Archives for category: Breathing

The aim of this breathing exercise is to completely empty the lungs so that when you breathe in you get a complete refill of air and prana into the lungs. The air fills the lungs in 3 phases just like liquid flowing into a cup: the bottom first, then the middle and then the top. To help you breathe more consciously and thus more deeply, you position the hands in 3 different locations as the inhalation takes place. This helps you visualise the flow of the breath which makes the exercise even more powerful.

Note: You never actually empty the lungs completely, as to do so would make the lungs collapse. But you are aiming for nearly empty.

As you exhale, you make the sound A-U-M: ‘A’ as the breath leaves the upper part of the lungs, ‘U’ as it leaves the middle part, and ‘M’ as it exits the lower part. ‘Om’ is the favorite mantra of the yogis because it is believed to be the sound that brought the universe into existence.

  • Lie on your mat with your knees bent and hip-width apart. (You can also do the exercise sitting up).
  • Lengthen your neck by clasping your hands behind your head and lifting it off the floor slightly. Slide your hands over the back of the head towards the crown, feeling your neck release to its maximum. Then carefully, replace the back of the head on the floor.
  • Place your finger tips on your lower ribs with your fingers, loose and relaxed.
  • Look up at the ceiling. Open your eyes as wide as possible, look down at the tip of the nose and then gradually, draw the eyelids down over the eyes.
  • Inhaling, take your right shoulder off the floor and broaden it out to the side. Exhaling, replace it down on the floor again. Repeat on the left side.
  • Allow the skin on your face to relax and soften. Also soften the skin on the soles of the feet and on the palms of your hands. Soften the inner ears.
  • Inhale deeply, and exhale through the mouth with a nice, long sigh.
  • Go back now to breathing in and out through the nose only. Every time you exhale, allow the back to settle into the floor.
  • Begin now to observe your breath. Listen to its sound: ‘So’ as you inhale, and ‘Ham’ as you exhale. Feel the throat soften and relax.
  • The next time you inhale, visualise the breath entering the bottom part of the lungs where your fingers are located. As you exhale, make the sound ‘A’ (as in father). Allow the sound to vibrate for the entire duration of the out-breath. Continue for 6 breaths.
  • Now, place your fingers into your armpits. As you inhale, visualise the breath entering the middle part of the lungs only, again in line with where the fingers are positioned. As you exhale, make the sound ‘U’ (as in room). Continue for 6 breaths.
  • Now, place your fingers on your collar bones. As you inhale, visualise the breath entering the top part of the lungs, just under your fingers. As you exhale, make the sound ‘M’ (as in hum). Continue for 6 breaths.
  • Go back to your normal breathing for a few breaths and relax the arms down by your sides.
  • Now, think about putting it all together. Place the fingers on the lower ribs again. Inhale into the lower lungs. As you feel the breath moving up into the middle lungs, move the fingers into the armpits. Then place the fingers on the collar bones as the breath enters the top part of the lungs. As you exhale, relax your arms by your sides and say your mantra A-U-M, as the breath gradually departs from the body:  ‘A’ as the breath leaves the upper lungs, ‘U’ as it leaves the middle, and ‘M’ as it exits the lower lungs. When you get to ‘M’, see can you squeeze that last bit stale bit of air out of the lungs. Continue for 6 breaths.
  • Return to your normal breathing, paying more attention to the inhalation to help you become more alert. Stretch your arms behind you and the legs out in front of you. Inhaling, stretch the entire right side of the body. Exhale, and release. Repeat on the left. Repeat once more on both sides.
  • Roll over on to one side, and supporting the back of the head with one hand, come back up to sitting again.

The Breath of Tranquillity does what it says on the tin – it calms and soothes. However, as I have explained before, the aim is never to impose a new regime on your breathing process, but to expand on the way you normally breathe, and get the most out of it. Breathing is a wonderful way to teach you how to listen to the body. With all the senses shut down apart from hearing and feeling, you become very attuned to what the body is trying to tell you. If the breath sounds harsh or strained in any way, you are over breathing which can disrupt the nervous system and even damage lung tissue. If you find yourself having to take little breaths in between the breaths you are counting, then you are holding the breath for too long and the distribution of gases in the lungs has become unbalanced. Go back to your normal breathing process for a few breaths. When you are ready, resume the breathing exercise, and try inhaling and retaining the breath for a shorter count.

