I don’t remember thinking about breathing when I first began practicing yoga—what I do remember is feeling awkward in downward facing dog and preferring to do my AM yoga DVD in the evening because the PM yoga DVD seemed boring. My practice of yoga has thankfully progressed much further from here!
Over years of casual practice, then deeper study and training in yoga, I have realized more and more just how important the breath is.
Life began with breath: “And the gods formed man from the dust of the ground, and took his spirit (that is, the man’s spirit), and put it into him; and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul” (Abraham 5:7). Beautifully enough, in yoga tradition the breath creates prana, the sanskrit word for “life force,” or “life energy.” In our own lives, we see how the breath creates life every day: when we wake up in the morning we often sigh or yawn, as well as stretch and move about, to bring energy back into our resting bodies.
In a yoga practice, we start with the breath. Take a moment to try a very basic, calming breath: Sit or lay down comfortably. Soften the face and close your eyes. Begin to deepen and lengthen your breaths. Breathe. These slow, deep breaths help calm the body and mind, as well as open up the body before proceeding to the flows and poses in a yoga practice.
I love to incorporate the breathing techniques I learn in yoga classes into my everyday life, whether it is simply breathing deeply and slowly, or doing a more complex breathing technique. Here are two other breathing techniques that I often go to.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
In Alternate Nostril Breathing, you’ll use thumb and ring finger to gently close off the right and left nostrils, one at a time, alternating between the two (traditional hand placement: wrap the ring finger around the pinkie, lower index and middle fingers; see picture for reference). First, close off the right nostril and inhale through the left nostril, close off both nostrils, then close off left nostril while exhaling through right nostril. Inhale right nostril, close off both, then exhale through left nostril. Repeat as many times as you’d like to. I do this breathing exercise to help me calm down when I am stressed or anxious. It is said to help balance the right/left hemispheres of the brain.
Left and Right Nostril Breathing
This breath is similar to Alternate Nostril Breathing but focuses on breathing through just one nostril, not both. The left nostril connects to the right hemisphere of the brain. Breathing through just the left nostril is said to create a cooling, cleansing, and calming breath. The right nostril connects to the left hemisphere of the brain. Breathing through just the right nostril is said to encourage focus, alertness, and vigor. To do this breath, simply close off whatever nostril you do not want to breathe through and breathe through the open nostril. Continue breathing through this one nostril for however long you’d like.
Note: If you ever become light headed while doing any of these breathing exercises, stop, breathe normally, and steady yourself!
To do: Give one of these breathing techniques a try! Perhaps pay attention in the morning as you wake up, noticing how you breathe and move and how doing so helps create energy in your body. And next time you practice yoga, start with the breath and see where it leads you!
Allie Barnes is a certified yoga instructor with BYU Women’s Services & Resources. Her classes are on Saturday mornings from 9:30am-10:30am. She can be found online at alliebarnesyoga.com and on Instagram @alliebarnesyoga.