A great way to shift our focus inward is through breathing exercises. The exercises below can be used at any time throughout your day or if you’re feeling inspired, build them into your daily routine.
Preparation for Breath Work
Find a quiet and comfortable place where you can sit or lie down. Notice if your clothing is restrictive in any way and make adjustments as needed. Find a posture that is restful and that can be held for several minutes or more. Close the eyes or maintain a soft gaze and start to notice your breathing. If you are on the go or at work and this isn’t possible, skip right to closing the eyes or setting a soft gaze and start to notice your breathing. Once you’ve observed your breath for a minute or two, try “smooth out” the breath. The breath should feel effortless, not labored. Inhales and exhales might begin to get longer and you may feel more expansion in the rib cage on your inhales.
Now we can begin the exercises!
Dirga Pranayama or Three-Part Breath
Dirga pranayama is a great way to relax the body and quiet mental chatter (Monkey Mind). In dirga pranayama, we observe the breath as it flows through the chest, rib cage, and belly (three parts). On the inhale, we fill the belly, rib cage and then chest. On the exhale, we reverse that, releasing chest, rib cage, and belly. Three-part breath stimulates the body’s relaxation response and massages our internal organs.
Step 1: Bring both hands to your belly and take a deep inhale, sending the breath into the belly. Feel the belly expand into the hands.
Step 2: Exhale and notice the contraction of the belly. Before moving to step three, take 2 or 3 rounds of breath like this.
Step 3: Move one hand to your rib cage and inhale. Send the breath to the belly and then to the rib cage, again noticing the body expanding into the hands.
Step 4: Exhale from the rib cage and then the belly, feeling the body contract beneath your hands. Before moving to step five, take 2 or 3 rounds of this breath.
Step 5: Move the hand on the rib cage up to your chest. Inhale – filling the belly, rib cage and chest. Use your hands as a guide, sensing the expansion of the breath it moves into the belly and all the way up to the chest.
Step 6: Exhale from the chest, rib cage and then belly.
Repeat steps five and six as many times as you like.
Breath retention or kumbhaka pranayama
In kumbhaka pranayama, breath is retained after an inhale or exhale. At first, this can be difficult. Our bodies need oxygen to function and holding the breath may cause our minds to panic. Breath work is just like asana, it takes practice. With time, your mind will calm down and the amount of time that you are able to easefully retain the breath will become longer and longer. Once you’ve practiced kumbhaka pranayama for a bit, you might find that it’s especially helpful at times when you feel panic or anxiety.
Step 1: Take a deep breath in
Step 2: If retaining the breath on the inhale, hold the breath at the end of the inhale for 3 seconds. The hold should be as relaxed as possible. Try to relax the muscles of the body, especially the face.
If retaining on the exhale, let the breath go and hold on empty for 3 seconds. Again, relaxing as much as possible during the retention.
Step 3: For inhale retention, slowly release the breath. Take another deep breath and hold again. If you’d like to add another second or two, feel free.
For exhale retention, take a slow inhale. Exhale the breath and hold on empty, adding another second or two as you wish.
Repeat for 10 breaths and then let the breath be natural. Bring your awareness to the mind and body and take note of or jot down how you feel.
Nadi Shodhana or Alternate Nostril Breathing
Nadi shodhana is said to balance the brain and enhance mental clarity. Since the practice requires a gentle focus, it tends to have a calming effect on the mind. Before beginning the practice, it can be helpful to clear the nasal passages. If one side of the nose is blocked, try a dab of a nasal clearing essential oil (peppermint, tea tree, eucalyptus) or Tiger Balm at the base of the blocked nostril.
Step 1: Bring the index and middle finger of one hand to rest on the space between your eyebrows (third eye).
Step 2: Take a deep breath in and a deep breathe out.
Step 3: Use your thumb to gently close the right nostril and inhale with the left nostril.
Step 4: Use your ring finger to close the left nostril and exhale with the right nostril.
Step 5: Keeping the left nostril closed, inhale through the right nostril.
Step 6: Close the right nostril and exhale left.
Repeat the cycle 3 to 5 times and then drop your hand and return to your natural breathing pattern. Take a moment to notice any changes in the mind and body.