Pranayam, or breathing practice, is a powerful part of yoga and allows you to adjust your mood, energy and awakeness almost instantaneously. In fact, the thing that makes yoga yoga is awareness of the breath, so when you add breath awareness to anything you do you transform that activity into a kind of yoga, or union with awareness.
In this article, I’ll introduce you to two basic and powerful forms of pranayam that are safe, easy and effective for settling the mind and finding your bliss. The first is quite relaxing and generates feelings of relaxation, ease and release: Three part yogic breath. The second is excellent for mental or physical balancing, for any time you’ve teetered too far over to one extreme, say too amped or too lethargic: Alternate Nostril breathing. As with any practice, check with your healthcare team before you begin if you have any concern at all.
Three part yogic breath is best learned while reclining on your back, knees bent, with your hands on your belly. You’ll create a wave of motion in your torso by expanding the soft belly first, then the rib cage and finally even your shoulders a little bit. The biggest movement will occur as you relax your abdominal muscles to allow all the organs to relax and the diaphragm to descend as far as possible in the thoracic cavity, massaging those relaxing organs of digestion, regulation and reproduction. As you reach the end of what this breath will allow you take in, shift your focus and attention to the rib cage, without loosing your connection to the belly. Expand your rib cage in every direction. Finally, and this is the most subtle of the three regions, feel the breath lift and expand the space under your shoulders, allowing you to take in as much breath as possible. Pause for just a moment - not long enough to feel forced, just long enough - and rest in the abundance of your breath. Exhale by allowing the shoulders to drop, then the rib cage to come back to center, and finally the belly, all drawing in toward your center. Pause for a brief beat to rest in the stillness at the bottom of your breath. This is one round. Start with three, work up to three sets of ten, feeling the breath as a meditation between stillness and abundance. Try this in the morning and bring a sense of calm to your day. In the evening use this breath to release the tensions of the day and prepare you for restful sleep.
Alternate Nostril Breath, also known as Nadi Shodana, is literally that. By regulating the flow of the breath from one side to the other, you’ll integrate brain function, balance stress hormones and your nervous system, and can help with allergies and sinus symptoms. If you are totally clogged on one side, don’t force it. Try a nasal rinse if you are accustomed to it, or simply lay down on the side opposite the plugged nostril, on your shoulder. Your plugged nostril should clear within two minutes.
Start in a seated or standing position. You’ll use the thumb and ring finger of the right hand to close each nostril in turn, breathing in one side, then out the other, pausing before breathing in through the same side you’ve just used to breathe out, and then exhaling through the other side. One or both nostrils is gently closed at all times.
With your palm facing you, bend your first and middle fingers down into your palm. Place your right thumb alongside your right nostril, without closing it yet, and your right ring finger alongside your left nostril, also without closing yet. Exhale fully, gently press the right nostril closed against your septum, or the middle nose cartilege and inhale through the left nostril. Gently close the left nostril with the right ring finger and then release the thumb, opening the right nostril; exhale fully. Pause for moment, inhale through your open right nostril, close both, open left and exhale. This is one round of Nadi Shodana, constituted by two inhale/exhale cycles and finishing on the same side you started from.
Practice Alternate Nostril Breathing after your yoga poses in the morning, before meditation at night, or sitting at your desk preparing for that presentation. Practice Three Part Yogic Breath before yoga asana, after or while sitting at a stoplight instead of worrying about the time. Use it before any event that makes you nervous or uncomfortable, and any time you just need to wake up and feed your brain.