Fun with ER Machines and Yoga Breath
I am spending the day in the ER. One day I’ll write up my story and it will all make sense but for the moment the reason I am here doesn’t really matter.
I am currently waiting for blood test results and x-ray results. I actually haven’t seen a doctor yet. A few intake nurses, a few student paramedics who tore up my arm trying to take my blood and the floor nurse just checking in to make sure everything was good. Other than a serious pizza craving, I’m okay.
I’ve decided to use my time wisely and take advantage of all the machines I am hooked to. I’ve got, pulse, oxygen level and blood pressure all at my disposal. I thought I’d test out the effects different styles of breathing have on all this junk. What else can I do?
My plan is to practice each breathing style for 10 minutes. I will record all my data before and after. I’m going to toss a 10 minute period of natural breath in between just too clear things up. I am not going to be doing any physical activity and I am not going to actively maintain a meditative state. This is all about the effect of the breath on my body.
I am only going to focus on the 3 pranayama we practice most frequently at Koa.
- Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious or Ocean breath) – Victorious breath is my absolute go to for breath work. Ujjayi is the breath we practice the most at Koa. During vinyasa style practice the breath is the driving force of the movement. Inhalations and exhalations are times with poses and transitions between poses. Using ujjayi in this manner turns practice into moving meditation. The breath allows the body to deepen the asana and hold the poses longer and stronger.
To practice Victorious breath you inhale oxygen deeply into the lungs through the nose and exhaling deeply out of the nose. You allow the breath to resonate against the back of the throat creating the rhythmic ocean sound.
The breath is controlled by the diaphragm (the thick layer of muscle that separates the lungs from the abdomen). I went to college on an opera scholarship so I had a little advantage learning this breath. I allow my diaphragm to do all the work with this breath. I pull the muscle down and back towards my spine in a very smooth, controlled action; this allows me to also activate uddiyana bandha (the abdominal lock). Activating this lock with the breath has really helped me build abdominal strength. There’s a lot more to be said about the locks but that’s not what today is about.
I match the speed of my breath with the speed I want to move through my practice. In general, this l tends to be a slow breath for me. In a slow flow class I will inhale through my nose to a count of 3 or 4 and exhale to a count of 4 or 5. In a power flow or rocket class the count is closer to 1 or 2 on the inhale and exhale. If I am using ujjayi during a meditation or when holding a pose for a number of breaths it becomes even deeper and slower. My inhalation can be up to a count of 8 or 9 and my exhalations seem to go on forever.
As I mentioned, victorious breath is my go to. My body is so comfortable with it that I often have a hard time “turning it off”. Of the three that I am discussing today, it is the most energizing, centering and strengthening.
- Nadi Shodhan Pranayama (Alternating Nostril Breathing) – I don’t have a ton of experience with this breathing technique in a studio environment. So far it has been introduced either at the beginning or at the end of a class. I have tried to incorporate this breathing into my personal practice. I have found that it’s difficult to use during any type of flow but is great to use with yin or restorative yoga. This breath seems to open up areas of the mind more than the body. It’s very calming.
Learning this breath is very straightforward. You sit comfortably with your back straight. This can be in sukhasana but could also be sitting in a chair or car or even standing tall. There’s a variety of different mudras that can be added but I think the most important part is to have your upper body, including your face relaxed. I’m sure there’s a technical way of doing this but the basic idea is to begin by closing one nostril by pressing on it gently with your thumb. You inhale deeply through the open nostril and then switch the position of the hand so that you can now exhale deeply through the other nostril. You then breathe in deeply on that side while keeping the other side closed and alternate sides.
I doubt I could have made that more confusing if I tried. Bottom line is you close one side of your nose, inhale on the open side, then switch sides and exhale. Then you inhale and switch sides again. So its inhale, switch, exhale, inhale, switch, exhale, inhale, switch and so on. I’m really going out of my way to make this sound way more complicated than it is. Ask YouTube. You’ll see how easy it is. This breath is soft and natural. The exhale is a little longer than the inhale, which seems to be the case with most of the yoga breaths.
The benefits of breathing this way are numerous. It definitely brings calm to the mind. Channel Desiree first introduced this breath to me. She mentioned using it in traffic to quell her road rage. It seems to exercise the respiratory system. Not just the lungs but the sinus passages throughout the face and throat. Pushing and pulling air through the sinus passages helps relax the muscles of the face and releases stress. Since you are working each side independently this breath brings balance to the mind and energy channels.
- Dirga Swasam Pranayama (3 part breath) – Although the dirga breath is considered to be the most basic of yoga breaths, I personally struggle with it. This probably means I should practice it a lot more. During the 3 part breath, you completely fill up your lungs expanding first the belly, then the ribcage and then the upper chest with air. Then you exhale completely in the reverse direction. At the end of each breath cycle, the lungs should feel completely empty. It helps to place a hand on the belly and a hand on the chest to help you feel the body expand and deflate with oxygen. This also helps you feel what areas you are filling with breath.
This breath is also considered somewhat meditative. There’s no sound associated with it and it can be practiced in any position. This makes this breath very easy to use in everyday life. I feel that this breath helps me become grounded in the present moment. Yoga Journal says that you can take in up to 700% more oxygen using this breath as you can during natural breathing. As I said before I am still struggling with this breath. More often than not I revert to Ujjayi which is much more comfortable for me. It is highly likely that I am just straight up not doing this breath correctly and that is why I am struggling with it. Keep this in mind while you are checking out the results of my little experiment.
This is in no way scientific and does not reflect the findings of anyone who has seriously studied pranayama. This mostly came about because I was bored and curious. Before each 10 minute round of breath, I allowed myself 10 minutes of natural breath. I noted on the following table what the changes were after the breathing period and after the recovery period. I also noted how I felt both physically and mentally. I have no doubt that performing each of these breathing techniques under different circumstances and for different periods of time will provide very different results.
You should also know that I have absolutely NO MEDICAL TRAINING. I am not qualified at all to interpret what any of this means. This is strictly my personal experiences and commentary. Finally, you should know that my blood pressure tends to be on the low side. I average around 90/60, it runs in my family.
I think the overall result of practicing dirga breath is that I am absolutely terrible at it. This is not the breath for me. I REALLY struggled to maintain it. It increased my pulse 15 beats per minute with no additional physical activity! By the end of the 10 minutes I was totally annoyed with it. I slipped into ujjayi a few times and had to really work to get the breath back. I think going forward I’m just going to stick to ujjayi during practice and only use dirga to begin a class or meditation. The one benefit that I truly felt from dirga was how grounded and present I felt in my body. It was very hard work for me though. When my ten minutes was up I immediately reverted to ujjayi for a few minutes before relaxing into a natural breath. I think that really helped me recover quicker. I am planning on working with one of our instructors more so I can better understand how to use dirga breath.
So that was my little experiment. If nothing else, I really hope that this gets you thinking about how your breath works with your body. It’s easy to let our focus slip from our breath to other things, especially in yoga where there are a billion things to think about. In Sanskrit the word ‘prana’ not only means breath. It also means life force. Numerous times during practice, Imani Woomera, the owner of Koa will remind even her most seasoned students that prana is the practice. If the breath is right the practice will be right. There is no practice without breath.