I still remember vividly in my first ever yoga class the teacher asking me to focus my attention on my breath. For something that happens naturally throughout our life, I was surprised how difficult it was to keep my mind focused on watching my breath while simply sitting still.
If so, I’m sure you’ll not be surprised to hear—perhaps yet again—that breathing is an essential part of yoga. But what do we actually mean when we say in yoga to focus on our breath?
In this blog we’ll be focusing on the fundamentals of the simplest pranayama breathing exercise for beginners.
You can choose to practice along with my video on the fundamental focal points for breathing in yoga. Or read on to find out more information about how you can start developing this as a first seated pranayama breathing exercise and starting to integrating these focal points into your yoga practice.
Beginner Pranayama Breathing Exercise
Before you start this breathing exercise you want to first find a posture that feels comfortable and that you’ll be able to maintain for at least 10 minutes. You could be in a seated position on the floor or a chair.
Do your best to sit up tall with your arms extended and hands resting on your thighs. This will allow you to create space in your upper body and ribcage, as well as stay alert throughout your practice.
In general, it’s best to use your pranayama practice also as a way to learn to sit for a longer period of time. But sometimes it can be interesting to vary your position and try this pranayama lying down on your back. This has the benefit of being a more relaxed posture for the body but can also make you feel drowsy.
Breathing through your nose
The first thing we’re going to start working on is allowing your breath to move in and out through the nose.
Breathing through the nose does take a bit more effort than breathing through mouth. But we breathe through the nostrils for the majority of yoga and pranayama practices because it gives us the ability to have more control with the breath.
Of course, if you have a cold or blocked sinuses you’ll need to adapt and breathe through the mouth. But if you can, you’re making the effort to breathe through our nose when you practice yoga and pranayama.
Lengthening your breath
Once you’ve started observing your breath and breathing through your nose, you can start allowing your breath to become a little slower and longer. Allowing each inhale and exhale to extend and lengthen, as you control your breath by breathing in and out through your nose.
You can start to work on balancing out the length of your inhale and exhale, so that each breath is about equal length.
Usually, your exhale tends to be a little bit longer than your inhale. So you might try counting out in your head the length of each breath. Perhaps as you inhale counting for 1-2-3-4 and then as you exhale counting for 1-2-3-4-5.
If you prefer to do this without counting that’s fine too. But I personally quite like using counting as a way to both focus my mind and support me on lengthening out each breath.
Watch out for any signs of strain or tightness when lengthening your breath. You want your breathing to be longer than your natural breath but also having a sense of ease and smoothness to each breath. By allowing a natural pause at the end of your inhale and exhale this can help smooth out the texture of your breath.
Continuing this for around 10-20 rounds. And then releasing the control of your breathing and allowing the pace of your breath to become natural.
Deepening your breath
The next focal point we’re going to focus on is the depth of your breath. If you watch a baby, cat or dog breathing you’ll notice that when they breathe you can visibly see their chest and belly move.
As adults we tend to have built up over time natural breathing patterns where our breathing is less deep with less movement in the torso as we breathe. By working on deepening our breath, like in the full yogic breathing technique Sama Vayu its possible to find more relaxation and movement in your belly and chest.
You can try placing one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest. So that you can become more tuned in with the movement in your torso of your belly and chest against your hands. As you inhale you can allow your belly to relax, chest to expand and belly to lengthen and lift. And then as you exhale allow your belly to drop, chest to sink down and belly to contract.
Staying here for 10-20 rounds of breath, focusing in on the sensations of the movement of your torso as you allow your breath to deepen.
Afterwards, you can bring your hands back down to rest on your thighs and see if you can still be aware of the movements around your belly and chest. Staying here for another five breaths.
Considerations for Starting Pranayama Techniques for Beginners
“Pranayama is easy to learn, hard to master”. – Matthew Sweeney
One of the biggest differences between learning pranayama techniques compared to yoga postures that many of them are easy to learn. However, it still takes a long time of practicing them to really internalize the breathing exercise and develop the practice.
Therefore, it can be very helpful when starting pranayama to begin with one simple technique and practice that regularly for a period of time. You might try for example practicing twice a week this pranayama at the start or end of your physical yoga practice and one time as a stand-alone practice.
If you continue focusing on this same technique for a longer period of 3 – 6 months you’ll start to observe how your breathing might vary from day-to-day and how it changes over a longer time period.
Even with the focal points described in this blog, you might first start by simply observing your breath and getting used to breathing consciously in and out through your nostrils. And from here perhaps exploring integrating your awareness on your breathing in your physical yoga practice.
Once you’ve comfortable with this, you can start to allow your breath to become longer, slower and more steady. And only then start to experiment with the movement and depth of your breath.
The feeling of depth to the breath and movement in the belly and chest this might take a little bit more practice and focus to learn. So if you're not getting that immediately, I would suggest to keep trying to explore this with the help of the hands on the belly and chest and see how that progresses over time.
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