  • Lie on your mat with your knees bent and hip-width apart.
  • Lengthen your neck by clasping your hands behind your head and lifting it off the floor slightly. Now slide your hands over the head towards the crown, feeling your neck release to its maximum. Then carefully, replace the back of the head on the floor.
  • Place your finger tips on your lower ribs with the fingers nice and relaxed.
  • Look up at the ceiling. Open your eyes as wide as possible, look down at the tip of the nose and then gradually, draw the eyelids down over the eyes.
  • Inhaling, take your right shoulder off the floor, broaden it out to the side as much as possible. Exhale, and replace it down on the mat again. Repeat on the left shoulder.
  • Allow the skin on your face to soften. Also soften the skin on the palms of the hands and on the soles of the feet. Soften the inner ears.
  • Inhale through the nose, and then exhale slowly through the mouth with a nice, long sigh. Go back to breathing in and out through the mouth.
  • Now begin to observe the breath: the air as it travels up through the nostrils; the tiny gap at the end of the inhalation; the passage of air as it travels back down the nasal passage again; the tiny pause before the new breath begins. Listen to the sound of the breath and continue to watch it in this way for a few moments.
  • The next time you breathe in, count how long it takes, slowly, e.g. one hundred and one, one hundred and two and so on. Do the same with the exhalation.
  • If the count differs for the inhalation and exhalation (it usually does), see can you even them up, gradually. Think of practicing a yoga pose where you try and stretch the body a little more each time. It’s the same here. See can you stretch the breath a little more, taking in more air than last time or letting more out air, as the case may be.
  • When the inhalation and exhalation are even, see can you hold the breath for half the time it takes to inhale/exhale. For example, if you inhale/exhale for 4, hold the breath for the count of 2; if you inhale/exhale for 6, hold the breath for 3 and so on. (Obviously this won’t work on odd numbers, so if you have to, wangle it until you are working only with even ones). DO NOT hold the breath after exhalation.
  • Continue breathing in this way for several breaths.  If you are following the 4 – 2 – 4 count, you can increase it after a few breaths to the 6 – 3 – 6 count, and then again if you wish to 8 – 4 – 8. Keep listening to the breath making sure that everything is smooth and harmonious.
  • Then, return to your normal breathing. Begin to pay more attention to the inhalation to help you become more alert. Stretch your arms behind you and your legs out in front of you. Inhaling, stretch the whole right side of the body, extending the arm out of the shoulder and the leg out of the hip. Exhale, and release. Repeat on the left side. Repeat again on both sides.
  • Roll over to one side, and supporting the back of the head with one hand, come back up to sitting again.

 

It is estimated that we only use about one third of our total breathing capacity. This is due to the twin evils of poor posture and a sedentary lifestyle.  This means that we only take in one third of the prana or life force present in the atmosphere. Could it be that our lives are only a third of what they would be if we were living at our full potential? Now there’s a frightening thought!

The following breathing exercise allows you to practice deep, diaphragmatic breathing without any restraints or controls. The raising of the arms mimics the action of floodgates opening to allow water flow into a plain. The slower you move your arms, the more air and prana you will allow into your lungs. As you exhale, you lower the arms slowly to the ground again. In the second part of the exercise, you can also raise the hips on inhalation allowing you to breathe in even more fully. The  main thing is to move very slowly and always in tandem with the breath.

  • Lie on your mat with your knees bent and hip-width apart. You now need to lengthen your neck. Clasping your hands around the back of the head, gently lift it up off the floor. Supporting your head with your hands, slowly slide the hands over the back of the head feeling the neck lengthen as you do so. When the fingers reach the crown of the head, carefully place the back of your head back down on your mat again.
  • Place your arms lying down by your sides.
  • Focus for a moment on the parts of the body in contact with the floor: the soles of the feet, the lower back, the upper back, the arms and the back of the head. Each time you exhale, allow these parts of the body to settle into your mat.
  • Lift your right shoulder off the floor. Inhaling, broaden it out to the side as far as possible. Exhaling, lower it down on to the mat again. Repeat on left side.
  • Opening your eyes as wide as possible, look up at the ceiling. Then look down at the tip of the nose, and slowly draw the eyelids down over the eyes.
  • Inhale slowly through the nose, and then exhale deeply through the mouth with a long sigh.
  • Go back to breathing in and out through the nose and continue to  observe the breath for a few moments.
  • The next time you breathe in, slowly take the arms overhead (palms facing), and place them on the floor behind you. As you begin to exhale, slowly, take the arms back over the head and rest them on the floor. Continue in this way for 6 breaths moving very slowly. Think of the floodgates opening and closing to control the flow of water.
  • If you wish for the next 6 breaths, as well as raising the arms, also lift the hips off the floor on inhalation. As you exhale, lower both the arms and the hips back down again onto the floor. Work slowly and gently.
  • Afterwards, lie quietly on your mat and rest for a few moments before coming back up to sitting.

