When I went to the Bahamas Sivananda’s yoga retreat center in 2006 it was the first time in my life that I practiced deep diaphragmatic breathing. Before that it never occurred to me that I was missing breathing deeply consciously. Today I share with you two important yoga exercises, which will give you instant benefit and that you can practice anywhere.
The breath is your connection between your body and your conscious mind. You can be unaware of your breath, aware of your breath and not control it or aware of your breath and control it. People are usually not aware of their breath in daily life, especially when their thoughts are on automatic or when they feel emotional. Thoughts, emotions and your breath are interlinked. Watch your breath when you are angry or when you feel calm and at peace and notice the difference.
Breathing as the bridge works both ways: If you are in a calm space your breath will be calm and deep. If you are feeling upset you can deepen your breath (control your breath consciously) and then experience that your thoughts and emotions calm down, too.
When I was at the yoga retreat center the first time I came from an intense time at home. I had just finished my phd-thesis and degree and felt exhausted. I was never in a yoga retreat center before and doing breathing exercises was completely new to me. I had done a lot of Pilates and knew about body awareness. Yoga and it’s breathing practices put a new level to my understanding of and experiencing my body.
As soon as I started practicing the breathing exercises I experienced first hand how calm and happy I felt while and after doing them. It takes concentration to do them and in having your mind focused on your breath you already get into a nice space, besides the benefit of breathing properly.
Swami Rama writes in “The Science of Breath”:
“Deep diaphragmatic breathing is primary, something basic, that will help you to prepare for pranayama, for higher methods of breathing exercises. Now watch the movement of your abdomen as you breathe. When you push in your abdomen it will help your diaphragm, the healthiest muscle in your body, to push in your lungs which will help you to exhale completely, expelling carbon dioxide. When the abdomen moves outward, it will expand the lungs and create more space for the oxygen. Deep diaphragmatic breathing is very good for your health.”
Diaphragmatic breathing is also known as “deep breathing”, “low breathing” or “abdominal breathing”. It prepares you to do the full yogic breath.
Deep breathing, especially with longer exhales than inhales, helps you to switch from your sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS is the part of your nervous system that allows you to feel calm, centered and relaxed.
There are many benefits from deep breathing but the main benefit is that it helps you to lower your stress level after only practicing it for 5-10 minutes (Dr. Libby Weaver). Other authors1 state benefits such as:
- Reduced anxiety and depression,
- Lower/stabilized blood pressure,
- Increased energy levels,
- Muscle relaxation,
- Decreased feelings of stress and overwhelm.
One of the yoga teachers at the retreat center offered to give me a private breathing session. Ï didn’t expect what was coming: I had to lie down on the yoga platform on my back in relaxation pose. He got a bucket filled with water and placed it on my abdomen. Now my task was to breathe in and out and moving the heavy bucket up and down with my muscles. This was a preparatory exercise before we went on to other exercises. You can also do the prep practice and the deep breathing comfortably at home2. The following two boxes show you what to do3.
- Lie on your back in relaxation pose, relax and watch your breath for a couple of minutes. Feel how your belly is rising and falling.
- Then place a sandbag or something else that weights about 10 pounds on the upper abdomen. Put your attention there. Watch and feel the bag rise and fall with the breath. The inhale will be less easy than the exhale, but should not cause stress. Breathe in and out of your nose and let the inhale be as long as the exhale.
- Remove the weight on your abdomen and watch your breathing again in relaxation pose.
You can do this practice daily for 5-10 minutes and increase the weight over time. This practice is meant to increase your diaphragm strength, to calm down in the practice and to deepen your connection to your breathing.
- Sit or lie down comfortably. The spine should be straight and your posture stable. Let go of any tension in your body and first watch your breath for a couple of minutes as it is at that time.
- Inhale and expand your belly outwards with comfort. When you exhale, exhale completely and contract your abdomen towards your spine. You can start with the same length of inhale and exhale. After a few breaths elongate the exhale and make it longer than the inhale. For instance, count to 4 with the inhale and count to 6 or 8 with the exhale. Inhale with this kind of breathing deep into your lower belly.
You can practice diaphragmatic breathing from a few minutes to 10 minutes daily. Practice it in the morning or before bed time. You can even practice it on your way to work in the train. Know that breathing in and out deeply into your belly will activate your Parasympathetic Nervous System and lets your body and mind relax.
- See more at: http://www.chopra.com/ccl/breathing-for-life-the-mind-body-healing-benefits-of-pranayama#sthash.y89AN0P2.dpuf ↩
- We also practice pranayama on Thursday mornings in the Hatha yoga classes from 7:15am to 8:15am at YogaNation. Click here for more information ↩
- More about breathing and the practices e.g. in “The Science of Breath” by Swami Rama ↩