Learn this before starting your Pranayama practice
Before moving on to specific pranayama techniques, it will be helpful to bring awareness to your normal breath. With a little practice you can train your body to breathe more efficiently (even while sleeping) and this will help you while trying out more complicated techniques.
It is usually not until you’re running out of air (or start reading about breathing), that you even become aware of your breath, and at these times it’s hard to remember how you normally do it. Breathing is a subconscious action for humans and for as long as you live the action continues, but how is the way you breathe affecting you?
How can your breath affect you?
Your breathing, state of mind, and nervous system are tightly associated so that your breathing automatically changes depending on the situation you are in.
Fear and anger induce different types of breathing than happiness or peace. Situations and emotions bring changes in your breathing, but it works the other way round too!
By changing your breathing patterns you have the power to completely change your state of mind.
What are the different ways in which we breathe? Anatomy of breathing
To become conscious of your breathing, you can focus on the main muscles which are used to breathe. These are the diaphragm, abdominal muscles, intercostals, and muscles surrounding the clavicles. Using different combinations of these will result in the following breathing styles.
Thoracic (Chest) Breathing
Thoracic breathing mainly uses the intercostal (between the ribs) muscles to expand the chest, creating space in the middle and upper portions of the lungs. The diaphragm remains relatively stationary so you are not able to utilize the full capacity of your lungs.
This type of breathing can be useful and occurs automatically when you are in dangerous, aggressive, or fearful, situations you will start taking fast shallow breaths from your chest. e.g. Being chased by a dog. The situation stimulates your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight mode) which secretes hormones like adrenaline, testosterone, and cortisol which enable you to run faster and react quicker but also bring shortness of breath and increase the heart rate.
Nowadays, with many people living in a continuous state of high stress, at work and at home, the normal subconscious breathing switches to aggravated thoracic breathing. If this happens, even while you’re trying to relax, you will be artificially creating stress in your mind and will find relaxation impossible. If thoracic breathing is done regularly for a long time, it can cause chronic fatigue, anxiety, and stress.
Abdominal Breathing/ Diaphragmatic Breathing
Abdominal breathing (sometimes called diaphragmatic breathing) brings air to the lowest and largest part of the lungs. On an inhalation, the abdomen expands, and the dome shape of the diaphragm inverts, creating a vacuum to draw air in. The exhalation is passive.
This is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system and occurs naturally when you feel particularly calm and peaceful. As mentioned above, it can bring a sense of calmness and peacefulness when practiced even in
stressful situations. (The reason people often tell you to breathe if you are angry or upset).
In this breathing, the muscles in the neck, shoulders, and clavicles are raised, so that just the top third of the lungs is used. This is the shallowest form of breathing where maximum effort is made, but a minimum amount of air is obtained and is rarely used in isolation.
It can sometimes be seen in heavily pregnant women, (where the baby prevents the lungs from expanding down) in people with very rounded spines or slouched postures, in severe overeating, during panic attacks, and occasionally in very obese people.
This is a particularly inefficient type of breathing, where the chest expands and the abdomen goes in while inhaling, which compresses the diaphragm and reduces the capacity of the lungs. It is a more extreme version of thoracic breathing and has similar effects of inducing stress and anxiety. Sometimes people might also do this type of breathing while angry.
Because of the trend of ‘washboard abs’ this type of breathing is becoming more and more common as people are trying to hold or contract their abdominal muscles all the time.
Full Yogic Breathing
Full yogic breathing utilizes all types of breathing simultaneously, allowing your lungs to reach full capacity. It is deep, slow, and rhythmic, and increases vitality and mental clarity. While inhaling you expands the abdomen, chest, and clavicles one after the other, then the exhalation is the reverse.
This is the preferred style to use during meditation, slow asana practices (such as Yin Yoga), and while doing pranayama techniques. It is efficient and helps the mind to focus.
Yogic Breath with Bandhas
This is the optimal type of breathing for Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga as you can keep the bandhas (locks) engaged while using almost the full capacity of your lungs. Unfortunately, very few sources have written about it as it is complicated to perform and teach, so is often not included in the training.
While inhaling, you keep the lower abdomen engaged and lifted, (uddiyana bandha) but the upper half of the abdomen expands out to allow space for the diaphragm to draw downwards, simultaneously you expand into your chest and shoulders.
While exhaling, reverse the process keeping the lower abdomen engaged. Using this method you can regulate the heart rate during your practice while getting the benefits of the energy and lightness of using the bandha (lock).
Exercises to change your breathing pattern
Which type of breathing do you do?
To find out which type of breathing you are doing naturally, lie down on your back, and place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Try to relax and allow yourself to breathe normally for some time. After a while bring your awareness to your hands. Which one is moving up or down most as you inhale and exhale? How does it feel if you try to oppose this motion? For more details on this check out the article Is Your Breathing Efficient?
Learning Abdominal Breathing
Stay in the same lying down posture and place a weight (like a heavy book, or a bag of flour) on your abdomen, with every inhale try to push the book up towards the ceiling, on the exhale allow the weight of the book to bring the abdomen down. Keep your breaths slow and steady so as not to become light-headed. Notice the abdomen pulling back towards the spine. If you are finding this difficult you can try breathing in any twisting posture, the restricted movement in the chest should make the abdominal breathing start automatically.
Check out this article A breathing technique for relaxation for more details on abdominal breathing along with guided audio relaxation.
Learning Full Yogic Breathing
Stage 1– First, try to get the feel of proper abdominal breathing. Lie on your back and place one hand on the upper abdomen. Breathe in and out slowly, keeping the chest still, and allowing the abdomen to expand outward as you inhale and contract as you exhale. Practice a few repetitions.
Stage 2– Next, breathe into the abdomen then bring the inhalation up by expanding the chest. So once you can no longer expand the diaphragm down, you expand the intercostals to allow air into the middle and upper portion of the lungs. When you exhale start contracting the chest and then the abdomen. Practice a few repetitions.
Stage 3– Finally, during the inhalations expand into the abdomen, then inhale further expanding the chest and inhaling some more by bringing the air up a little further all the way into the shoulders at the top of the lungs. Exhale in reverse. Initially, the transition may be a little jerky but with practice, it should become one smooth motion.
Learn through experimentation and observation
Try out the different styles of breathing, dedicate at least ten minutes when you are going to start, and observe the effects that happen in the mind. Try calming breaths when you are feeling anxious, or chest breathing when you feel calm. See if you can change your mind and feel the connection for yourself.