Go to any yoga class and you’ll hear your teacher constantly remind you to notice your breathing; when to inhale and exhale as you move your body through various poses. We breathe without thinking about it but so many of us breathe shallowly and even incorrectly!
When we breathe, our belly should gently rise and when we exhale our belly should gently fall. On our inhalation, our lungs and diaphragm puff up and out in order fill up with fresh oxygen. On our exhale our belly button is drawn into our spine to expel stale air.
I recently started off a corporate yoga class in Melbourne with an exercise in pranayama. For those of you who don’t know what ‘pranayama’ is; it means breath awareness. In Sanskrit (ancient Hindu language) prana means life force or energy. Pranayama is the extension of life force through the breath.
I announced to my class that we would be practicing some ‘Ujjayi’ breathing. I explained that you breathe through your nostrils but constrict the back of your throat (or epiglottis) so that your breath sounds a bit like Darth Vader. They all stared at me blankly.
So I demonstrated the Ujjayi breathing for them. A couple of them exchanged funny looks but they did have a go. Then one student exclaimed she couldn’t do it (in her defence it’s not a natural way of breathing and some people simply feel self conscious about making an audible hissing noise.
Breathe yourself calm
So why do yoga teachers harp on about breathing all the time? Pranayama helps to soothe and calm our mind, focus inward and tune into how our body is feeling. Think about it how your breath might influence how you feel; when you’re breathing too fast you feel anxious or fearful and when breathing naturally and easily you feel calmer and in control.
In a yoga class pranayama helps you to be present and focus on yourself so that you practice yoga with mindful awareness. This enables you to be fully present and to let go of distracting thoughts such as what needs doing after class or worrying about how your postures compare with the person next to you.
The great thing is that pranayama may be practiced off the mat. This doesn’t mean you walk around the office hissing and sounding like Darth Vader, but can be as simple as checking into your breath at various times of the day and just noticing how you’re feeling. If you feel harassed or stressed try just closing your eyes and focusing on your inhale and exhale; you’ll feel so much calmer. It may not get rid of the stressful problem but you will be able to approach it from a place of calm and collectedness – which helps us all!