The difference between yoga and an exercise routine is breathing. All of the physical yoga (Hatha) disciplines focus the mind on the quality of the breath. The aim is that the breath is slow, deep, even and regular. Often when people first begin the practice, they manage only a few breaths before the mind starts to wander.
It can seem strange to think about your breathing. After all, it is something that for most of your life has probably happened automatically without any conscious effort or attention on your part. Yoga practice involves focusing on the breath and doing breathing exercises.
Those who practice yoga have found that the breath can be used to alter mind and body states. Breathing is used to relax physically and mentally. People who are nervous and tense tend to hold their breath or to breathe at a rapid, jerky and shallow rate. Those who are calm, relaxed and focused breathe slowly and deeply.
Breathing exercises often take place at the end of a class. Often the teacher will lead you through this process, telling you what to be focusing on and giving you some idea about the regulation of the breath. Some people find these exercises easier than others. Dancers, singers, athletes and some musicians often find it easier because they tend to be more familiar and aware of their breathing.
In yoga some breathing exercises are called pranayama. Prana is life force. As we breathe oxygen into our bodies, the life force (what sustains us) moves through us. With each exhale the cells expel toxins while every system releases tension and stress. It is during the exhale, the releasing, that we can move deeper into postures (asanas) or through a movement (vinyasa). As we release the past both physically and emotionally, we make room for new beginnings. Pranayama is using the breath to regulate the accumulation and circulation of prana in the body.
Here are a few breathing practices that can be used during yoga practice and at other times such as when mediating or as a practice in itself.
Probably the most widely used breathing practice; this can be tricky at the start. The technique is to gently constrict the throat so that as you breath in and out you make a small noise like a bellows in you throat. This narrowing of the throat allows more control over the flow of breath into and out of the lungs. The slower and deeper you are able to breathe, the more relaxed you will become. This is applicable to all aspects of life and especially so when applied to challenging asanas. It is probably easiest to learn this by asking a teacher about it and perhaps they will demonstrate for you so that you get an idea of the volume, frequency and tone used in ujjayi breathing.
Breath of Fire
Also called Kapalabhati or Rapid Breath, this type of breathing is usually associated with kundalini yoga. It is a powerful, rapid, rhythmic breath done only through the nose. The breath is shallow, and you make a noise as if sniffing. The timing of the in-breath and the out-breath should be the same. It is said to have a detoxifying and rejuvenating effect on the body via the enhanced oxygenation of the blood. The idea is that by breathing rapidly heat will build up in the body. By heating up the body the postures become more obtainable. It can be likened to heating metal; at room temperature metal is hard and difficult to bend, if you heat it, you can bend it. Breath of Fire creates a sharp contraction in the abdominal region. If you become dizzy, lightheaded or have pain in the abdomen, then you should discontinue for the moment. Try again later and if the problem persists, you should discuss it with your teacher and or doctor. Breath of Fire can be used to bring about the meditative state. This is useful for asana practice and in the initial stages of any meditation.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
This particular pranayama is used to enhance balance while calming the nervous system. It is particularly helpful for stressful or tiring situations, such as a rough day at work, but can also be used as a preparation for meditation. Sit on the floor with your knees bent, soles of feet touching. Place your left forearm on your knee and form a circle with that hand by touching your index finger and thumb. Fold down the index and middle fingers on your right hand, and leave your thumb, and pinky and ring fingers outstretched. Begin by inhaling through both nostrils. Lift your right hand in front of your face, press your thumb against your right nostril to close it off, and exhale through your left nostril. Now inhale through the left nostril and close off the left side with your pinky and ring fingers as you release your thumb from your right nostril and exhale. Continue the pattern for about six consecutive rounds. When complete remove the hand and sit quietly with eyes closed. Ideally, following this exercise you will feel an improved physical and mental balance.