Breathing your way to wellness!

2013June25_HathaYoga_ABreathing: how hard can it be? It is the first thing we ever do, and the last before we shuffle off this mortal coil. Well it seems that, while we might not be doing it wrong, we can breathe more effectively and enjoy some great health benefits. Hatha Yoga has long taught its practitioners about how better breathing can improve their body and mind and is an integral part of wellness.

Most of us were taught at school how our respiratory  system works, and everyone knows just how essential it is to our survival, as anyone who holds their breath for a few minutes soon finds out! However, even if you do remember your high school biology, what you might not realize is that that the way most of us breathe, is not necessarily the most efficient method. Hatha Yoga teaches that our modern lives make us take breaths that are too short and too shallow and that this is negatively effecting our health. Long deep breaths provide mental and physical benefits, including everything from lower blood pressure to improved digestion.

Why is breathing right so useful?

In Hatha, the idea is that every time you breathe in you are taking prana, or the life force, which is essential to keep each body in full and efficient working order. Breathing in Hatha is called pranayama (prana being your life force and ayama meaning to control.) Proper breathing, according to the Hatha techniques,  means that you are better able to control your bodily functions, digestion, and movements, as well as stay calm by controlling,  or at least reducing your stress levels.

Most people  probably assume that the process of inhalation is more important than breathing out. After all, that is how we get that rich life-giving oxygen into our bodies. However, in Hatha, the exhalation process when you exhale carbon dioxide and take away wastes and toxins from the body. takes precedence. By exhaling slowly you can get as much air out of your lungs as possible, while ensuring that you get will take in more oxygenated air in your next breath.

The basics of Hatha breathing

In Hatha practice you need to both inhale and exhale through your nose. Start by expelling as much as you can. As you breathe in, slowly let your stomach move outwards, as this will help to expand your diaphragm. You will feel your rib cage expand. You can also lift your collarbone to really fill the top of your lungs. Don’t strain or gulp at air. This is a serene and healthy process. The exhale should also be slow and steady. During this process, pull your belly back in. This pushes the oxygen from the lower portion or your lungs. Let the sound of the air escape with a slow and continuous breath.

The benefits of Hatha breathing

This type of breathing is not something that you should only do while holding Hatha Yoga poses, but as much as you can in your everyday life. According to Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, published in in 2000, two-to-three yoga sessions a week can greatly improve lung capacity, as well as be beneficial for heart and lung conditions. Hatha yogis claim that these breathing techniques develop concentration and focus, fight stress and create a calm and relaxed feeling within. Hatha breathing is also said to be able to help practitioners control their temper as they couple breathing with meditation, mindfulness practices and deep relaxation.

Once you have mastered the basic Hatha breathing, you might want to experiment with other breathing techniques favored by Hatha yogis:

Alternate nostril breathing

This breathing technique is believed to help restore energy and balance. Alternate nostril breathing is also known as anuloma viloma. After a few minutes of normal deep breathing, close off your right nostril and breathe deeply in and out through the left. Then close off your right nostril and breathe through the right. Breathe through alternate nostrils for around 10-15 breaths.

Skull cleanser breath

Also known as kapalabhati pranayama, the skull cleanser breath is aimed at detoxification. It is achieved by sitting cross legged with your hands placed on your stomach. You need to alternate short and forceful exhalations with long and more controlled inhalations. Contract your stomach when breathing out and release it when breathing in. You will need to repeat this cycle 10 times or so to get the full effect.

Fire breath

This is a more advanced breathing technique that requires you to inhale and exhale through the nose about twice each second, while pulling your stomach in and out. The short in and out breaths should be equal. Unlike in most Hatha breathing techniques this one requires you to be audible. When you are starting off with this technique try and practice it for a minute or more before returning to your normal deep breathing patterns. As you practice you will be able to extend the time. Yogis use this breathing technique to combat anxiety, nerves, and upset, as well as fear, pain, and sadness, by developing the diaphragm which is felt to be the source of emotions.

Breathing techniques are an important part of Hatha Yoga practice and can transform the power of postures and offer the holistic sense of wellbeing that so many aspects of Hatha Yoga promises.

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