness isn’t about emptying the mind, you don’t need to worry about being good enough to meditate. I’ve got some good news for you: you’re great as you are.
The word meditate is almost distracting, and you can be locked back into an active stream of thought just pulling out old references and generally feeling the weight around the concept. Meditation can be difficult for many people, which is why breathwork can be an alternative or an enhancer. In actuality, meditation is not complicated at all.
No, you don’t have to be a history buff or Tibetan monk to figure this out.
Before we begin true practicing, we have somewhat lost ourselves under daily thinking routines, rarely allowing ourselves to have mindful moments. Though, when all is said and done, experiencing the moment is what we always want(ed) for ourselves. Why not try to improve at that?
The reason I liked this article topic was the variety of techniques that I could tell you about. Any of you can find any technique completely ineffective if it’s the wrong technique for you. That’s why, when you try them out, take note of ones that work for you intuitively. I would, for instance, understand if you don’t enjoy panting with your tongue out. When I do it, my face feels uncomfortably contorted. You’ll know which technique.
The breathwork side of yoga is called Pranayama. “Prana” means “vital life force,” and “yama” means “to regulate.” So, we have to regulate vital life force or life energy. The ancient yogis of yesteryear did not think that the breath itself was the vital life force. Rather, it was about using the breath to control the vital life force.
You know what they say: there’s no prana without yama!
This is not even slightly true, but for right now, it sort of works.
What if I told you that breathing is both connected to your emotional states and controllable with practice? That would be some really good news, wouldn’t it? Well, take it all in because it’s true, and it is fantastic news.
In a study on respiratory feedback when emotions are generated, Phillipot et al. (2010) checked whether breath can induce emotional states and found that different breathing patterns can strongly suggest corresponding physiological responses. Thankfully you don’t have to go through all of that.
So they implemented specific breathing? Actors do that too! Movie directors ask actors to do that too! Intentional breath practice will not only make an angry character’s excitement more apparent but also makes actors able to more accurately animate their body for the audience. Intentional breath practice may even allow them to absorb feelings of anger into themselves to complete the scene.
I am describing a reversal effect of breath on our emotional states. Breathing is closely involved with what we feel and changes when our feelings do, yet some have so much tension stored up in their bodies.
Breathwork can do a lot of things for a person aside from making mindfulness meditation easier. It will calm your mind and bring you clarity. It’ll improve your attention, focus, and even energy levels due to often-reported feelings of enthusiasm and positivity. It engages your parasympathetic nervous system, making you relaxed.
There’s a whole bunch of other information about the benefits of slowing and regularizing the breath. It apparently links your nervous system with hormone and detox systems and controls respiratory rate and blood pressure, to name a few. There is also a plethora of medicine-related pranayama articles, which claim that it boosts your immune system too.
A quick word on shallow breaths
Like I touched on earlier, there are almost as many ways to breathe as there are ways to feel emotion. It’s important to use slow breaths with these pranayama exercises–unless otherwise stated–as you are trying to wind down.
I realize, however, that I have been breathing shallowly for a long, long time. We need to breathe slowly, but we also have to breathe deeply.
What does it mean to breathe deeply? Well, it’s easy. Observe the feeling of your breath: Do you merely inflate your chest or does the breath reach down into your stomach area? Having breath inflate your stomach and hit the bottom of your lungs, expanding the diaphragm, is a key ingredient in breathwork.
5 Pranayama breathing techniques to try!
Without further adieu:
Cooling Breath (Sitali)
The cooling breath exercise is a popular one for summer months. It involves sipping air through pursed lips and exhaling out the nose. Rolling the tongue like a hot dog bun is also taught, but not everyone is able to do that. Out of all the pranayama techniques, this one is best designed for contributing to lowering your internal body temperature.
First, take a seat and make your chin parallel to the floor. Elongate the spine and soften your belly.
Now, purse your lips and inhale slowly through the small opening as if sucking air through a straw.
Lastly, close your mouth and exhale out your nose. Doesn’t it feel like you just released heat?
It is also somewhat the most incognito of the breath exercises, as you can do it without being noticed in public or having to feel odd doing any funky stuff with your hands as you’ll see with the next few exercises.
Alternate Nostril Breath (Nadi Shodhan)
To me, this exercise is a great way to forcefully slow down your breathing if you’re having trouble. What you end up doing with your hand seems to elongate the process of breathing, and, overall, the exercise calms me down quite a lot!
First, get comfortable by sitting in a chair or on the floor. Place your left hand on your left knee with the palm facing up. You can touch your left hand’s index finger and thumb together lightly if you wish. Take your right hand and place the index and middle fingers between your eyebrows with the thumb over your right nostril and with the ring and pinky fingers over your left. Now you’re ready to do the exercise!
Now, press on the left nostril to close it up. Breathe in through the right nostril. Close your right nostril, and open the left. Exhale through the left.
Continue by leaving the left nostril open and inhaling through it. Now close it, and open the right. Exhale through the right. Following that, inhale through the right.
Once you’ve picked up on the rhythm of the exercise, continue for five to nine breaths. See if you can inhale for four seconds and exhale for about six.
Buzzing Bee Breath (Bhramari)
This exercise is great for people who get easily distracted while trying other techniques. The addition of your own vocal sounds helps isolate you from surrounding audio queues, like busy places or your buzzing smartphone.
Okay, get comfortable again. Between your cheek and ear, there is a small piece of cartilage. Take your index fingers and place them over the cartilage blocking out external sound.
Breathe in slowly for about four seconds, as I said before. When exhaling, make a light, high-pitched buzzing sound with your voice. Keep your eyes closed and mouth shut.
Repeat this for five or so breaths, and then open your eyes again. It’s also recommended to have a faint smile on your face, a suggestion which can be offensive to some of us, but it’s important to recognize that yoga sometimes involves working the face muscles. In fact, the next exercise is much more face-intensive.
Lion’s Breath (Simha, Simhasana)
Lion’s breath is a different kind of breathing exercise, which stretches your tongue, your jaw, and all of your face. Like other Pranayama, it can relieve pain symptoms, reduce stress, and energize you. It’s technically part of a full-body pose, but I’m just going to cover the breathwork aspect of it.
To start: inhale through your nose. Then, with your tongue all the way out, exhale strongly through the mouth while making a “ha” sound. The sensation is like imitating a panting dog. It’s also suggested that you focus on the tip of your nose or your third-eye chakra, which is located between the eyebrows.
When you inhale, return to a neutral expression. Repeat four times, then you’ve finished the exercise.
Victory Breath (Ujjayi)
Ujjayi is said to be the form that represents freedom from bondage. I found it to be very relaxing and can confirm its being freeing. It wasn’t the breath itself but the attitude that invited me into it.
The main function here is constricting the throat muscle. Try to do this even though you probably don’t know what the heck that means. Rest assured that the sensation or sound you’re attempting to recreate is that of a snore. Some also describe it as the sound of the ocean.
Start by making a short exhalation, then inhale slowly. Inhale until your lungs feel full. There should be some friction, a bit of a bottleneck effect, in your throat. So it’s quite literally a bottleneck in your neck.
Hold the breath in for six seconds if you can. Then you can exhale. The purpose of these steps is to slow the act of breathing itself while still providing enough air.