Breathing 101

The power of pranayama: how simple breathing techniques could transform your life. By Shuntao Li

Why do I need to learn how to breathe while I have been doing it just fine all my life? Well, how we live, our behaviours and habits shape our experience of the world. Conscious awareness of this can change the patterns. The beauty of breath work is that it helps you to apply a sensitive focus on it, and learn to reverse engineer the responses in our body and mind by changing how we breathe.

What is pranayama?

In yoga, the word for breath work is ‘pranayama’, which can be translated as ‘breathe forth’ and carries the meaning of ‘vital energy’. Interestingly Qigong has a similar meaning: ‘life-energy cultivation’.

What pranayama is not about:

● It’s not a rigid control that causes any discomfort.

● It’s not a mere breathing exercise to introduce more oxygen into the lungs.

● It is not complicated.

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Why does it work?

There is a physiological link between breathing and heart rate through the nervous system. Did you know that the heart beats more slowly during exhalation than inhalation? Many breathing techniques use this to create a quietening and calming effect. For the same reason, some of the classical Hatha yoga practice has breathing ratio instructions in pranayama.


I’d suggest beginners to start with postures that don’t cause any discomfort, this can be sitting with your legs loosely crossed or with support (pillows will do) under the knees. You can, of course, sit on a chair, make sure your back feels supported and your soles are supported by the floor, a little stool or yoga blocks.

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Basic breathing techniques

1. Spontaneous breath: Breathe in and out of the nostrils. Start by observing your breathing without any effort. Once the body gets comfortable with the spontaneous breathing, start to notice the rhythm of ‘in’ and ‘out’. As you become familiar with the two parts of the breathing cycle with inhale and exhale, start to notice the space between in and out breath, and the brief pause in between. This is the foundation of many breathing practices and is great for grounding and comforting.

2. Yogic breath: Once you are comfortable in the spontaneous breath, start to notice how the air flows into the navel towards the pubic bone as you inhale, as you breathe out the belly deflates. Become aware of the movement along with the rhythm of the breath. Next start to notice the rib cage expanding as the navel rises with an inhale, rib cage contracts and belly deflates with an exhale. Allow the body to comfortably welcome the breath as well as the movements. This exercise is great for easing anxiety and creates an uplifting feeling.

3. Golden thread breath: Once you’ve established the yogic breathing, start to release the jaw, throat and teeth. Allow there to be a tiny gap between the upper and lower teeth as well as the lips. Keep the breath easy, inhale through the nose, and exhale through the lips as if a golden thread is coming out between the lips. Let the focus be on the out breath and if it’s comfortable, lengthen the exhale slightly. This is a highly effective breathing technique for pain relief and insomnia.

Shuntao Li is a yoga instructor and qualified yoga nidra teacher. Find her on Instagram: @_taosyoga_

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