Pranayama by Heath Griffey
The breath is our closest and most intimate connection to the universe. We can survive without food for weeks, without water for days, but without the nourishment of the breath, we can’t last more than a few minutes. Just as what we eat and drink becomes a part of us, how we breathe can become how we are. Calm and steady, shallow and weak, mindful, or so distracted that we sometimes forget to breathe at all.
Pranayama is the mindful manipulation of the breath. We can use it to calm, invigorate, meditate and even to heal ourselves. As my yoga practice continues to blossom, my understanding of the breath and it’s role in our interconnectedness also continues to deepen. I feel connected through time to an age of intuitive wisdom, with ancient yogis passing on these same techniques to eager students. Right now we live in an amazing age, the age of the global village, where we can easily understand how we all, literally, share the same breath.
I had a hard time deciding on a favorite Pranayama. I am still amazed by the immediate and pronounced effects of Kapalabhati, Skull Polishing Breath. Very energizing, it can be a little intense before a relaxation. I marvel at the wisdom behind the proven benefits of Nadi Shodhana, Alternate Nostril Breath. It balances the entire nervous system, including the two hemispheres of the brain. I thought it might be more impressive if I chose one of the more exotic pranayama, such as Bhramari, Bee Sounding Breath, or Shitali, Cooling Breath.
Ultimately, I had to choose Dirgha Pranayama, Three Part Breath. It is deliberate enough to keep my attention focused on the breath, but not so intricate that I’m focused on counting or keeping the order of steps correct. I can relax and enjoy the rhythmic nature of the breath, like the inevitability of the tides. It’s simple enough to incorporate or transition to other types of pranayama, such as Ujjayi , Conqueror Breath, or Equal Ratio Breathing, to deepen the focus and smooth the breath. It’s a great starting place for those new to pranayama, and a good warm up for a more challenging technique or a simple meditation. It can be practised throughout the day, ideally in the morning and evening, on an empty stomach, but it’s available wherever and whenever you feel the need to catch your breath. In Dirgha Pranayama, we learn to focus on the three chambers of the lungs. We isolate the lower abdomen, up to the ribs, or the belly. The middle chest, which is the rib cage up to the sternum, and the upper chest, clavicles and shoulders.
Sit or lie comfortably, with a neutral, naturally curved spine. Close your eyes and take a few normal breaths, bringing attention to the depth and timing of your breath. Then, slowly inhale into the belly, inflating it like a balloon. On the exhale, deflate the balloon, pulling the belly button towards the spine and contracting the abdominals to completely empty the lungs. Next, place your hands on the ribs, and feel them expanding and lifting with the breath. Exhale completely, and relax the ribcage and hands. Finally, inhale into the chest and shoulders, opening your heart and feeling light and spacious. Exhale completely, drawing in the naval, and releasing any tension before inflating the belly with fresh oxygen and prana, continuing the cycle. Focus on smooth, even and effortless inhales and exhales. We’ll do three cycles and then complete the entire movement in one long slow breath, from belly to shoulders, and back down again, expelling any stale air. Continue for as long as you are comfortable, and take a break if you get dizzy or light-headed.
Three Part Breath can help us increase our lung capacity, focus our awareness of the breath and increase oxygen levels in the blood. It aids digestion and elimination, reduces stress, strengthens the abdominal muscles, heart and lungs and can help us develop a deeper, more regular breathing pattern.
By Heath Griffey
Heath is currently a participant in the Feel Good Yoga Teacher Training program.