Breathing Lessons: Guidelines for Breathing

By BijaB

If you train yourself in one area only, be awake to your breath. It's that basic.

Breathing is one of the greatest secrets of yoga. If you practice it with sincerity, you will obtain healing powers beyond your imagination.

Yet, breathing itself is not a secret. It's right there. If you train yourself in one area only, be awake to your breath. It's that basic. You can build your whole life around it!

The fourth limb of yoga is conscious breathing, or pranayama. The Sanskrit word pranayama comes from the root prana, meaning "life," and ayama, meaning "to extend." Pranayama is the art of extending your vital energy or life force by regulating the natural flow of your breath.

The Basic Components of Breathing:

The simplest definition of pranayama is "to be with the breath." What makes the practices of pranayama unique is that your attention is fundamentally on the breath rather than on the body. This happens when you deliberately control your breathing cycle by regulating one or more of your breath's four parts:

1. Exhalation

2. Hold or retention with empty lungs

3. Inhalation

4. Hold or retention with full lungs

The pause, marking the point at which the collapse of the breath occurs, is called Kumbhaka ("pot") in Sanskrit. This pause naturally comes after each incoming and each outgoing breath. All yogic breathing exercises are created from the modifications of one or more of these four phases of breath and combining them in relation to one another. It's that simple. (Yet, not always so easy.) The point is to learn how to use your breath intelligently and be conscious of how and why you breathe.

Using the Movement of Your Diaphragm:

The yogic exercises of Pranayama cultivate and train the movement of the diaphragm to participate with the abdomen, the intercostal muscles of the rib cage, and the upper chest. This happens with the basic breathing pattern that I call "The Wave."

The general instruction according to the Viniyoga approach is:

Inhalation begins with the expansion of the upper chest and progresses downward toward the navel as the diaphragm moves down.

Exhalation begins as a conscious contraction from the bottom upward, as the diaphragm moves up and the air moves out.

Your attention should follow the natural flow of the breath — downward with the breath on inhale, and upward with the breath on exhale. Please note: This is not "belly breathing," which starts by filling the belly first on inhale and progressively filling the lungs from the bottom up.

In the practice of postures, the main focus is on the movement of your spine through the conscious control of your breath. In pranayama, bringing your awareness to the movement of your diaphragm activates, deepens, and extends the effects of your breathing.

Guidelines for Breathing:

Here are a few important guidelines to conscious breathing:

1. When you begin the practice of breathing, you must follow a certain order.

2. Begin the practice of breathing according to your ability, concentrating on exhalation, inhalation, and retention, in that order. You can then work toward lengthening each phase.

3. Never hold your breath on inhale or exhale with force. Be especially careful when holding your breath after inhalation, since pressure may build up in the muscles.

4. Increase the length of your breathing gradually.

5. Practice breathing while sitting straight, in a comfortable position, with eyes closed.

6. Keeping your mouth closed, breathe with a smooth and subtle sound passing from your throat through your nostrils.

7. Breathing must be practiced on an empty stomach or at least two hours after a meal.

8. Only when your breath is smooth and long should you progress to altering the various components of the breath.

9. If you have time, lie down and rest at the end of your breathing practice. Stay a little while without getting up, and make a gradual transition into your next activity. Do this, and you'll feel better.

10. If any tension happens or you feel more irritated than when you began — you're probably going beyond what is comfortable for you. Stop, lie down, and feel where the tension is. Then go back and find the natural ease with which your breath moves.

Practice your breathing now:

Breathing Lessons: Basic Breathing

Breathing Lessons: Standing Breathing Awareness

Breathing Lessons: Breathing for Focus - One

Breathing Lessons: Breathing for Focus - Two

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