Most people probably don’t think much about the connection between breathing and good health besides the obvious notion that breathing, in general, tends to be a better indicator of good health.
But those who have had exposure to yoga have likely given the matter a bit more consideration, since how one breathes is often a major focus — specifically in pranayama, the yoga practice of controlled breathing. Because most yoga classes tend to work with the body and the breath in concert, pranayama is often applied with physical yoga practice (known as asana), but instructor Sarah Johnson says it can also be done separately.
“In the true tradition of yoga, breath work (pranayama) comes before the physical practice (asana),” says Johnson, who has been practicing yoga since 2012 and teaching since 2015 at her Now Yoga Club in St. John. “So while the physical practice of yoga cannot be separated from the breath, you can definitely practice breath work on its own.”
“If you are not breathing correctly, you are stressing the whole body,” says Allison Haugh, who has been practicing yoga for nearly 25 years and has taught it for 15 as the owner of Yoga on 45th in Highland, which she recently closed to open her new venture in Highland, Align U trigger point therapy.
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Haugh says most people are not breathing well or have paradoxical breathing, which is the opposite of a normal breathing pattern in which the belly and the abdominal cavity expand on the inhale and come back in on the exhale.
From spending too much time in a slouched, head-forward position (such as at a computer or looking down at a phone) to regularly breathing with the upper chest muscles, there are dozens of common daily habits that can contribute to poor breathing patterns. The goal of controlled breathing, then, is to correct some of those unhealthy breathing habits and provide the body with a bit of welcome relief. Getting started can be as basic as just paying attention.
“In its simplest form, controlled breathing can be just breathing with awareness,” says Johnson. “There are all sorts of breathing techniques and practices, but it begins with conscious awareness of the breath.”
One of Johnson’s favorite controlled breathing techniques is yogic three-part breath. This involves placing one hand on the belly and one hand on the heart while either lying on your back or sitting tall. Inhaling through the nose, fill the belly first and let the breath travel upward and expand into the chest. Hold this for two or three counts at the top of the inhale, then release the exhale, relaxing the chest first and emptying all the way back down to the belly. Start with a count of three for the inhale and exhale, and increase it gradually to slow and deepen the breath.
“This controlled breathing technique activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows you to relax and calm the mind,” explains Johnson. “The sympathetic nervous system — the one that switches on when we are stressed — cannot be active at the same time as the parasympathetic nervous system. So you can literally change the state of your mind and body back to calm by using this technique.”
Haugh frequently teaches diaphragmatic breathing, a basic technique that can work for students at all experience levels. This involves placing a towel or a yoga block on the lower belly to bring attention to the area that is going to be the prime mover. She will sometimes have a student place their hand on the lateral, lower rib cage and instruct them to feel the expansion and contraction of the ribs — this helps to take attention away from pulling the breath forcefully up into the upper chest, which frequently happens when someone is asked to take a deep breath.
“If you feel a sense of calm after this practice, you are doing it correctly,” Haugh says.
Haugh and Johnson note that the physical and mental benefits of controlled breathing can include having more energy, enjoying better sleep and being able to calm oneself in stressful situations. Controlled breathing can also act a gateway into meditation — by slowing the breath, meditation becomes easier and calms the mind. While there are more advanced controlled breathing techniques, Haugh and Johnson recommend taking it slowly and proceeding with patience.
“Remember that all of yoga is a practice,” Johnson says. “Don’t get frustrated if you get distracted while practicing pranayama. The key is to get curious about how controlled breathing can enhance your daily life and give it a try.”