BY: TRISHA CURLING
“Siddung an’ Seckle Yuhself” As a child, I was often told some variation of this, especially from my Jamaican grandmother. I knew what this meant right away. I better sit quietly, not move a muscle and that the only sound she would be okay hearing was my breath and it better not have a tone of being angry. Without knowing it, these were my first lessons in breathing techniques/pranayama.
“Prana means breath, respiration, life, vitality, energy or strength…Ayama means stretch, extension, expansion, length, breadth, regulation, prolongation, restraint or control. Pranayama thus means the prolongation of breath and its restraint… The practice of pranayama develops a steady mind, strong willpower and sound judgement.” (B.K.S. Iyengar).
When I started to practice and begin to learn more about yoga (which is a beautiful endless journey), I had no idea that there were (are) so many different types of breathing techniques. I will humbly scratch the surface of a couple of different types I have been exposed to. Ujjayi and Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) are two techniques that I personally continue to practice and develop. These techniques can be helpful on and off the mat.
“During normal inhalation, an average person takes in about 500 cubic centimetres of air; during deep inhalation the intake of air is about six times as great, amounting to almost 3,000 cubic centimetres…the practice of pranayama increases the sadhakas (the seeker’s) lung capacity and allows the lungs to achieve optimum ventilation.”(B.K.S. Iyengar).
Ujjayi breath is associated with the practice of yoga postures, but can also be done off the mat. This breathing technique is done by inhaling through the nose, creating a constriction in the back of the throat while exhaling through the nose. You are often left with an “ocean sound” as you breathe. This is calming, but is also said to help to regulate blood pressure, build heat in the body (important for warm up during your physical yoga practice) and increase oxygen in the blood. When I worked as a Kindergarten teacher, with a class total of sometimes thirty-four students, I often used this technique for its calming effect.
I was first introduced to Nadi Shodana in my yoga teacher training with Yoga Medicine and Tiffany Cruikshank. In my training, we learned that this technique is used as a way of helping to balance both the sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (rest and digest) parts of the nervous system. Again, another way to regulate your stress response in the body. Just like we train our muscles to respond under load, we can train our nervous system to have a more balanced response under load as well. The technique can be done by using the right thumb and your last two fingers to close each nostril. You may start by closing the right nostril with the thumb and inhaling on the left side, retaining the breath and then closing the left nostril with the last two finger while releasing the thumb to open the right side and exhaling through the right nostril (each part done with an even count of the breath, for example counting up to five for the inhale, retaining for five, and exhaling for five counts). Continue the rounds by alternating the inhale/exhale for each nostril. As you practice more regularly and feel more comfortable you may increase your count. This technique will often reveal where there may be blockage and/or congestion.
Pranayama is a complex art with many techniques. Call on these techniques when you need to “just seckle yuhself”. Taking even two minutes at the start or end of your day, can have a tremendous positive impact on your stress levels.