Pranayama Deep Breathing: What does it do for you and how do you do it?
Pranayama Deep Breathing is a type of breath control that helps you to use more of your lung capacity. The exercise helps regulate your blood pressure, relaxes the mind, aids detoxification of the body and prevents (or helps improve) respiratory problems. The slow breathing pattern that the exercise promotes is very beneficial for your overall health and serves as a great preparation for any strenuous activity or exercise (mental or physical).
It is also traditionally the first breathing exercise in every bikram yoga class. But even if you have never practiced bikram yoga, this powerful exercise can be very useful. Especially in the beginning of your yoga practice this exercise may feel quite challenging in the neck and shoulder area. I remember when I first practiced this I felt like Tin Man (remember The Wizard of Oz?). A few years of working long hours behind a computer had clearly taken its toll on my neck/shoulder area. My neck and shoulders could only move a little bit and only while making a very squeaky noise (this noise was only audible inside my head I hope, but you get my point ;-)).
And then it also takes some practice to learn to inhale and exhale for six counts: filling up your lungs to their maximum capacity and then emptying them out completely before starting the next breath cycle. For a while there I wondered if my lungs were just really really small…they were not. I just had to learn to use them. Over time and with practice however, you will notice that the range of motion in neck and shoulders improves and your breathing becomes easier, also in your daily life.
After practicing this breathing exercise your body is warmed up and very much awake. You are ready to start the rest of your class (or your day)! Because of the effect of this exercise on your body, and also because it works wonders on calming your mind, this exercise is not only effective inside the yoga room but also in your daily life. I have used it many times prior to job interviews or important meetings that I was nervous about. Do one or two sets of 5 – 10 breath cycles and you immediately feel more centered, calm and confident. But it is also amazingly effective if you feel tired or lacking energy during your (work) day and you have a deadline, meeting or something else that requires you to be focused and aware. Try it sometime!
In Pranayama breathing you always breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. During the breath cycle you move arms and head/neck simultaneously to support the breath going in and out of the lungs. You continuously breathe through your throat, letting the air come in through your nose on inhale and out through your mouth on exhale. The air goes from the nose, through the throat to the lungs, and from the lungs, through the throat back out through the mouth. Below is an overview of the technique.
Ready to start:
- Start with your feet together, toes and heels touching. Bring the weight on your heels.
- Look straight ahead.
- Contract your thigh muscles, legs straight.
- Pull your low belly in, lengthening and straightening your spine.
- Interlock 10 fingers underneath your chin. Cross your thumbs. Thumbs touching your throat.
- On your inhale, slowly bring your elbows up and out to the side and towards the ceiling (it is ok if the shoulders move up as well).
- Keep your fingers interlocked underneath your chin and your thumbs against your throat. Keep your wrists straight.
- During the inhalation keep lifting your elbows higher and higher. Your elbows should reach their highest point at the end of the inhalation, when your lungs feel like they are about to burst.
- On the exhalation look up towards the ceiling (knuckles still at the same spot underneath your chin, thumbs against your throat) and allow your neck to follow the direction of your eyes (fingers interlaced, hands make a fist underneath the chin, your knuckles encourage the bending of the neck but don’t push strongly against the chin).
- Keep your spine underneath the neck straight and long. Only bend your neck. Look up and back.
- At the same time stretch your elbows out to the sides and forward, away from chest.
- Slowly bring your elbows together away from your chest.
- Elbows should come together at the very end of your exhalation.
- Next inhalation: First separate your elbows, then slowly head down.
- Look forward again, chin parallel to the floor, still knuckles underneath your chin, thumbs against your throat.
- Bring elbows higher and higher towards the ceiling, reaching your highest point at the end of your inhalation.
- On your next exhalation, look up and back, head back, knuckles underneath your chin. Weight on your heels, legs contracted and straight, low belly in etc.
7 Tips to improve your Pranayama Deep Breathing:
- Go slow. To reach your maximum lung capacity you must continue to breath in and out for the full six counts or as long as possible (you can go longer then you think, don’t give up!).
- Weight on heels, legs fully contracted, low belly in and up. The stronger, more stable you keep your lower body, the more your upper body (including the lungs) will release and open up.
- Always keep your eyes open and let your eyes lead the way. Look forward on your inhale, look up and back on your exhale.
- Keep stretching your elbows away from your shoulders (on the inhalation stretch to the sides and up and on the exhalation stretch to the sides and forward) to decompress your shoulders and create space.
- Breathe all the way out. Only when you push all the stale air (CO2) out of your lungs, will you be able to fully fill them with oxygen again, activating more of the alveoli over time.
- Concentrate more on the technique of the posture then on how high you get your elbows or how far your head can go back. No need to force anything. The flexibility in your neck and shoulders will improve over time with regular practice.
- Have fun practicing! The more you practice the more you get out of it.
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