Deep Breathing v Pranayama
Updated: Aug 23
What is the difference between just simple deep breathing and Pranayama?
Pranayama, is more than just the movement of air in and out of the lungs as with simple breathing. It involves the management of the internal pressure by manipulating and controlling the pelvic, abdominal and chest muscles. Pranayama means to consciously expand the breath by lengthening the exhale to double that of the inhale, eventually slowing down the whole breathing cycle to a state of stillness, resulting in a meditative state of calm.
How can we manage & retrain the breath?
Oftentimes we need to re-train the breath to reduce stress and the habitual mental patterns that cause it. This takes place in two stages; opening the breath with simple breath work, which can then progress onto Pranayama. Simple breathing exercises, massaging tense areas, and Kriyas (classic yogic cleansing exercises) can first open up the breath and address tension built up in the diaphragm, abdomen and jaw. This helps to liberate the breath and the life force energy because breathing, especially when it evolves into the practice of Pranayama, is more than just the movement of air in and out of the lungs. It involves the management of the internal pressure by manipulating and controlling the pelvic, abdominal and chest muscles. This takes time and practice and is essential if there is to be a full benefit of extending and lengthening the exhale for the practice of Pranayama.
Your breath may be compromised throughout daily activities and even during your Yoga practice, as the toll of daily insults manifests in stressful ways across the body. Workload, traffic, parental responsibilities and not to mention the endless tasks we have on a daily basis engender stress. This often leaves the untrained breath shallow and uneven, too high rapid or stuck in the chest and therefore unhelpful in response to this stress. All of these situations will affect the function on both the brain and the body .
Simply becoming conscious of the breath is the first step in how to feel the relationship between breath and nervous system.
How often do we really listen to the inner space of our body? Your inner intelligence has an amazing feedback system, it can, if you listen, give you direct feedback of the state of the nervous system.
How we utilise the respiratory diaphragm is key to understanding how we may have developed and embodied holding patterns and restricted the breath through constant stress. This will be illuminated through the practice of Uddiyana and Nauli Kriya as well as Agni Sara, as so much tension can be stored around the navel which restricts the natural movement of the breath.
Simply observe how the breath enters through the nasal passages, how it brushes the back of the throat, and filters down to the lungs . Where does the breath make contact with the ribs? How does it flow into the back of the body , frontal ribs? Is there any restriction around the diaphragm , the lower ribs?
As we free up the space around the navel and upper abdomen the respiratory diaphragm will also free-up, then we can focus on the lateral movement of the ribs, allowing a fuller deeper breath which utilises the fullness of the upper abdomen and switch the breath from shallow to deep diaphragmatic breathing. This has immense benefits for both body and mind and is the ideal breath to be cultivated during a Yoga Asana practice. This management of the breath can then progress to simple Pranayama practice consciously expanding the breath and lengthening the exhale to double that of the inhale and eventually slowing down the whole breathing cycle.
Three simple steps to open and free the breath
This can be done lying on your back and then progressing to sitting upright if possible.
1. Lay on your back with a block or heavy object on the navel, lifting the block with the inhale, this will help to release tension around the navel area and the diaphragm. The exhale relaxes to a free and empty feeling.
2. Place the palms on the side ribs to feel the lateral movement of the breath feel the space between the ribs expand.
3. Slide one hand into the center of your abdomen and the other hand placed on the heart center. Breathe in the exact same manner but feel it first touch your lower hand and a microsecond later touch your upper hand. By the top of the breath you should feel both hands full and rounded. There should not be any sucking in of the upper abdomen yet as the inhale continues the upper abdomen is drawn wider.
Progressing from simple breathing to Pranayama requires control over the pelvic floor and lower abdomen ( see diagram). Below the navel is firm and supportive, and management over the internal pressure can then be managed.
The Inhale is a combination of the slight movement of upper abdomen whilst the ribs move laterally with freedom of the upper abdomen and diaphragm, then the fullness of inhaling can be felt at the very top of the chest all the way to the clavicle. With the exhale all the muscles relax from inhale allowing the breath flow out and the muscles of the lower abdomen draw back without gripping of the upper. The isolation and control over these muscle groups takes time to develop especially without the addition of pinching or gripping of the upper abdomen.
The breath through the practice of Pranayama is the way to access the intimate part of us. The breath takes us deep into the subtle realms that moves the prana through the channels or nadis and eventually into shushumna the central channel. The power is within us and is not some far away place only accessible to the spiritual super rich, but it lies as close to us as our most intimate self. When we make this central channel our goal & our focus , we can begin to trust this process , we can begin to experience this thing called Yoga. We can literally go with the flow allowing the current of this magical river of life to take us where we need go. No need to hold on . It is because the patterns of our mind follow the patterns of our breath, that when we begin to slow down and lengthen the breath, it feels like time too has slowed down and our stress begins to dissipate. The mind can then move into deeper states of awareness and stillness. These steps of Yoga are termed Dhyana, Dharana and Samadhi.
Pranayama done correctly and sincerely can channelise or re-direct the behaviour of the mind, so the mind is laser sharp; the mind becomes less reactive to situations; we are more able to respond to situations without being dragged down by negative emotions and we can more easily move past inhibitions and limitations which hold us back from experiencing who we would like to become. Over time, we can become masters of the mind instead of the mind controlling us.
So the victory of Yoga is to overcome those internal battles within us that keep us bound to suffering, divided in our thoughts and slaves to negative emotions. When we build a better awareness of the breath, the space that it inhabits, it creates gaps in our thinking, in turn helping us to focus and direct thoughts more positively. With conscious awareness to the breath we feel more present and the relationship with ourselves improves. We feel like there is more time as stress is reduced and the mind is less reactive, not only do we get to know our selves better the relationship with others improves too.
We begin to see and feel the unity behind all living beings, that essentially we are all in this together.
Vicki Shields, Director of Evolve Yoga Training has been studying with Paul Dallaghan since 2003, she was introduced to Yogic Master Sri OP Tiwari in 2007 and has had a dedicated daily Pranayama practice ever since, studying directly with her teachers Paul and Tiwariji on annual trips to India and Thailand. She endeavours to pass on the wisdom of the practice & philosophy of Pranayama.