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Just Breath: Why Breathwork is Important in the Yoga Practice

We are unconscious of how we breathe for most of the day. Yoga—like many forms of physical activity— is an invitation to focus on the breath. 
Breathing deeply helps to reduce our body’s stress response.  
In a 2017 study on The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults, the authors conclude that deep breathing could improve sustained attention, affect, and cortisol levels.

Thus, by focusing on your breath, you give yourself greater access to incite a relaxation response through the parasympathetic nervous system, thereby affecting your overall mental and physical health. 

Breathing affects your respiratory, cardiovascular, neurological, gastrointestinal, muscular, and psychic systems and also has a general effect on your sleep, memory, energy level and concentration. Everything you do, the pace you keep, the feelings you have, and the choices you make are influenced by the rhythmic metronome of your breath.

As you are challenged with the increasing levels of psychological, physical, and biological stress, the internal metronome that determines the quality and state of your breathing and health may be set at faster and faster speeds. You may have the feeling that your life has become like that of a hamster–endlessly running on a little wheel, with no way to stop and get off. You say you feel “stressed out” or “burned out,” and the tension and anxiety that accompanies that all-too-familiar state of overload seems to be undermining your genuine desire to take care of yourself. You may remember a time when you were full of energy and wonder where that time went and how you can recover it. In looking for a solution, it is easy to get caught up in details, in theories, and in complicated strategies, for we very seldom explore the easiest and most fundamental concepts.

The process of breathing lies at the center of every action and reaction we make or have, and so by returning to it, we go to the core of the stress response. By refining and improving the quality of our breathing, we can feel its positive impact on all aspects of our being.” 

–Donna Farhi, The Breathing Book

Conscious Breath through Pranayama

Conscious breathing in yoga helps distribute the Prana (life force, vitality) through the body. 

In yoga philosophy, Prana is the body’s main source of energy. 

Prana translates from Sanskrit as ‘life force,’ and Yama translates as ‘control.’

Pranayama is the conscious awareness and control of how we breathe and move the Prana through the body to stimulate a response. 

By manipulating the breath in yoga, we ignite the nervous system to initiate a response.

The parasympathetic nervous system, also known as rest and digest mode, is where we feel calm and easeful. Some pranayamas initiate rest and digest to help the body relax.

To learn more about the parasympathetic nervous system and the anatomy of stress, check out this blog post.

The sympathetic nervous system, aka fight or flight mode, is expressed through various pranayamas in yoga. When we consciously practice putting our body in states of duress through breathwork and poses, we teach the body how to become more aware of the stress response and how to release the tension. 

Excitatory and grounding pranayamas are used in yoga to stimulate and deregulate the body’s stress response. This practice helps to bring more awareness to how we feel when we breathe and what to do when we step off of the yoga mat and encounter real-life stressors in our day-to-day.

Just Breath: 4 Pranayamas to Iniciate a Response

Ujjayi

Ujjayi breath is the most basic form of yoga breathing. It involves deep, diaphragmatic breathing to distribute the Prana. With ujayyi breath, practitioners inhale and exhale through the nose. There is a subtle constriction at the back of the throat—for this reason, ujjayi is also called Oceanic breath as it sounds like the ocean waves pulling at the sand.

Seasoned students maintain ujjayi maintain this technique throughout the class to sustain its benefits.

Ujjayi breathing helps to:

  • Build heat in the body.
  • Synchronize movement to each breath.
  •  Encourage Prana to flow through the body. 
  • Remove energetic blockages.
  • Connect you to your breath. 

In a scientific study, researchers found that ujjayi improves concentration, removes physical tension, and regulates the body’s temperature. 

Learn how to do Ujjayi breath in this short video

Sama Vritti

In Sanskrit, this technique is called Sama Vritti Pranayama. Sama means equal and vritti means rotation/flow. 

Sama Vritti brings more awareness to the flow and distribution of Prana throughout the body.

The four stages of Sama Vritti are:

  1. Puraka (Inhalation)
  2. Antar Kumbhaka (Retention after Inhalation)
  3. Rechaka (Exhalation)
  4. Bahya Kumbhaka (Retention after Exhalation)

How To Do Sama Vritti:

  • Inhale for the count of four
  • Hold at the top for the count of four
  • Exhale for the count of four
  • Hold at the bottom for the count of four
Experience Sama Vritti in this short Lila Flow yoga class on Practice with Clara.

Kapalbhati 

Kapalabhati translates from Sanskrit as Kapal, meaning the forehead, and Bhati, meaning light or knowledge. Kapalabhati is an energizing pranayama, also known as Skull Shining Breath, that clears the lungs. This pranayama brings lightness and clarity to mind and frontal cortex of the brain. 

This style of pranayama involves sharp, active exhales through the nose to stimulate the clearing of the lungs by clearing the stagnant air that collects around the sides of the lung cavity. The sharp exhale pulls the stale air in toward the center of the lungs and pushes it out. Energetically, we’re drawing the air upwards to revitalize the mind and body. The inhale is passive, and as kapalabhati breath is performed, the abdomen repeatedly contracts on the exhale and releases on the inhale. This pranayama is best done on an empty stomach during the earlier partition of the day as its excitatory and stimulates the digestive fire. 

Benefits include:

  • Enhanced mental focus and clarity
  • Clearing of the lungs and nasal passages
  • Excitatory to stimulate blood flow and boost circulation
  • Tones the abdomen and lower organs
  • Sharpens senses and concentration
  • Balances nervous system
  • Stimulates the digestive fire and appetite 
  • Purifies the nadis (energy channels) of the body through prana (breath)
Learn how to do Kapalabhati in this short video.

Bhastrika 

Bhastrika Asana (bellows pose) eases constipation, indigestion and gets rid of excess fat.

How to do Bhastrika Breath: 

  • Inhale through the nose and lift the chest,
  • Exhale sharply through the mouth as you round the back.

Bhastrika is good for brain oxygenation and benefits the nervous and motor system.

This pranayam energizes the body and mind and is excellent for those with anxiety or depression. 

Experience Bhastrika breath in this Hatha class on Practice with Clara

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