Diaphragmatic Breathing, Like Chicken Soup or…Why I Love Pranayama!

When the Breath wanders, the mind is unsteady, but when the Breath is still, so is the mind still.” – Hatha Yoga Pradipika

This is going to sound weird but seriously, I love breathing (always), (but) especially in my yoga practice! As both a yoga student and yoga instructor, I’ve grown to appreciate the benefits of a solid pranayama (aka: yoga breathing exercises) practice.

The quality of our breath affects us on almost every level from our nervous system and body chemistry, to our mental and emotional state. This means that every other aspect of our lives is affected by the quality of our breath. Pranayama can reduce mental tension, help us to focus, increase the body’s energy level, and calm and strengthen the mind. I don’t know about you, but personally, I need help help in all those areas! And while it might seem like a no brainer to simply inhale and exhale, there are definitely ways for us to consciously improve how we breathe both on and off the mat.

One of the most common breathing exercises is Diaphragmatic Breathing (breathing in and out of the diaphragm as opposed to your chest). It’s a simple practice and helps slow down the heart rate, lower blood pressure, clear the mind, relax the muscles and reduce stress. Naturally it’s one of the first techniques I like to teach to a new class, and is also a great exercise to practice on your own at any time.

For first timers, I typically like to instruct them to lie down with knees bent and touching, feet hip width apart or as far apart as to the edges of the mat. Take a moment to clear your mind, dismissing any thoughts other than just being in the room that you’re in. Remain in the present. If your mind wanders, its ok to acknowledge your thoughts, but just as quickly as they flutter in, allow them to flutter out.

Now close your eyes and bring all of your awareness to your breath. Is your breath long and slow, shallow and noisy?

Gently rest your hands on your low belly just above your naval with the tips of your middle fingers touching. Soften and consciously release any tension you may be holding there. Breathe with your diaphragm so that the belly rises into your hands, slightly separating the fingertips creating an action similar to inflating a balloon. Allow your breath to be slow, smooth and even. The upper abdominal muscles expand and the lower ribs flare out slightly. On the exhale, allow the lower torso to contract so that your fingers come back into contact.

Practice several breaths in and out of the lower belly like this for 3-5 minutes. Pay attention to how you feel here…the deeper you breathe, the more relaxed and focused you’ll become.

When you’ve completed this practice, you can return to normal breath. Roll onto your right side and rest for a moment before gently pressing yourself back up to a comfortable seated position.

ARE YOU A CHEST OR BELLY BREATHER? Most of us have never thought about that question (really when does this come up in your regular day to day?). The body is designed to breathe diaphragmatically. If you practice Diaphragmatic Breathing regularly this action should gradually become a natural function, but a good way to discover the answer to this question is to do the following at the beginning of this breathing exercise:

Place one hand on your chest, and one hand on your lower belly. If your breathing diaphragmatically, the hand on your belly will rise and fall as your abdomen naturally extends out on the inhale and down on the exhale. The hand on your chest should remain relatively still. If the hand on your chest is moving more, you’re breathing from your chest AND (interesting fact) only getting about one-third to one-half of the oxygen you would get from diaphragmatic breathing. So practice, practice, practice because A.)  it’s good for you and B.) all your friends will be impressed when you tell them you’re a bonafide belly breather and share your new found knowledge of why breathing is cool!!!


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