The trick in yogic breathing exercises is to discover your own natural breathing pattern and to expand on that. You don’t want to superimpose anything artificial on this pattern or to force it to change its organic flow. This will only cause further imbalance and upset the nervous system. In breathing, less is more. Less interference, less visualization, less thinking. It’s all about watching and yielding, letting nature take its own course. In this way, the breathing slows down naturally, the relaxation response is turned on, more prana is absorbed by the body and more stale air is released.

To breathe properly, it is crucial that the lower ribs can open fully. For most of us this is not the case as the rib cage and diaphragm are usually constricted by tension and poor posture. The diaphragm is a sheet of muscle that is attached to the inside of the lower ribs. When we inhale, this muscle contracts and moves downwards. The ribs can then move out to the sides and slightly upwards thus allowing the lungs to fill up completely. When we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and moves upwards, the ribs move in and slightly downwards causing the lungs to contract and empty themselves of stale air. In this way we can see how integral the rib cage is to breathing. If it is not fully opened, we have two problems: (1) the lungs cannot take in enough oxygen to sustain our cells fully and (2) the lungs cannot dispose of their waste efficiently. In short, we live below par.

In the following exercise you focus on the movement of the rib cage in the breathing process. This helps you reeducate the ribs as to their proper function.

  •  Lie on the back with the knees bent and hip-width apart. Clasp your hands behind your head and lift it up off the floor. Slide your clasped hands slowly over the back of your head. When the hands reach the crown of the head, replace the back of the head carefully on the floor.
  • Place your finger tips flat against your lower ribs with the thumbs uppermost.
  • Look up at the ceiling and open your eyes as wide as possible. Then looking at the tip of the nose, slowly draw your eyelids down over your eyes.
  • Inhaling, lift the right shoulder off the floor. Broaden it out to the side as far as possible. Exhale, and replace it back down on the floor again. Repeat with the left shoulder.
  • Inhale through the nose, and then exhale through the mouth with a nice long sigh.
  • Go back to breathing in and out through the nose. Each time you exhale, allow the back, particularly, the skin on the back to soften and settle into the floor.
  • Soften and relax the skin on the face, on the palms of the hands and on the soles of the feet.
  • Begin to observe your breathing. Notice the air entering the nostrils and travel up the nose as you inhale. Next, notice the slight pause at the end of the in-breath. Then watch the air as it moves back down the nose on exhalation and out through the nostrils again, followed once more by a slight pause. Witness this process for a few moments.
  • Now, begin to observe the movement of the ribs beneath your fingers. As you inhale, notice how the ribs move out to the sides and slightly upwards. As you exhale, see how the ribs move back in again and slightly downwards.
  • During the next few breaths, as you inhale, feel that the ribs and the diaphragm are very active and alert – dynamically engaged in the breathing process. On exhalation, allow the ribs to soften and relax.
  • Continue breathing in this way for a few minutes. The lie quietly for a few moments to absorb the revitalizing effects of diaphragmatic breathing.
  • Then, stretch the legs out in front of you and the arms behind you. Inhaling, stretch the entire right side of the body. Exhaling, allow it to release. Repeat on left. Repeat on both sides again.
  • Roll over on to one side and keeping your nose pointed down towards the chest, come back up to sitting.

Clock on the floor is a simple stretch that can be used as a warm up for the shoulders and also stretches and tones the arms. The idea is that your arms imitate the hands of a clock.

  • Lie on your mat with the knees bent and hip-width apart.
  • Stretch your right arm out on the floor at shoulder height with the palm facing the ceiling.
  • Inhaling, SLOWLY stretch your arm away from you, extending right into the middle finger. Keep the arm on the floor.
  • Exhaling, move the hand about 1 inch along the floor and then YIELD to that point. The slower you move, the more you will open in the shoulder joint.
  • Continue in this way until the hand reaches the point on the floor just above the crown of the head. Inhale, exhale and then sweep your arm down by your side again.
  • Repeat with the left arm.
CAUTION: Be very careful if you have a shoulder injury. DO NOT move past the point where your your hand begins to lift off the floor.

Supine Big Toe Pose or Supta Padangusthasana ( it’s a mouthful in every language), is a very useful warmer upper for most classes. It releases the spine, the hips and the hamstrings, stretches and tones the legs, eases stiffness in the lower back and boosts circulation to the lower body. It is actually a series of stretches in which the big toe is held by the thumb and fore or middle finger. For the beginner, however, this is usually too much of an ask, so use a yoga belt, scarf or man’s tie to hold the foot instead.

