Breathing is a critical function. We breathe automatically, without conscious effort. However, breathing properly does require focus. Yoga teaches us to direct attention to how we breathe while strengthening the muscles that support effective breathing.
Proper breathing promotes good health and increases energy. Last time, we discussed the quality and manner of our breathing and how yoga helps improve breathing. This time, we’ll examine the pranayama breathing exercise performed at the start of each Bikram yoga class and explore its numerous benefits.
Increase Awareness of the Breath with Pranayama Breathing
Each hot yoga class consists of 26 postures and two breathing exercises that create awareness of the breath, build strength and flexibility, and open the chest. To a new yoga practitioner, the focus on breathing may seem unwarranted. After all, you breathe every moment of the day without giving it much thought. Because we give this critical process so little consideration, we lack the connection of mind and body through the breath. Yet, this connection is the foundation of a successful yoga practice.
Each class begins with pranayama breathing—a standing deep breathing exercise. This exaggerated breathing exercise is as significant as the sweaty, challenging asanas tackled during class. Pranayama sets the tone for the class by kick-starting the connection of mind and body through the breath.
To perform pranayama breathing, stand straight and tall, extending through the spine. Place your feet together, heels and toes touching. Keep leg muscles firm and thigh muscles contracted. With your spine straight, suck in the belly. Interlace the fingers, placing knuckles underneath the chin. Press thumbs to the throat. Relax the shoulders, but keep lower body strong. Begin inhaling deeply through the nose. As you inhale, raise your elbows toward the ceiling. Stretch up out of the waist. Now exhale through the mouth and bring the elbows together as you slowly and deliberately drop your head back. Keep the spine straight and the chest lifted as you bring the elbows together. Repeat for another cycle.
Pranayama breathing delivers a wealth of benefits which optimize performance during class.
- Pranayama breathing shifts us from autopilot breathing to conscious, deliberate breathing.
- The chattering mind is brought under control.
- Intercostal muscles, situated between the ribs, warm up and become supple, improving access to the spine.
- Lower spine is stretched, counteracting the effects of poor posture.
- Heart and lungs are activated, preparing them for the postures ahead.
- Muscles that support the spine are fired up, taking in fresh oxygen needed for activity and improved health.
- Stimulates the mind and the muscles, encouraging balance between the two.
- Reinforces the connection between movement and the breath.
Pranayama breathing is an excellent primer to 90 minutes of sweaty, challenging asanas. As you twist, bend, stretch, lift and compress, the objective is to continue breathing normally. This can be challenging, especially for new yoga practitioners. You may have learned to:
- Hold your breath when executing challenging poses.
- Breathe too hard and too fast, resorting to shallow, thoracic breathing which relies primarily on the muscles of the chest.
- Resort to mouth breathing to quickly increase air intake.
All of these approaches to breathing disrupt the mind, body, breath connection. Additionally, laboured, shallow breathing compromises oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. Your teacher will periodically ask you to notice your breath. A gentle reminder to keep breathing normally, in and out through your nose.
During the pranayama exercise performed at the start of each hot yoga class, your teacher will remind you to suck in your stomach. When the abdominal muscles are drawn in, they protect the spine and support the trunk.
In vinyasa classes, we begin in a seated position, eyes closed, as we focus on the breath. The instructor may ask you to breathe into your belly or to expand the ribs as you breathe deeply. This simple, seated exercise has the same intention. You focus on your breath and let go of everything else.
The breathing exercises we perform during yoga practice reinforce the need to inhale fully and deeply through the nose throughout the day. Whether the breath is conscious or on autopilot, our breathing should match the demands of our activity at any given moment. Sometimes faster, sometimes deeper, but always through the nose.
If you feel the need to breath through your mouth, you’re working too hard. Breathing properly is your primary concern, regardless of the posture. Breathe. Focus on your alignment. Your rib muscles will warm up and breathing will become easier and less constricted with every breath, including your unconscious breath.
Yoga strengthens muscles that support healthy breathing and teaches us to focus on the mechanics of conscious breathing. This trains the body to breathe properly during the unconscious breathing we do the remaining 22.5 hours of the day.
Pranayama breathing aids in this process. It ignites the mind/body connection and prepares the body for the challenge ahead. The spine is stretched. The muscles are warmed. The heart and lungsare activated. Fresh oxygen, needed for optimal performance and optimal health, is ushered into the lungs.
If you’ve never paid attention to your breathing before, it may seem strange to put so much emphasis on the breath. You’re fired up and ready to jump into the first pose of the class, so a breathing exercise may feel like an unnecessary delay in the “real” action. Dispel such thoughts and persist. Breathe loudly and deeply. Give it your all. You’ll experience the remarkable benefits.