It’s Healthy Lung Month in the USA, and it seems like a great time to discuss yoga breath work, also known as pranayama, and the benefit it brings to our lung health.
Our breath has been present from the moment we are born, and leaves us when we leave life. It is linked to every moment, and carries us through every emotion and experience.
When we are anxious, stressed, unhappy, we may find our breath shallow, short and rapid. When we are sated, or relaxed, or when we are with loved ones or in joyful moments, we may find our breath deep and full – we may feel it from our belly right to our nostrils.
Our breath carries us through life, so let’s give the organ that generates our breath a little love and care.
How often do you notice your breath?
For me as a yoga teacher, the first thing I would suggest you do is to notice your breath and the experiences and sensations your lungs give you. Breathing is easy when you have healthy lungs – is your breathing is natural and easy? Notice your breath as it is, avoid making the breath longer. Then check-in with your breath and lungs. Then continue reading!
When we breathe, our diaphragm should be doing about 80% of the work. Our lungs receive the oxygen (mixed with other gases), and expels the waste gas out. Lung HelpLine respiratory therapist, Mark Courtney, explains this about healthy lungs:
Our lungs are springy, like the door. Over time, though, with asthma and especially with COPD, our lungs lose that springiness. They don’t return to the same level as when you start breathing, and air gets trapped in our lungs.Respiratory therapist, Mark Courtney, American Lung Association, “Breathing Exercises“
Our diaphragm has less room to contract with time, because stale air builds up and we do not receive fresh oxygen. In this situation, our diaphragm is not working at full capacity, so our body uses other muscles to compensate (namely, those in the neck, back and chest).
What happens then is not only do we have lower oxygen levels, we also have less reserve for exercise and activity. Practised regularly, yoga breath work can help expel any stale air in our lungs, increase our oxygen levels, and restore our diaphragm as the primary breathing muscle.
Stronger lungs, with a dose of calm.
Research by the Department of Neuroscience, Roehampton University in London, UK revealed that the vagus nerve in our brain is stimulated and enhanced by the practice of Three-Part Breath (Deerga Swasam).
The vagus nerve controls our Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), the part of our nervous system that helps to reduce our anxiety levels, lower the levels of cortisol (stress hormone) production, lower our blood pressure and reducing our heart rate. The PNS handles our rest-and-digest phases, as opposed by our fight-or-flight phases, the latter of which is controlled by our Sympathetic Nervous System.
Much research has shown that various forms of yoga breath work (notably yogic slow breathing) helps our lung health and also helps to calm us down. In addition, because yoga breath work triggers our PNS, our digestion improves as well! And you know they say the stomach is the second brain (which is another story – see here!).
For further information on research, please see the links in references below.
Yogic slow breathing practice.
This is a good place to start if you’re new to yoga breath work. Slow breathing is precisely that – we breathe slowly. Begin by sitting comfortably with the spine tall. Breathe through your nose only, and begin noticing your breath.
Once you are comfortable, take a count of your inhale and exhale. Do it for a normal breath, try to avoid making it longer than it usually is. It doesn’t matter if your inhale is longer than the exhale, or the other way around. Just make a count of both and take note of it.
Once you are ready, even out your breath. Let’s say your inhale was a four-count, while your exhale was was a three-count – make both your inhale and exhale a four-count experience.
After a moment, try to extend your breath by equal durations: let’s say moving from a four-count inhale/exhale to a five-count inhale/exhale. Refrain from holding your breath (whether inhale or exhale) just to make the count. The count serves you and not the other way around.
You can keep extending the inhales and exhales to equal count lengths that is comfortable. There is no prescribed time or duration for this breath practice – it can be as short as three minutes or as long as an hour. It depends on your time availability, and what works for you.
You may want to use a timer app to help you with this. I like Insight Timer.
Bellow breath practice.
This breathing practice is called “Bhastrika” in Sanskrit, and helps to energise your body and clarify your mind. Sit comfortably with a tall spine and relaxed shoulders (as a side note, you can segue from the slow breathing practice above to this). Again, breathe through your nostrils only.
Once you’re ready, begin expanding your belly as full as it can go with each inhale, and empty your belly out with the exhale (all through the nose). Then you can begin the Bellow Breath practice.
Still having the inhale expand the belly as much as possible, exhale forcefully through your nose. Go with a one-second inhale followed by a forceful exhale to empty out the belly. Don’t forget to use your diaphragm to exhale, keeping your neck, shoulders and chest still and relaxed while the belly expels the breath.
You can practice ten Bellow Breaths, then take a rest with natural breath. Notice the sensations of your mind and body during your break. When you’re ready, perhaps after 15 or 30 seconds, do another round of perhaps 20 Bellow Breaths. Repeat this cycle of rest, followed by maybe another 30 Bellow Breaths.
Listen to your body as you practice your breath work. If you feel light-headed, take a break. When you are ready to try again, you can have a go perhaps with less forceful expulsions. If this doesn’t help, just stop the Bellows Breath practice, and move back to natural breath for awhile before ending your practice.
Avoid Bellow Breath if you are pregnant, have unmedicated hypertension, epilepsy, seizures or panic disorder. Also avoid practising this on a full stomach.
Breathing Meditation Practice.
Pranayama can help to decrease stress, improve sleep, improve lung function, and enhance cognitive function. Listen to this breath practice on the Insight Timer app. We will get the inhales and exhales to an equal length. Then later in the practice, we create patterns by inserting a breath retention of the same length.
Alternate nostril breathing.
Also called Nadi Shodhana in Sanskrit, this breathing practice helps to trigger your parasympathetic system (and therefore relax you), and also improves your breathing and lowers your blood pressure. Alternate nostril breathing also helps to settle the mind and emotions, and may ease racing thoughts.
Sit comfortably, with your spine tall. Keep your shoulders and neck relaxed, but maintain an open heart space. Begin by taking a few deep breaths through your nostrils, or you can choose to segue into alternate nostril breathing from slow breathing above.
Place your left hand on to your lap and have your right hand in front of your face.
You will actively use your thumb and ring finger of the right hand to close and open your right and left nostrils respectively. You can either place your index and middle fingers between your brows as an anchor, or you may close them downwards into your palm.
With your right thumb, close your right nostril and exhale completely through your left nostril. Then inhale through the left nostril at a steady pace. Close off your left nostril with your ring finger, and open up the right nostril (so release your thumb from the right nostril), and exhale at the same steady pace through the right side, then take your exhale through the right, close off the right and exhale through the left etc.
Practice this for five to ten cycles, with your mind focused on the breath. I have omitted any breath retention for the moment, because if we are beginning breath work, we don’t really need it. A later blog post will follow with breath retentions, so stay tuned!
Try to match the length of your inhales and exhales to begin with. So you may choose to count out the breath and match the inhale to the exhale to the same count. As with slow breathing, you may choose to increase your breath count as you practice more.
If you experience shortness of breath, chest pain, fainting, vomiting or dizziness, stop your breathing practice and check with your doctor.
Appreciate your breath.
I hope these three forms of pranayama help you. Please do give yourself the opportunity to practice, and keep at it. Let me know in the comments how you find these practices, or if you have any queries.
Read more about pain management and the breath!
I talk about my experience with the breath that helped me in a very painful situation on Elephant Journal below.