The Power of Pranayama
Pranayama, the first breathing exercise, just as important as any posture in a Bikram Yoga class. Many beginners mistakenly assume that it’s not on par, and that they can approach it with less focus and energy than when performing, say, the half-moon pose. Its primary purpose is to help transfer as much oxygen to your muscles and organs as possible, to expand your lungs, and to help put your mind at ease as well as increase your focus for the rest of class. It will also help get your heart pumping your blood, sending it to all the parts of your body that will need it the most while practising your yoga.
Coming from the words PRANA (meaning: life force) and YAMA (meaning: control), in English it is called Standing Deep Breathing.
Why is deep breathing important? Did you know that most people breath using only 10 -15% of their lung capacity? This “shallow breathing” reduces the amount of oxygen coming into your body and can cause anxiety and shortness of breath. Shallow breathers often feel lethargic and lacking in energy because the heart has to work harder, the muscles have less oxygen to work with and so the body tires more easily. When we have oxygen debt, our physical state suffers and our mental state suffers. Pranayama builds excellent breathing habits and discourages shallow breathing. It starts the class because it wakes up your body, energises it and prepares it to work hard through the class. The practice teaches breath control creating a bridge between the physical body and mind to encourage equilibrium between the two.
Tips to improve Pranayama
- Keep your stomach sucked in.
When you don’t suck your stomach in your diaphragm drops down and creates more space. A tight stomach creates a strong internal brace and builds pneumatic pressure in the chest cavity, forcing the ribs to wing outwards. This strengthens your intercostal muscles (between your ribs) so that your lungs can work more effectively, reducing the chance of shallow breathing. So remember it suck it in!
- Concentrate on your breathing
Concentration is key to yoga. In Bikram’s words, “The tricky part here is the breathing–you never knew that a mindless, repetitive act could be so complex! Here you must breathe by compressing the throat.” Inhale breath – Use the throat to breathe in for 6 slow counts. If you can hear or feel the air coming in via your nose, you are doing it wrong. You should feel it at the back of the throat. The inhale sound emanates from the back of your throat. Exhale breath – Again, use the throat to breathe out slowly. The nose and mouth are just passageways for the air. That loud noise you hear in class comes not from using vocal chords, it is a guttural throat sound, indicating constriction in the throat.
- Keep your spine straight and chest lifted
When your chest is not lifted, the ribcage cannot readily move and the lungs’ capacity is limited. Sucking your stomach in is instrumental in helping with this.
- Keep the hips and the legs tight, contracted
When hips and legs are not tight, the blood “escapes” into the legs rather than being forced to the chest cavity to make the lungs work harder. In the beginning, it’s quite normal to feel like you’re the only one in the room running out of breath after 3 seconds. Keep coming to class regularly and you’ll one day suddently realise you’re breathing in for 6 and out for 6.
Remember, it’s yoga practice, not yoga perfect!