To practice Supine Big Toe Pose:

  • Make a loop in your belt/scarf/tie and slip it over your right foot.
  • Lie on your mat with both legs extended. If your neck shortens when you lie down ( your chin will be jutting up towards the ceiling), place a folded blanket under your head so that your forehead is slightly higher than your chin.
  • Bring your right knee in towards your chest, clasping both hands just below the knee. Stretch the left leg out straight in front of you and keep the thigh rolled inwards towards the body. The toes of both feet should point upwards towards the ceiling.
  • As you inhale, visualize breathing into the area between your lower abdomen and upper thigh. Each time you exhale, bring the knee a little closer to your chest. Continue for 6 breaths.
  • Now, inhale, exhale and holding the belt with your two hands, stretch the right leg up towards the ceiling.
  • As you inhale, gently stretch the leg out of the hip joint. Each time you exhale, take the foot a little closer to the face. Keep the left thigh rolled inwards and the toes pointed upwards. Continue for 6 breaths.
  • Inhale, exhale and very slowly use the belt to help you lower the leg to the floor. The idea, now, is to move the leg sideways in the direction of the head ( but not quite that far!) Work as before, extending the leg out of the hip joint on inhalation and moving the foot along the floor on exhalation. Only move the foot in tiny increments – about an inch each time. Keep the left thigh rolled inwards and the toes pointed upwards.
  • Keeping the left hip and shoulder pressed down towards the floor, continue for 6 breaths.  Inhaling, slide the leg along the floor again and match it up with the other foot.
  • Repeat on the left side of the body.
  • Every time you practice the pose, keep moving your hands further down the belt until you can eventually hold the big toe with your fingers!

NEED HELP?

~If you find it difficult to stretch the leg upwards, keep the knee bent until your flexibility improves.

~ If you find it difficult to bring your foot to the floor, rest it on a couple of hard-back books.

~ Don’t worry if your legs muscles wobble. They’re just waking up after a long spell of hibernation!

STOP!

~ DO NOT practice these stretches if you are over 3 months pregnant.

~ Practice with lots of TLC if you suffer from disc problems or sciatica.

P.S. The whole idea of practicing Hatha Yoga is to develop awareness. Usually, awareness of the body comes first, then awareness of the breath and finally awareness of our thoughts. So usually, we start with the positions. No matter which pose you are doing, you need to think of not just the part of the body that is being stretched but also all of the other parts of the body as well. You need to ask yourself which parts of the body need to be firm, active and engaged and which parts can just relax. In this way the parts which are being stretched are supported by the parts that are doing the relaxing. There is such a beautiful symmetry to the whole system. Nothing is left out and every part literally plays its part. But this is hard work in the beginning. It can seem like there is too much to think about. Just be patient with yourself, it is the same for every other student of yoga. Keep coming back to the instructions again and again until they seep in by osmosis and become like second nature to you.

In the above pose, Supta Padangusthasana, the parts of the body being stretched are obviously the legs and the hips. So the toes, the arches of the feet, the legs and hips need to be firm and strong. The wrists and/or fingers will also be active in order to hold the foot. Everything else can relax around that: the sides of the neck, the shoulders, the arms, the elbows and the back. So you need to keep tuning in to these areas to make sure that they remain relaxed and that you don’t tense them up in your efforts to stretch the legs. Every other pose is similar. You won’t have time to think about bills or how to put up with your boss. And to boot, you’ll have this wonderfully toned and relaxed body.

 

One of the simplest ways to clear yourself  of old stale thoughts is through yogic cleansing breaths. The exhalation is the thing. You focus on  breathing out and let the inhalation take care of itself. As you exhale, you let go of all the mental rubbish and blow it out, along with all with stale air. These breathing exercises work on two levels: on a physical level, the more stale air you expel out of the lungs, the more fresh air you take in on your next new breath. On a mental level, the more stale thoughts you expel out of the mind, the fresher your view of life when you take in the next breath.

The ‘Ha’ Cleansing Breath:  

Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart. Inhaling, take both arms up to shoulder height and up over the head. Exhaling, bend the knees and then bending from the hips, throw your arms through your legs making a forceful ‘Ha’ sound. Imagine that you are chopping wood and every time, your ‘axe’ hits the wood you throw out all the staleness with the breath. Continue for 12 breaths.

CAUTION: Do not practice this exercise if you suffer from High Blood Pressure or from Heart problems.